Art Department Chair Nik Vlahos earned an M.F.A. in 2005 from Yale University and a B.F.A. from The School of Visual Arts in 2002. A teacher for 12 years, he taught one year in New York City public schools. Mr. Vlahos has been a faculty member at Browning for 11 years and chair of his department for the past 10. As a painter and sculptor, he maintains an active studio practice and has exhibited his work both in New York and abroad.
For as long as I have been making or studying art, I have been teaching others about it as well. As a student at The School of Visual working towards my B.F.A. in painting, I minored in art education and taught once a week at schools throughout the city, both public and private. I consider showing others what I have learned as a responsibility, even if teaching were not my full-time job. I have made many discoveries while making art these past two decades, and those discoveries would have never been possible without the initial guidance of my great and generous teachers. Not too long after, I realized that many – if not all –initial discoveries are the same ones artists have been making for hundreds if not thousands of years before me. The key as an educator is to create the situation where all the necessary variables are in place for students to own those discoveries. Once this happens, it does not matter how many artists came to the same conclusion in the past, it belongs to the student at that moment. As a student myself, I had heard of the term “negative space” and drawn it from observation as instructed to do so, but the very first time I was able to see it for myself was almost like a religious experience. I realized I could draw a subject by looking at what did not exist as object.
Making these inquiries requires both the courage to experiment and accepting a great deal of ending up where you never intended. The key is to remember this path so you can get back to it another time. As students get older, intentionality becomes very important. One of my goals is for students to understand that process can be more important than the finished product, especially at the K-12 level. With such little previous experience, it is through process that they can see what is possible. I will never forget a time when an Upper School student, a senior, had violet and orange on his palette and was staring at the colors for some time before asking me, “Mr. Vlahos, what happens if I mix violet and orange?” To which I said, “Do it and find out.” It is amazing how something so small can cause such a great deal of anxiety and hesitation. Another goal I have in the Upper School is to ease this anxiety to explore, to have students be confident in the questions they have that can only be solved by experimentation. Another goal is to lift the veil of techniques that have enabled artists to make masterful works. As long as we do not lose sight of the fundamentals, especially bridging the eye to the hand through the mind, I believe in incorporating as many tools as we have at our disposal in order to create the desired artwork, be they digital or otherwise.
In Lower School, it is not a challenge to get students excited about coming to art class. They run to class every day full of excitement to engage with new materials, while learning about new artists and techniques. This is the first time in 12 years of full-time teaching that I have not taught Lower School. But in over a decade of teaching Lower School, my goal was to maintain the level of excitement the boys bring to the class and build on it. The Lower School students are not self-conscious about their marks. They love to grab materials and express themselves. It is our job to find ways to scaffold this confidence through process. By taking the very complex and breaking it down into multiple-day projects, these scaffolded lessons can show the younger members of our community that they are capable of making art they initially thought was “too difficult.” It is a special moment when you can see a child in the Lower School feel a great sense of pride in what he has made. I want them to understand that no one is born with this; no one is born process-ready. Everyone needs a teacher and encouragement. And, of course, fun. Let’s not forget to have fun in the art room!
Upper School students receive an almost “intro college level” approach in art, while Lower School students need the delicate balance of being sensitive while also pushing their limits. Middle School students can straddle both approaches. This is a time when students who have always loved art can show very little interest or stop making art entirely. They can become self-conscious and not feel “good enough” while recognizing who the “real artists” in the class are. Here the goal is to present engaging subject matter and materials while embracing their ability to make marks that may be more self-conscious than in the past; they are still much more prone to risk-taking than Upper School students. Humor is very important while teaching this age group, as are clearly set boundaries.
Although each division has its own achievements to celebrate, I want to conclude with a final goal I have in the art department: How do I harness the specific abilities of every division? Bring them all together in a single artwork? While teaching the entire school something meaningful? To this end, the work we do as a department for our Fall Study does the job remarkably well. Here, paintings are chosen that allow for every student to participate. The expressive marks of the Lower and Middle School are brought together with the more deliberate marks of the Upper School. It is through the canvases that are worked on by all three divisions that The Browning School’s collective artistic spirit expresses itself.
The art room should be a place where students feel the freedom to express themselves both through the given lesson and independent inquiry. I want to expose students to as many materials and processes as possible so that when they leave Browning and view art, they can appreciate the work that went into it. And, of course, I want to give students the tools and confidence to continue making art throughout their lives.