Loyola Magazine

Blending studio art and computer science

Messina course pairing offers students an unusual interdisciplinary journey

At first glance, it seems an unlikely pairing—taking a studio arts two-dimensional design class in the fall and then a computer science class in the spring.

But that approach is what makes Messina, Loyola’s living learning program for first-year students, distinctive.

The studio arts class, Visionary Design Toward a Sustainable Environment, is taught by Janet Maher, associate professor of art. Roger D. Eastman, Ph.D., professor of computer science, teaches Computers, Nature and Art: Beauty from Computation.

By pairing these radically different subjects, Maher and Eastman aim to encourage students to look at art in different ways, to see how everything is connected, and to determine if something they create by hand (or on a computer with design software) and something they create using algorithms on a computer can be considered art. As part of their 2-D design class, Maher’s students draw, paint, compose, and assemble mixed media. In addition, they are researching and giving presentations on artists who are visionaries in contemporary art as well as environmental activists.

“I encourage students to bring in content that is of interest or concern to them, and we will work to make beautiful artwork that also happens to have meaning behind it,” she said.

Students in Maher’s class are responsible for keeping an Artist Date Journal. For at least one hour each week, they will stop to “check in with themselves” and write or draw without worrying about the result.

“The journal will become messy, collaged, and painted on,” said Maher. “What I’m asking them to do will be very different, but it’s all based on being still and trying to feel creative.”

No single answer

While the students will get an introduction to Photoshop and other computer illustration programs in Maher’s class, what they will learn in Eastman’s course come spring is quite different.

“The focus of my class is to motivate the students to learn some computer programming and to use it to produce art of one sort or another,” Eastman said.

“The particular objective is going to be to produce what’s called ‘algorithmic art,’ where you don’t create it directly, as you might in Photoshop or a three-dimensional program to make movies. Instead, you make it indirectly by writing an algorithm or program that then does some calculations of its own and produces the picture from those calculations.”

Students will have the opportunity to examine and discuss professional artists who create in this way, followed by broader conversations in the classroom about the effect computer science has on art: What happens to the meaning of art when you can reduce it to a set of rules?

“The objective is to teach them some computer science. Then the art is to motivate them, and the seminar questions are to get them to think about it,” explained Eastman. “I don’t expect them to have a single answer. There is no single answer when you deal with art.”

Beyond the syllabus

Earlier in the semester, the students visited a farmers’ market. They explored an exhibit at the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery by Maher and shared dinner at Eastman’s home. They have plans to bake desserts for Beans and Bread, a shelter and food service program in downtown Baltimore.

The students have also learned about environmentally friendly actions they can take, such as becoming aware of what they discard and trying not to use fossil fuels.

“I hope that our students will use some of the practices we will be engaging in throughout the semester to become leaders for others in terms of how they interact with the environment,” Maher said.