HERALD WEEKLY ISSUE 545: 07 January 2011

Tropical heat beats Minnesota snow

Most visitors to Rarotonga take their memories home in the form of photos, postcards or pearls. The 25 art students from Carleton College who left early this morning took away their impressions on the pages of their sketchbooks.
This was the eighth time Prof Fred Hagstrom has organized the South Pacific Studio Art Programme at the college, located in the American city of Northfield, Minnesota. The programme, which consists of a 10-week term and includes stops in New Zealand and Australia, started in 1997 and has run every two years since.
Like most of his countrymen, Hagstrom knew very little about the Cook Islands before happening upon an exhibition called Patterns of Paradise during a visit to Auckland in 1995. The display of tivaevae captured his artist’s eye at a time when he was just beginning to formulate the South Pacific programme.
“I was looking for a place to start the programme that was quiet and isolated, before we hit a big city,” he told the Pitt Media Group earlier this week while ensconced in the cool confines of the Paradise Inn’s lobby. “When I found out that it was possible to stop over here on a flight to New Zealand, it just seemed like a natural thing.”
Hagstrom, the Professor of Studio Art at Carleton, customarily brings a group of around 25 – this year the numbers break down to 21 women and four men – who take three courses over the 10-week term: Mixed Media Drawing, Printmaking, and The Physical and Cultural Environment of Australia and New Zealand.
“I get more applicants than I can bring,” he said. “It’s a little bit nice to skip a cold Minnesota winter and come to a place like this, but the whole point is to see things that are really different from where we normally live. Starting in Rarotonga is just perfect for that.”
Hagstrom also wanted to teach his students about art’s involvement with nature.
“A lot of the way art is taught in the States is devoid of any context of nature,” he said. “I wanted to make a class that was different. There are a lot of classes that go to Europe and go to the great museums – I wanted to make a class that was nature-based.”
When they weren’t filling their hand-bound sketchbooks since arriving on December 31, the group has attended an Island Night, participated in both the nature walk and the cross-island trek with Pa, spent a day with Vereara Maeva to discuss tivaevae, and learned to snorkel.
The latter activity may sound fairly mundane, but most of the students are from land-locked states and have never witnessed the denizens of the deep.
“I remember snorkelling for the first time and thinking, My God, what is under the water?” said Hagstrom. “I had this feeling of regret because my father was a great fisherman and he had no idea what it looked like under there. I wish that, in his lifetime, I might have done that with him because he appreciated the ocean so much.”
The students, little more than a group of strangers when they met at the airport to start their journey from the Northern Hemisphere winter to the tropical heat, have enjoyed the experience so far, even if it is still early days.
“It’s a very different way of doing art,” said Talia Goldenberg, 20. “If you’ve done art in a classroom, it’s based on class structure and there’s more time constraints. Here, you have the time you need. You can go where you want to go, you can choose what you want to draw.”
How does she decide on her subject matter while literally surrounded by beauty?
“You do everything,” she said, laughing. “As much as you can.”
Clara Labadie, 20, said she’s harboured a keen interest in travelling to the South Pacific for several years now.
“I wanted to experience a new part of the world and get involved with the people,” she said.
Visiting the Punanga Nui market on their first day on Rarotonga was an excellent introduction to the island’s natural charms, Labadie said.
“Taking in the whole atmosphere and seeing what everybody was up to and how they were interacting was really fun,” she said. “Rarotonga has been wonderful and it’s gotten me even more excited for the rest of the trip.”
For his part, Jon Kittaka, 19, is enjoying a break from his busy schedule at Carleton.
“It’s nice to come here and not have all these different things going on,” said the native of Chicago. “There is time to take for yourself. For me, personally, art is what I’d be doing in my leisure time, so it kinds of meshes really well.”
Kittaka enjoyed his experiences on the island, not the least of which is discovering his new favourite food: starfruit.
“Being here on Rarotonga has been really great – it’s really beautiful,” he said. “Experiencing a different culture makes me re-think my perceptions of the world and why I make art.”
As for being so badly outnumbered by the ladies in the group, Kittaka said, “It’s pretty nice.”
Hagstrom has now had more than 200 art students participate in the programme and, for the most part, he said most of them have considered it a life-changing experience.
“We could be home in Minnesota, doing a drawing class in a snowy environment,” he pointed out. “Or we could be here, which is a lot more beautiful.”

By John Ireland

Herald Issue 463 10 June
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