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Katy England Katy England
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MECA - Artists at work

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PORTLAND Humanity and art have been wrapped together since the dawn of time. It's the earliest form of expression and is what sets us apart from our primal cousins. And though society may not always acknowledge its importance, art will remain inextricably entwined with our cultural identity something close to the core of Maine College of Art (MECA) in Portland.

We were recently able to sit down with Dr. Donald Tuski, president of MECA, to talk about the school and some of the programs and events that are offered there.

'Art is essential. Not an add-on,' he said. 'Show me a community with artists that isn't better for them.'

Tuski noted that the artists at MECA are trained to not only produce work, but be able to evaluate.

'They have to produce work on a regular basis. They learn to see the world more thoughtfully and thoroughly,' said Tuski. 'We're really getting our art students out in the community. We have a public engagement minor. We really believe that artists are public intellectuals doing public art, and being leaders in the community is really important. All students have to do some of that. We have a lot of community partners that we work with on community programs and problems.'

The impact of the students on the community can be seen in and around downtown Portland and surrounding environs, in murals and art installments in different locations. The school is also a wellspring of creative offerings in its rotating galleries of student and faculty art. Tuski believes that fostering a creative environment is good for both the school and the community.

'I really believe society needs more creative people. Studio practice and beyond; non- and for-profit settings we want to help them understand how to be a creative entrepreneur and be a working artist before they graduate. We want them to understand society and the business world and engage the world as they learn.'

One way they facilitate this is through MECA's Artists at Work program, which helps aspiring artists connect with the community in different ways. The Geary's Summer Ale contest is one example, where for the past several years the design of the packaging has been the work of MECA students.

Students have to be able to hone their creative vision and meet the expectations of clients, appeal to an audience or be able to articulate their craft to someone who may not have the same creative vocabulary.

'It's the art of business and the business of art and creative entrepreneurship. It gives students an understanding of how to navigate the world as artists,' said Tuski.

He noted that one of the recent projects was the 20th Anniversary of the Portland Pirates, which called for a resdesign of the logo. Tuski said faculty and students took a 'Mad Men' approach (referencing the popular television show about advertising executives) when picking a direction to go for a redesign. Students researched the game, spoke to fans, created a design and held a press conference for unveiling the new logo.

This is part of Tuski's overall vision for the school. He plans on involving as many people as possible as the school moves forward, though he noted that the school size-wise is right where it needs to be.

'We're engaging artists, board, alumni it's a balancing act. We're making sure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute in little and big ways. We want it to be collaborative, but really have six or eight things we do very well,' said Tuski. 'Artists at Work is one. Great majors is another. Having a great BFA, MFA is another. Each employee and educator is important, just as every student is important. It's great to be able to put everyone in a room and discuss it in a way that makes sense.'

The classes encompass an impressive array of art, from drawing, sculpting and painting, to metal smithing and jewelry, woodworking and furniture design, graphic design, illustration and new media and so much more.

Along with these areas of focus is the space and equipment to help students create incredible works. Pottery and sculptors enjoy incredible amounts of space and a veritable army of kilns. Metal smithing students have access to smelters where they can pour bronze, and anvils to shape it. Woodworking space is filled with the buzz of saws and all the tools needed for any job imaginable.

'In art school you get to put it all together and use your head, heart and hands. Art school prepares you for a range of careers not just studio art, but careers. We have alumni in the United Way, law school and many have their own businesses,' said Tuski. 'A large percentage still have studios and are doing art of various size and intensity and it's all in one building.'

Tuski said that the City of Portland has been incredibly supportive of the school and its various projects. He said that the mayor referred to MECA as the 'anchor of the arts community' in Portland. And the admiration is mutual.

'There's a great selection of restaurants and live music venues,' Tuski said. 'The overall culture of Portland is one that appreciates art more than any other city I've ever lived in.'

One of the unique aspects of MECA is that the staff recognize creativity doesn't work on a 9 to 5 schedule. So students have access to studio space around the clock.

'Creativity works 24/7, nights and weekends and that's when some of the real magic happens,' Tuski said.

Some of that magic can be seen in the halls and stairways of the school itself. The walls of MECA are ever changing, displaying the incredible works of students from many mediums.

'Going through MECA is transformational. When you're here and you see [students] come in as first year and see them as a senior it's quite amazing,' Tuski said. 'The transformation is really deep in ways I haven't experienced until here.'

But he thinks that transformation is something that most artists, now and throughout history, are familiar with.

'The power of art can transform the individual and culture and society if you think of people who have transformed the world in big and little ways, artists are right there. We need to talk about it and people need to know,' he said.

For more information about MECA, visit www.MECA.edu.

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