The ordinary way of viewing visual art is passive by necessity. Quiet gallery halls lend themselves to the atmosphere of reflection required to connect deeply with a finished work.
However, the artist's path from concept to finished product is anything but passive. Or ordinary. The public gets few chances to interact with artists whose works are in the raw stages of the creative process, a method that varies wildly from artist to artist.
For one day each year, the University of Kentucky art department invites the public into the dynamic, interior world of the artist at work in its Open Studio exhibit.
Launched in 1991, the event opens the studio doors at Reynolds Building No. 1, one of UK's run-down art buildings that, despite their woeful physical state, manage to incubate the early careers of Kentucky's next generation of visual artists.
The aim of the event is to provide the public with a concentrated interactive art experience while showcasing artwork, much of it still in process, by young artists. A juried show of graduate and undergraduate work also is featured.
Visitors are welcome to roam through the building's large spaces, catching student artists at work in the studio environment. Music, food, art demonstrations and art vendors round out the interactive nature of the event, which draws an annual crowd of 1,500 to 2,000.
"We have DJs coming from WRFL to cover music, there will be assorted art-making/buying opportunities, and art process demonstrations in metal casting, printmaking, pottery and painting," says sculptor and graduate student Waylon Bigsby, president of the Art Graduate Student Association, a student-run organization that mounts each year's exhibit.
"Above all," Bigsby says, "we have artists available to talk about their work and show the community what exactly we do here."
Sharing a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the art-making process is about more than art students sharing with the public; it is rooted in the spirit of public transparency and accountability.
Professor Benjamin Withers, chair of UK's art department, cites UK's standing as a public, land-grant institution financed largely by taxpayer dollars as further incentive to host the yearly exhibit.
"Our desire is to welcome people into our studio spaces so they can see what is going on," he said. "As part of a land-grant institution, we are accountable to the people of the community for what we are doing as a department."
If public oversight doesn't inspire art viewing, perhaps the market will. Frugal art lovers will be able to snatch up quality works for good prices, another key appeal of the exhibit. Student artwork is often considerably cheaper than that of established professionals, and the excitement of clicking with a young artist's work can be a thrill and a bargain.
"It's an excellent opportunity to see the next generation of Kentucky artists, to discover them early in their careers," Withers says.
One of the most viable ways to discover them, thanks to the event's open-door format, is to walk right up to them.
"We are striving for a more organic studio experience this year," Bigsby says of getting back to the basics of the event's mission of public-to-artist interaction. "In years past, the event has become so large and demanding that the graduate students themselves find no time to actually be 'in studio' and sharing their work with the general public during the event. We're doing everything possible to maximize the amount of art that is experienceable during the event this year."
And just how does one experience the art in this exhibit?
"Just make your way slowly through the building," Bigsby says. "Enjoy each area via participation."