Published: May 28, 2013

The back of students' heads as they look at artworkAs the role of the artist expands to include an ever-widening range of approaches and materials, it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers to provide a comprehensive introduction to contemporary art. Consequently, First Year Foundations may be the biggest pedagogical challenge faced by college art programs today. The University of Colorado’s Foundations program includes instruction in digital art, ceramics, painting, curating, music-making, writing, photography, printmaking, sculpture, metalwork, video, contemporary theory, and countless multimedia projects. This whirlwind introduction to the processes and materials of the contemporary artist is completed in just two semester-long courses.

Are you feeling overwhelmed? Well, Professor C. Maxx Stevens certainly isn’t. Considering her job description as coordinator of the CU Foundations Program, Stevens is much more composed and in-control than you might expect her to be. “The foundations area is a required two-semester program for all art and art history students,” she calmly explains. “It is in their second semester in the foundations area that they are introduced to using technology. [We] show them how important it is today in the professional art world.”

The back of more students' heads as they look at artworkThis spring, C. Maxx Stevens was presented with a 2013 ASSETT Outstanding Teaching with Technology Award, praised by her students for her innovative project ideas. As the Foundations coordinator, Stevens teaches her own classes while simultaneously mentoring a team of five to six graduate student instructors (GPTIs ) each semester. “It’s the hardest class I’ve had to teach,” says You Jin Seo, a graduate student who taught foundations under Steven’s guidance for two semesters. Seo was impressed by Steven’s creativity and dedication. “C. Maxx helped me through several teaching challenges including working with a student who had a disability.” In addition to meeting with her GPTI’s once a month, Stevens provides the instructors with detailed project descriptions and visits individual classrooms to give demonstrations.

Many of the projects Stevens creates combine several vital skills. “The 'Identity' project is really interesting,” says Seo. “One of my students photographed herself dressed in a series of masks that each represented different aspects of her background. Other students used video and performance. The best thing was that all of my students interpreted the assignment in different ways.”

Another memorable project that Stevens designed interweaves metal shop instruction and experimentation with music production software. Students make musical instruments out of welded metal and record and edit their compositions using Garage Band. “This project gives them vital experience in recording and editing which builds confidence and gives them the ability to go further,” says Stevens. “The students are then asked to make a short video using their cell phones or video cameras. They take these video clips and learn to edit and layer them with sound or music.”

Of course, Foundations isn’t just about making and building. Stevens and the graduate instructors also lead class critiques and teach contemporary art theory. On Tuesday evenings, all Foundations students meet in the Visual Arts Center auditorium for a lecture. Seo worked with Stevens to create a lecture on the varied use of color in sculpture. “I lectured on contemporary artists like Roni Horn and Sophie Calle...also Wolfgang Laib who created an installation out of bright, yellow pollen. It was difficult to lecture in front of so many students, but I feel much more confident now.”

Foundations is undoubtedly one of the most intense and dynamic courses that CU freshmen can take. Some students have trouble sleeping the night before critiques, others spend long weekends in the studio, but it is in this class that many students find their creative direction. Through the process of exploring so many different approaches and materials, students often gravitate toward one department or another. This becomes their artistic focus.

“I am very proud of my students when they learn to challenge themselves. I don’t want them to worry about taking risks,” says C. Maxx Stevens. “But I am most proud when I see my former Foundations students in the school graduation exhibitions and watching them graduate. Then I feel that I did my job.”

Article by: Ashley E Williams