Last weekend, CSU's Funding Future Artists Benefit sold out raising $30,000 in 10 days for full-time scholarships to young artists. We corresponded with CSU professor Chris Whittey for a look beyond-the-benefit and into the work that he sees his department and Friends of Art doing for these deserving local students.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A work donated to the Friends of Art Funding Future Artists benefit. 'Untitled' by Maudie Huff.
Q: What led you to the arts? How long have you been working as a professional artist and arts educator?
A: I cannot recall any point in my life, even as a very young child, when I was unsure about being an artist. I remember a moment in elementary school when I was asked to draw a large tree on some construction paper—I was the “class artist”—and other students would then trim my drawing so that Mr. Tree would go on a wall out in the hall. I did this elaborate, highly detailed drawing, all limbs and branches carefully rendered… and the kids with the scissors came along and hacked at my beautiful tree, the butchers, chopping right across all the detail. I remember seeing it in the hall and being crushed. So distraught, in fact, that to this very day I am wildly distrustful about children with scissors, whether they are running or not. It’s dangerous.
Q: What's your preferred medium?
A: Both of my degrees are in painting, but over the years the work has become much more sculptural and conceptual, idea-driven, and I’ve been hammering away at this thing for about 40 years now. Someone once asked the foremost cellist in the world, Pablo Casals, why he continued to practice four or five hours every day and he replied, “because I think I am making progress”. That describes my situation perfectly.
Q: What are you most proud of that's currently happening in CSU's Art Department?
A: In addition to being an artist, I’ve also worked as an educator and administrator at four colleges in my life and, you know, I’ve fallen into a very good nest here at CSU. I was the first generation in my family to attend college and a very large percentage of our students here are also first gen. We have a simply stellar faculty here and we can rightfully boast amazing facilities. So, with these valuable resources, I am convinced that we are doing nothing less than helping to build futures for our students—futures that they might not otherwise have. It is as simple and as utterly profound as that. We are in the business of changing lives and that is a source of endless pride for me.
Pieces from the Funding Future Artists exhibit on display at Highland Galerie.
Q: Are you involved with Friends of Art at all? How so?
A: One of the many surprises I found here when I arrived in Columbus was (and continues to be) the generosity of the community and how supremely dedicated to the arts so many people are. The quality of the spaces, the events in the College of the Arts… all of it is contingent on this generosity. In fact, it seems to me that the number and quality of the cultural offerings here is wildly disproportionate to the size of this town. Friends of Art is the group that works with our department and creates the resources with which we can offer many scholarships to our students and can provide faculty professional development. This is one way in which they are our Friends (of Art). Another way is in the support, advice, and collegial partnerships they have with all of us in the Department of Art. In that way too, which is perhaps even more important, they are dear friends.
Q: You have work in the Funding Future Artists exhibition. What prompted you to donate your piece?
A: Funding Future Artists is our largest scholarship: full tuition for four years. Again, this is wildly incommensurate with a department our size and something I had not seen prior to coming to Columbus. The Friends of Art group has been absolutely instrumental in this fundraiser—in building the idea, in actualizing it—and the event is taking off like gang busters. This yet again speaks to the support of the community and partnering with Friends of Art. About 100 works of art were collected and exhibited at Highland Gallery (thank you, Dee Dee Tebeau!), so 100 tickets are being sold and each ticket owner gets to pick one of the works. All of these funds go to supporting our students. I put a small piece in the exhibition to be part of the cause and part of the excitement.
Q: What do you find most interesting about the FFA benefit?
A: The thing that interests me most about this benefit is the way a relatively small group of people can put together something that hugely benefits our students and the way, once again, the community of Columbus joins in. I think all of this is much more special and rare than most people realize. This community is a real treasure, nothing less.
Q: What else would you like for our audience to know? About you? Your students? CSU's Art Department? Anything. This is your place to share what I don't know to ask!
A: I want to circle back to something I mentioned at the beginning here. I said that, relative to the other colleges I have served, a very high percentage of our students in the CSU Art Department are the first generation in their families to attend college. I am sure many people reading this are, as well.
The thing we cannot lose sight of—the thing we can never lose sight of—is that educational achievement is intersected by socio-economic realities. It is a huge financial burden for the families supporting these students and, additionally, it is an equally massive shift for these first gen students to acclimatize to life in higher education. Our wonderful faculty and staff play the role of mentoring these aspiring artists, scholars, and designers in their adjustment to what is a new reality for them and community members like those in the Friends of Art help with the economic challenges. This is a well-oiled and highly functioning machine that produces futures. And it works very, very well. ◼︎