Back and In-Person: Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute

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This year, the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute (OSAI) brought together 262 high school students from all across Oklahoma to participate in an intensive but inspiring two-week residential program that served eight disciplines: acting, chorus, creative writing, dance, drawing and painting, film and video, orchestra, and photography. 

One part of what makes OSAI truly stand apart from other arts programs is the gathering of such a wide range of artistic disciplines. Another part is that every student who is accepted through a highly selective application process is able to attend because each student is paid for by generous donors and state funds. The selected students form a very diverse body with differing ages, passions, and levels of experience. 

Some students come from schools that don’t have the resources that OSAI does to provide a choir or an advanced enough photography program. OSAI is a vital part of the community for students who have maxed out their resources at their school or in their local community. At OSAI students have the opportunity to grow exponentially and set their skills against classmates who are equally passionate and hard-working. 

After a summer of “OSAI at Home,” the Zoom version of OSAI, in-person camp was a strange but exciting experience. However, the most notable change to this year’s OSAI was that rather than holding classes at its usual location – Quartz Mountain, which brimmed with wildlife and nature – OSAI settled on the sprawling campus of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma which allowed students and faculty more space to social distance. 

As someone whose first taste of OSAI was over Zoom every day for three hours, I had no idea what to expect. It’s fair to say that everyone was preparing themselves for an experience like no other. There was just a sense of anticipation and joy in the air which could only bloom from a year of creative seclusion.

I attended OSAI in the Drawing and Painting discipline and immediately found myself swept into a community bursting with passion, talent, and warmth. Each day was packed with classes in our discipline, meals with people across disciplines, fun activities across the campus, cabin meetings, performances, and presentations. 

Under the brilliant guidance of instructors from all over the world, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to take creative risks and consider my craft from perspectives I never even considered. My teachers both came from New York, though they traveled all around the world through artist residences (opportunities for artists to create art within a specific time or space). The class was a mixture of lectures, demonstrations, individual painting time, group critique, and one-on-one critique. My classmates offered constructive feedback and endless ideas whenever I thought I reached the limit of creativity. It was a safe place to experiment and challenge myself. 

I found ways to maximize the resources I had now that OSAI was in-person. In my first week, I got people I just met to model for a picture, and I painted them for the portraiture unit of my class. During the second week, my classmates and I took an all-day field trip to the Wichita Mountains to paint plein air, a French term meaning to paint outdoors or to paint in the open air. 

We formed close bonds and cheered loudly for each other’s performances whether it was dance, orchestra, or acting because we understood the hard work which went into every precious minute of movement, sound, and emotion. Live music and performance were hard to come by during the pandemic, and at OSAI, it felt more alive than ever. 

The most impactful part of OSAI for me was the wisdom that the older generation of artists shared freely and even delightfully with us. 

Every evening, all 262 of us shuffled into the auditorium and settled into squeaky maroon seats to listen to a faculty member talk about their life, how they honed their craft, and how they saw its positive and sometimes life-changing impact. 

Many talked about how the pandemic shook their world upside down and made them reevaluate what was important to them and who they were when their art was so isolated from the community. 

In one of these presentations, something the orchestra conductor, Allen Tinkham, said really stuck with me. He talked about how difficult it was to bring together a whole orchestra over zoom – how demoralizing it was to conduct to the empty air. Then, he mentioned a famous quote that kept him afloat as he taught online: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.” He talked about how this quote guided him to choose the pieces for the orchestra. It also fueled him to keep conducting even when nothing felt “normal.”

It then struck me how important OSAI was, is, through the community it creates. 

Perhaps we are tentatively coming out of the dark times. Perhaps we aren’t. Regardless, OSAI is heartening proof that people are still creating art – still passionate. OSAI is a special home for those who want the arts to thrive, not despite the dark times, but through the dark times.