“It’s not an art school or an athletic school,” says Rachael Durnin of her high school. You get everything.” At the University School of Nashville, there is an entire building dedicated to the arts. Inside are over ten visual arts instructors that lead their students from kindergarten through twelfth grade to create works that speak to them, that mean something.
USN seniors Rachael Durnin and Elizabeth Kidwell are only two of the high school’s 359 students who have allowed the visual arts to permeate their lives. From painting to printmaking to book art to ceramics, the University School has created a lively art culture that encourages personal growth and creative development.
The visual arts program at University School is not based on a strict curriculum. Rather, the students create their own classes in an Independent Study, a clear advantage for Kidwell. “You get to create more personal pieces” under this curriculum, she says. According to Durnin and Kidwell, the arts are emphasized not only in the art studios but also in their other academic classes. Many of their classes are discussion driven, which they say fosters “creative thinking.”
The school’s website references education reformer John Dewey to describe the fundamentals of their art program. The curriculum is one “where the student is emphasized more than subject matter, where the learning process is as essential as the lesson, and where curiosity and imagination are encouraged.”
In Rachael Durnin’s artistic world, written words, musical chords, and the visual arts seem to blend together in a harmonious rhythm to create a sparkling coalition. Durnin’s musical background as the drummer in a two-person band called How Cozy! makes its way into her visual arts. Her own creative writing pieces and lyrics from her band’s songs inspire her visual artwork. Durnin will often share her visual images and lyrics from songs between the different mediums to create a rounded artistic interpretation. “I never make something that I don’t want someone to see all angles of,” Durnin says. “If there’s still something hidden, I’ll put it in a song and perform it.”
For example, a broken typewriter that was given to Durnin as a gift became an inspiration for a multifaceted expression of her artistic voice. After taking the machine apart, Durnin began rearranging the letters of the keyboard to say different words and phrases. Eventually, she landed on “MY GUTS R BAD FIX ME?” Then Durnin started cutting out words from magazines until she could create a ribbon of poetry spilling out from the typewriter that told the story of its destruction and the possible owners who caused the damage. Many of the phrases from the typewriter creation have been incorporated into songs.
Durnin also likes to touch on political and social issues in her art, oftentimes in a “humorous, ironic way.” Among the most frequent issues that she draws from is the idea of gender identity in modern society. “The way people think about gender is an either/or,” she says. “There’s so much sexism in the world that I don’t fit in with.” Durnin thinks about how she dresses every day and what she tells people about herself through her clothes. This issue has made its way into Durnin’s artwork in a series of prints where she depicts hanging dresses and ties that are intended to display a theme of brokenness and destruction along with the idea of being able to put things back together.
Repeatedly, Durnin finds she revisits supposedly finished pieces to “fix mistakes I didn’t realize were mistakes” or add new components to the old works. In her art, nothing is ever truly done. Rather, the process of reexamining her art drives her old art to take on new beginnings.
Durnin hails from a set of decidedly artistic offspring, as her brother works as a furniture designer and her sister is an artist. Durnin says that though her parents were not the driving force in their children’s artistic aspirations, once they each began to realize their love for the arts, their parents enthusiastically jumped on board.
Planning to attend an art institution after high school, Durnin has mused on the idea of following a career in film. Filmmaking, she says, would give her the opportunity to have a hand in everything from making and selecting the music to creating the setting and even writing the screenplay. “It just makes sense,” she says.
“I layer my art with my thoughts,” says Elizabeth Kidwell, who has always felt the desire to tell the story of her life through art. “It feels so natural,” she says. “It’s the only thing that feels natural.”
For Kidwell, the people she sees every day, her friends, her family, have propelled her artwork forward. “Everyone I meet inspires me,” she says. “These people are all characters in the story of my life.” Though it sometimes feels “weird to work on something so personal,” she feels compelled, even obligated, to move forward and create works that document her life and the people in it.
She uses diverse mediums and symbolic ingredients in her works to represent her subjects in abstract and conceptual ways. Each individual component she describes as “a freckle emanating a certain persona to the viewer.”
Kidwell continuously stresses the idea of bringing spontaneity into her work. When she first came to USN, photography was her favorite medium, largely because “photos suspend time” and can forever capture the “feeling of the moment.”
For Kidwell the importance of creating spontaneous art that can transcend time has only increased as she has grown older. Last year, for example, her older sister left Nashville to pursue a higher education. The looming idea of her separation from her sister led her to create artworks as reminders of her sibling.
Occasionally, Kidwell will venture to create works of fiction. One piece that Kidwell made at Watkins College of Art and Design unusually tells the story of a person that Kidwell does not personally know. The sculpture, made from pages of phone books, creates a somewhat human figure with an image of a woman amidst the chaos of the miscellaneous names on the phone books’ pages. The sculpture relays the idea that a person can be surrounded by people yet still feel lonely and isolated.
Though Kidwell says that her parents have never had artistic aspirations of their own, they are completely supportive and encouraging of her pursuing a career in the visual arts. Kidwell has plans to attend an art college next year, although she is unsure of exactly where her time in school will take her, as she is still trying to “figure out what to do.” Undoubtedly, though, she will always have a place in the arts. “Nothing can stop me from making everything in the world into art,” Kidwell says, “because after all, everything speaks art to me.”