By Carly Banks
Nine strangers. In the middle of nowhere. For three days.
From what sounds like the tag line of a horror film comes some of Michelle Borzick’s favorite college memories.
A bio-med Honors student at Northern Arizona University, Borzick knew from the time she was 10 that she wanted to be a doctor. It spawned from her passion for anatomy and learning about the human body in combination with her love of helping people, especially kids. She also loves painting, or at least loves the idea of painting. And after having been engrossed with the moral implications associated with dissecting human cadavers as part of her BIO416 class, giving painting a shot seemed like the perfect way to de-stress and clear her head.
While surfing the Honors weekly newsletter, she noticed a flier advertising the Arizona Strip Art and Literature class: an 8-week, 2-credit, no-experience-needed course that brought together literature and painting through an immersive group camping trip. She had never painted or camped and wasn’t one to live on the edge. But, she thought, why not?
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but it sounded like a great way to step out of my comfort zone and experience something new. That’s what college is all about, right?”
The course was made up of two parts—in class, students would learn about the history and areas of Arizona from poetry, book excerpts and pictures, taught by senior lecturer in the Honors College Robyn Martin; and in the field, artist-in-residence Bruce Aiken would take them to the areas they had studied and help them capture the beauty firsthand.
First stop: the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
“The nine of us would spread far enough along the Colorado River that I felt like I was the only one out there—just me, my pallet of paints, brushes and a blank canvas,” Borzick said. “Being submerged in nature away from everything allowed me to focus solely on painting. Nothing else in the world mattered.”
Upon entering the class, Borzick was rather intimated by the idea of working with such a distinguished painter, as most students would be. But realizing how lucky she was to be there quickly reduced her fears.
“I know there are professional artists out there who would give anything for the chance to sit down with Bruce,” she said. “And here I am, a first-time painter, getting one-on-one coaching from him at the base of the Vermilion Cliffs. It was surreal.”
After all, as a new artist, who better to learn from than a renowned oil painter?
Aiken has been the inaugural artist-in-residence since the program started in 2012. In addition to hosting 3-day camping trips as part of the HON240 class, he teaches a master’s painting class; leads field trips throughout the region; takes students to Italy and France for two-week international workshops (with plans to visit Nepal next summer); guest lectures; and hosts community classes and public studio presentations for NAU students and the campus community.
Until now, Aiken has been the only Honors artist-in-residence—a position supported by the Honors College, the College of Arts and Letters, Enrollment Management and Student Affairs and Arizona Public Service. But thanks to a recent gift from Richard and Alice Snell, a couple dedicated to improving higher education in Arizona, the program will greatly expand.
“The gift from Richard and Alice Snell will fund three more artists-in-residence—painter Shonto Begay, photographer Dawn Kish and writer Kevin Fedarko—each bringing a unique expertise to NAU,” said Wolf Gumerman, founding dean of the Honors College. “We are lucky to live in Flagstaff with so many amazing local artists and have a great cadre of talented artists here at NAU. Our new artists-in-residence, who have a passion for teaching not only their skills, but also a sense of wonder and respect for northern Arizona, will expand the opportunities for our students.”
The HON240 class, aptly renamed “The Creative World” to accommodate the growing curriculum, will continue to take students on immersive trips throughout the state, giving them the opportunity to choose from a variety of experts to learn from in the field.
“Dawn Kish will be taking students on a 3-day trip up the Colorado River to Horseshoe Bend to do a photography workshop,” Gumerman said. “Most people only get to see this special place from above; our students will be in the canyon immersed in this beautiful place—working with light, landscape, stone and water. Shonto Begay will take a group of students to the Navajo reservation.”
If these excursions are anything like what Borzick experienced, the students lucky enough to be on them are sure to have the time of their lives.
To this day, nearly a year and a half after embarking on the artist-in-residence adventure, Borzick and her former classmates often reminisce about their time spent chasing sunsets and trying to capture the beauty of the desert on paper—classmates who entered the wilderness as strangers and emerged three days later as friends.
“At the end of the day, this class provided an experience that I would have otherwise not had. I was able to make connections with people I would have otherwise not met. And it sparked my inner painter that I would have otherwise not known.”