Q&A with Visual Arts Teacher Ned Smyth

DSC_0882 The advantages of studying at Ross School are many, with one of the most significant being the opportunity to learn from professional experts on a daily basis. Ross School News recently visited with Visual Arts teacher Ned Smyth to learn more about his career as an accomplished artist and how he brings this expertise and passion to the classroom.

What’s different about studying art at Ross School?

One of the most important differences is the School’s curriculum. With Cultural History at the core, the arts courses are integrated with all other subjects, including mathematics, science, and literature. Another is the special relationships between teachers and students.

Like our colleagues in other departments, the Visual Arts teachers are successful working artists, so we’re really able to connect with the students to share our insight into art as a way of life. I’ve been a professional artist since the ’70s, and it’s great to share this knowledge to help them see art as a lifetime experience versus a classroom assignment. I’m particularly interested in helping them find their passion and personal voice through art, and develop as a whole person.

Describe your role at Ross School.

I teach several art courses during the school year, including an introduction to Renaissance art for ninth graders and art of the Romantic era for tenth graders. They learn not just artistic techniques, but also about the influence of specific events and time periods on the evolution of art. I’ve also introduced several art electives to help students express themselves, as well as perfect their art skills in a particular discipline.

As part of their studies, ninth graders explore the life and influence of Leonardo da Vinci. He was a fascinating scientist and artist who approached his research with a keen sense for detail and a desire to really “see” and understand the nature of a subject.

Like Leonardo, I teach my students to know their subject by really seeing it. For example, during their first class, I had the freshmen begin their art studies by drawing a light bulb. As expected, many drew the “symbol” of a bulb, with lines stretching out to indicate that it’s giving off light and energy. I then placed an actual bulb on the table, and they could immediately see that it contained many details they had overlooked. It’s an important lesson, because although most of my students will not be professional artists, the ability to look, and see, and understand their surroundings will be invaluable as they progress through life.

Tenth graders study art in a similar way. They learn different artistic forms and techniques related to the Romantic era, but we also talk about the events of Europe and North America that influenced the styles of the period.

In the elective classes, the focus is not only on expanding their technical abilities, but also on finding a personal voice. At first, I expected these electives to be for advanced artists, but they turned out to be helpful for all students who are trying to find their voice and discover themselves and their talents.

A new elective course this year, “Content in Art,” was designed for students with interests in different disciplines including creative writing, painting, photography, architecture, sculpture, and philosophy. The class discussed meaningful subjects such as beauty, honor, loyalty, or life after death, and each student worked in their own personal medium to express their personal interpretation of the subject.

I want my students to understand that their artwork should be about something, that the content of the work is as important as their technical ability. No matter how perfect their rendering is, without personal insight or content, it does not become art. To copy what’s out there only takes you so far. To be visionary takes you beyond.

One of the areas we explore is finding their personal mark. For this, they draw blindfolded while I talk them through different emotional states such as anger, happiness, or comfort. The exercise helps them become aware of their personal energy, hand pressure, and movements, which helps them own their individual style. They experiment with giving voice to their dreams, nature, or feelings through different media and techniques. In one class, I had a student who was going through a difficult period, and she was able to channel and express her emotions into her art projects. It led to both powerful and healing images.

What led you to Ross School?

My two sons attended Ross, so I was familiar with the curriculum and community. Knowing that I was a professional artist, the School approached me when a teaching position opened up in the Visual Arts department.

Since 1975, I’ve been involved in international art exhibitions at museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., and the Kunstforeningen in Copenhagen, as well as creating major commissions across the country. So at the time, I was busy and hadn’t really considered teaching at all.

When I eventually did join the School, I loved the connection to the kids, working with them, and helping them develop into successful and self-aware individuals. The same is true eight years later.

What’s coming up for you on the professional front?

Recently, I completed casting two 12-foot bronzes of male and female torsos for the new Adler Center for Nursing Excellence building at Ramapo College in New Jersey. The two prototypes were first shipped to China, where the bronzes were cast, and I’m now preparing to ship them back to the United States, where they will be installed over the summer. I’m also working on a large mosaic for a park in Pittsburgh, small bronzes, and monumental photographs for a future exhibition.

You can check out a few photos of the bronzes and my other work at www.nedsmyth.com.