Ten years ago, Jim Kollias, director of instrumental music at Beckman High School and chair of the visual and performing arts department, posed a question to the school’s arts faculty.

“What is the difference between proficiency and artistry?” he said. And then, “Can both be taught?”

Since that day, every arts teacher, from orchestra to graphic design, theater and photography, has been inspired (and challenged) to find answers to both questions.

Proficiency, Kollias said, was easy. Of course, that can be taught through careful and practiced lessons in technique. But what about artistry?

“It got to the point where you would see one performance and it was impressive, but then you would see a second performance and it was still impressive, but it was the same, and then by the third performance it’s a little less impressive,” said Kollias. “It was evident that students were learning the technique well, but that’s not artistry.”

Since these discussions around artistry began, Kollias and the other Beckman visual and performing arts teachers continue to explain artistry as having two main components: expression and creativity. These two elements work together to help the artist convey “something”— be that feeling or meaning — and doing so with intent.

“In the past two years, creativity has finally come up on the radar as something that 21st-century skills are going to demand,” said Kollias. “Our principal, Donnie Rafter, decided to make creativity a school focus.”

Though the conversation about creative started in the arts department a decade ago, now you see hints of this creative spirit all across the campus. It’s visible in the form of things like “street” pianos in courtyards which are rarely silent, or winter sweaters wrapped around trees as a sort of site-specific art installation by the knitting club.

“We’re trying to give the students as much room to discover themselves that they need,” said Beckman theater teacher Antonio Moon. “True artistry is discovered when a student is able to explore without the constraints and pressures of being in a formalized environment.”

While this development of students’ artistry has a direct effect on how they perform in the arts department, Kollias and the rest of the department emphasize the greater good of studying creativity, regardless of whether or not a student goes on to a career in the arts.

“We are not an arts high school. We are a comprehensive high school,” said Kollias. “We expect that this approach will help kids become great artists, but more than that, we expect it will help them be great students, and ultimately, the next generation of great doctors, lawyers, engineers.”

As Kollias sees it, the world needs creative thinkers in all disciplines.

Because of this department and school-wide initiative to foster creativity, the students at Beckman have the unique experience of working with teachers who are also driven to explore new avenues of learning.

Oftentimes, these new experiences manifest in collaboration across disciplines.

The photography class, for example, takes headshots of the actors in seasonal theater productions and a few years ago, the visual arts students illustrated children’s books that were written by one of the Spanish classes.

“We do a lot of project-based learning that gives students hands-on experience,” said visual arts teacher Gigi Manning. “I think it encourages persistence and ownership of their artistic vision.”

An advanced art student works on a graphic design assignment. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Manning, whose advanced graphic design class takes on clients from the community such as the El Segundo Chamber of Commerce and more recently the Tustin Legacy Academy, said that an emphasis on artistry has really helped her students figure out who they are as artists.

“When I see a student’s work and know exactly whose it is, that’s artistry,” said Manning. “When I can see their mark, that’s the sign of a mature artist.”

The Beckman visual and performing arts department is holding strong in its mission of fostering artists who embrace creative exploration.

Said Kollias: “We’re chasing great performances, chasing great experiences. We’re not chasing trophies or awards. They come, but we want this all to mean something, and it’s the feeling that you remember in the end, not the score you got in the competition.”

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.

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