The Starving Artist: Herron Breaking the Stigma at IUPUI

Herron School of Art and Design, with more than 800 undergraduate students, is the only certified art school in the state of Indiana according to their online website. With this, they hold a diverse and knowledgeable workforce that includes 47 full-time faculty members and 19 staff members.  

Despite efforts to promote Herron as an institution where artistically gifted students may gain the practical training needed to become a professional artist of the 21st century, a stigma remains. The art student’s image as a poor, starving artist destined to receive only failure is a hallmark in any clichéd description. To combat this, faculty and students at Herron are seeking a change, not only in the way people think about art education, but also how its benefits reach outside the art environment.

Elizabeth Weirzbicki, an adjunct professor at Herron School of Art and Design, hasn’t always aimed for an art-based profession. As an undergraduate student, Weirzbicki studied mathematics. However, as time passed, she began to seek a creative path in fine arts and education. Now she defines herself as not only an artist and an educator, but also the founder and director of a nonprofit print shop, Cat Head Press.

“I am the most satisfied when being creative,” Weirzbicki said. “I love learning and being in an intellectual environment. Being an artist and an educator means that I get to learn for a living.”

As an adjunct professor, Weirzbicki inspires students to think outside the box. One of her current students, Nicole Saxon, also decided to switch majors and pursue an art degree. This is Saxon’s seventh semester attending IUPUI, and has since begun counting her semesters rather than years.

“I honestly don’t know what year I should consider myself,” Saxon said. “I took college classes for two years while I was in high school, studying as an undeclared student and now have decided to begin studying industrial design after studying motorsport engineering my previous semesters at IUPUI.”

Saxon decided to switch to a design-based program so she could immerse herself in an environment that allowed for more expression. However, Saxon’s journey down the design path wasn’t always clear.

Within the last three years, Saxon has been diagnosed with seronegative rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In the fall of 2012, Saxon’s left knee swelledabout twice its size, locking up and impairing her mobility. Her goal was an engineering degree. Saxon’s lifelong dream since she was eight years old was to become a racecar driver. However, her illness made racing difficult.

“I do hope I can race again,” Saxon said. “However, now I have been trying to accept my predicament and figure out what I could do as a possible career path. Then, a few months ago, I decided I wanted to study industrial design. I want to help make something that people can use, and I think I can handle it with my arthritis.”

Although Saxon is not officially enrolled in Herron, the skills she has taken with her from her courses have helped her achieve a better understanding of drawing and art skills. However, as an art student, she has faced her fair share of stigma regarding her change of majors. Family has been supportive, she said, but peers in the past have expressed criticism.

“From what I have experienced in the engineering, racing, and art world, I believe art students can be thought of by others to be lazy, taking the easy route to getting a degree,” Saxon said. “They just don’t understand art or appreciate it. Being artistic is a mindset all its own.”

Stereotypes don’t fade easily, however. The “crazy artist,” as Herron senior Nicole Edwards calls it, has been a long-standing part of popular culture and media; such as the Van Gogh cutting off his own ear situation. Edwards isn’t buying into it, however.

“We're spoon-fed the starving artist or crazy artist trope all through our lives,” Edwards said. “So people are going to automatically assume you'll fail if you're an artist.”

Edwards is currently majoring in drawing and illustration and minoring in art history and has worked within different mediums of art. Interestingly enough, like Weirzbicki and Saxon, Edwards started out in a major outside of fine arts, having studied biochemistry in the hopes of becoming a nurse practitioner. While Edwards enjoyed the science side of it, she ultimately dropped it because the math was daunting and lacking creativity.

“I wasn’t happy,” Edwards said. “I wasn’t drawing, I wasn’t doodling and I wasn’t me anymore.”

In the end, her mother was the main reason Edwards decided to pursue a degree in drawing and illustration. One day, Edward’s mother told her about something Dr. Kent Mallard, a minister at her parent’s church, said during a sermon.

“‘Follow your bliss and the money will come,’” Edwards said, quoting Dr. Mallard’s message. “I feel like that really turned me around. I’m not a religious person by any means, but I’m grateful that my mom shared his message with me.”

Despite Herron’s impact on many young artists’ lives, and their efforts to break the negative image around the art student, art education has been dealt some pretty heavy blows recently. In 2015, according to The Washington Times, Chicago public schools laid off over 1,000 teachers as a result of its decision to close around 50 schools. Among the 1,581 teachers laid off, 105 taught art or music.

Weirzbicki, who has actively pursued a career in art and art education, argues that valuable skills taught through art can be applied and utilized within various fields of study.  

“It is absolutely important to have art integrated in education,” Weirzbicki said. “Art builds critical thinking, problem solving skills and defines culture, and that can be translated into any discipline.”

Through Herron’s guidance, a new generation of artists have dutifully represented IUPUI’s campus as one that thrives on both open mindedness and discussion. While not every person understands or appreciates it, every single person has most likely used it.

“The arts are a gateway to expression and creativity, both of which I feel like are essential to daily life, development, and mental and emotional health,” Edwards said. “Even if you don't pursue art as a career, I see people all around me making art whether they really meant to or not.”