Moody Center for the Arts advances teaching, student learning during inaugural season

Since the Moody Center for the Arts’ official opening Feb. 24, the 50,000-square-foot center has served not only as an internationally focused arts institution, but also as a flexible teaching space to encourage new modes of making, learning and presenting. This spring, a diverse range of undergraduate courses took place at the Moody or drew on the center’s state-of-the-art resources and visiting artists.

Students in the interdisciplinary course Creativity Up Close tested their Bajaj prototypes at the Moody Center for the Arts March 30. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

In the interdisciplinary course Creativity Up Close, taught by Anthony Brandt, associate professor of composition and theory at the Shepherd School of Music, students explored creativity — their own and others’ — in human behavior and society. Brandt and his co-teachers from the History Department, the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) and the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts engaged students in hands-on projects in oral history, music composition, engineering and visual art.

For a particular industrial design assignment, Brandt partnered with Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer at the OEDK. Students were charged to design a safe and fast version of the Bajaj — a three-wheeler auto rickshaw that is popular in developing countries but is known to be accident-prone and cause injury to drivers and passengers. Using simple household materials such as plastic water bottles, cups and plates, students designed prototypes and tested them by hanging a zip line across the Moody’s open studio and sending the vessels across to test them for speed and viability.

“The Bajaj assignment taught me to stop taking the constraints of a task too seriously, so that opportunities for even more creative ideas can arise,” said Lauren Wood, a Will Rice College senior majoring in computer science. “The students in other disciplines on my team didn’t just focus on the constraints, so combining our ideas formed the best product. Looking at it like an art project, not just an engineering assignment, was extremely beneficial and resulted in an elegant, effective solution to the problem.”

Phillip Hedayatnia, a Brown College freshman planning to pursue a custom major about creativity and behavioral science, was drawn to the course’s interdisciplinary character and focus on determining the building blocks of creativity. “As someone who wants to work on reforms in education, media and government, understanding what those building blocks are is key to building systems through policy and products that effectively solve problems in the 21st century,” Hedayatnia said. “Especially as technological development and automation continues to rise, the careers of tomorrow may favor generalized, not specialized, thinking; to discover what future paths may be available to people in the U.S. and beyond, it is necessary to study the core of what makes us human: creativity.”

The students were charged to design a safe and fast version of the Bajaj — a three-wheeler auto rickshaw that is popular in developing countries but is known to be accident-prone and cause injury to drivers and passengers.

Sarah Hooper, a Brown College senior majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in global health technologies, took the course to develop and practice a skill she thinks is critical in engineering innovation. “Creativity is needed in my field to develop new knowledge, devices and methods to solve problems in the world,” Hooper said. “I thought that taking a creativity class taught by a composition professor, with projects led by faculty in history and visual and dramatic arts, would provide me with a more thorough creative skill set that I could use in my engineering work.”

Brandt found the Moody’s spaces to be an invaluable asset in advancing the course’s goals. “As the course has progressed, here are some of the features of the building that have been really helpful: classrooms that can be flexibly configured; windows you can write on with erasable markers; and open shared work spaces for teams to store materials and work on projects together,” Brandt said.

Alison Weaver, the Suzanne Deal Booth Executive Director of the Moody, said, “Professor Brandt’s class exemplifies the type of interdisciplinary conversations we hope to foster at the Moody, with hands-on learning and creativity through the arts playing a central role in all that we do.”

Using the Google Tilt Brush

Students in John Sparagana’s Drawing Studio class were able to spend one morning experiencing and experimenting with Google’s 3-D Tilt Brush, which is set up in the Moody’s second Media Arts Gallery. Using the gallery as a canvas and working with the Tilt Brush, visitors can don a virtual-reality headset and paint in three dimensions, all the while exploring their own creative capacity in the spirit of accessible, hands-on learning that defines the center. The Moody is the first place in Houston to make the Tilt Brush available to students and visitors.

A student in John Sparagana’s Drawing Studio class experimented with Google’s 3-D Tilt Brush, which is set up in the Moody’s second Media Arts Gallery.

The visit was a kind of a revelation, said Sparagana, the Grace Christian Vietti Professor and chair of the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts. “First of all, though none of the students had used the technology previously, every one of them jumped right in and worked in a fluid, spontaneous manner,” he said. “Having the large monitor that registered what each artist was creating in virtual space made the personal act of drawing a spectator sport — play-action virtual drawing, which was a lot of fun for the group. I somehow expected the technology would influence or limit possibilities such that the drawing activity from student to student would be similar. Not so! The range of ways that the drawings unfolded was incredibly varied; one felt each student’s unique sensibility manifesting through their drawing.”

Victoria Xie, a Martel College junior, had heard about the Tilt Brush a few years ago, but never expected that she would get the opportunity to experience the technology. “In particular, the ability to use this technology as a way to visualize 3-D objects and artwork is very useful,” she said. “For example, in the time I tried out the virtual-reality drawing tool, I made virtual models of several sculptural ideas. This experience was vastly different from the previous experience of drawing out the same ideas in a sketchbook. In the future, I would like to use the Google Tilt Brush to continue mapping out ideas and generally sketching in 3-D.”

Molly Reilly, a McMurtry College senior majoring in computer science, also had heard of the Tilt Brush, “but it seemed like this expensive, high-tech tool I’d never get to use,” she said. “Using this tool is a surreal experience,” she said. “I felt transported into this alternate dimension where I could create anything I wanted with so many different, crazy mediums. This is something I simply can’t do in my physical world.  Also, as a computer science major who’s interested in art, I think it’s cool and inspiring to see these two fields interact while using the Google Tilt Brush. As an artist, I find that this technology expands my realm of drawing; I’m no longer confined to a two-dimensional sheet of paper. Instead, now I can draw and build in all directions, which helps me visualize ideas I might not be able to communicate on a flat sheet of paper. This also bridges a gap between 2-D and 3-D works: Drawings become sculptures and sculptures become drawings.”

Observing and learning from Mona Hatoum

For students in Lisa Lapinski’s Sculpture Studio class, which takes place in Sewall Hall, the Moody’s opening has brought the opportunity to interact and learn from Mona Hatoum, the center’s inaugural artist-in-residence. The London-based and Beirut-born Palestinian Hatoum is an internationally renowned artist who recently had a full retrospective at both the Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London.

Mona Hatoum, right, the Moody’s inaugural artist-in-residence, visited with students in Lisa Lapinski’s Sculpture Studio class. Photo by Alison Weaver

“Mona is a major international artist, and her extended visit to our class was of core value to the students, particularly in this politically fraught time in which students and artists alike are full of questions about the social value of art,” said Lapinski, an assistant professor of visual and dramatic arts.

As part of her visit, Hatoum gave a talk on her work, met with students individually to discuss their own projects and gave the class a three-week assignment exploring the use of contrasting materials, the formation of narrative in art and Freud’s concept of the uncanny as it relates to sculpture.

“After another round of individual meetings, she led a lively group critique session on Tuesday (April 18) that made a deep impression on the students,” Lapinski said. “The Moody initiated Mona’s extended visit to campus, and this made all the difference to the sculpture class.”

Heather Wright, a Lovett College senior majoring in civil engineering and visual and dramatic arts, said having Hatoum visit Lapinski’s class brought a “great outside perspective” to her art experience at Rice. “Seeing her (Hatoum) work and getting the opportunity to bounce ideas off of her and get feedback was valuable to the end of my semester’s work, through which I felt I was able to really explore different materials, aesthetics and conceptual ideas,” Wright said. “Gaining the attention of an internationally successful artist at Rice pushed me to work harder and produce the best work possible.”

Monsters as well as arts leadership

Other courses taking place at the Moody during the spring included Monster: Conceiving and Misconceiving the Monstrous in Fiction and the Biosciences in Medicine and Art, which was taught by bioscience professor Mike Gustin and classical and European studies professor Deborah Harter. For a Rice News photo story highlighting the students’ final products, see http://news.rice.edu/2017/05/01/monsters-on-display.

“Reflection Loop: An Improvised Musical Exhibition,” the final installment of the student-led “Listening Project,” took place in the Moody’s Central Gallery April 19.

Leadership Through the Arts, which was funded by a Doerr Institute for New Leaders Innovation Award, also took place at the Moody. The graduate-level course explored ways in which students from music, theater and visual arts could collaborate to develop and produce a concert or blended performance that could be showcased on multiple sites across the Rice campus.

Students were tasked with producing compelling performances that reflect the talents, strengths and interests of each individual in the group; fostering connections with key stakeholders across campus; developing sound marketing strategies; and working within budget to execute concerts. Their efforts resulted in the “Listening Project,” a free concert series that took place in April.

The course was taught by Christina Keefe, professor in the practice in theater; Janet Rarick, associate professor of music; and Elizabeth Slator, associate director of programs at the Recreation Center.

Located on the west side of Rice’s campus at Entrance 8 at Stockton and University Boulevard, the Moody was designed by acclaimed Los Angeles-based architect Michael Maltzan with an eye toward creating a sense of openness and possibility. It was built as a free public platform for creating collaborative works of all kinds and for presenting innovative, transdisciplinary experiences to the public and the university community, Weaver said.

For information about the Moody’s inaugural season throughout the year, which is featuring works and events by Hatoum and other artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Struth, Diana Thater, the Tokyo-based digital “ultra-technologists” of teamLab and Dušan Týnek Dance Theater, go to http://moody.rice.edu.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.