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A Day in the Life of the "Creative Chrysalis"
With the opening of the new Mattin Center at Homewood, student artists, musicians, actors, and dancers at last have a permanent hub--and home--for the fine arts.

By Barbara Kiviat '01
Photos by Dave Harp

Thursday, April 26, 2001

In the north studio of Homewood's Ross Jones Building, a dozen students arrange easels, benches, large pads of paper. Craig Hankin '76, director of the Homewood Art Workshops, walks in and adjusts the light by shifting some of the panels along the room's glass walls. A friendly guy, Hankin holds a finger up and says, "Music! I've got to get music," and leaves the room, returning with a radio. The soft sounds of classical music fill the air.

As the students in the portrait drawing class settle down in the spaces they've staked out, Hankin introduces the model for today's early afternoon class--Richard is a muscular man sporting a buzz cut, black pants, and T-shirt. He takes a seat on a stand at the front of the class; a spotlight from his right shines brightly on him. "I hope today you'll take advantage of linear medium--pencil, charcoal pencil," Hankin tells the group.

One student primes her paper with charcoal and then starts wiping away, first with a towel and then more specifically with a kneaded eraser, slowly revealing the shape of a face. Another student starts small, in pencil, with the left side of the model's face.

The setting for the class is Homewood's new Mattin Center--a sleek, three-building, glass-and-stone "creative chrysalis" that is, in the words of Hopkins President William R. Brody, "writing a new chapter in the history of [the] Homewood campus."

The complex, which fronts North Charles and 33rd streets and sits nestled between the Merrick Barn, Whitehead Hall, and the Baltimore Museum of Art's sculpture gardens, provides a long-awaited permanent space for student artists, musicians, actors, and dancers, who for decades have been forced to scrounge for practice rooms and make do with cramped and ever-moving studios. Student clubs and activities also have new, centralized office space, and a café and outdoor courtyard offer further enticement for students and faculty to meet, mingle, and chat. The hope: The Mattin Center will serve as a drawing card for prospective students and emerge as a new hub for student creativity.

"We are celebrating a dramatic turning point in the life of the undergraduates on this campus," said vice president and secretary emeritus Ross Jones at the dedication of the Mattin Center on April 20. Jones told the students in attendance: "These buildings say to you that Johns Hopkins cares deeply about your life outside the classroom. That it recognizes the importance of encouraging you to create, to interpret, to perform, to lead, and to bring out all those wonderful human qualities that will enrich your lives, and that might have lain dormant if these handsome facilities had not been available to you."

Indeed, there is plenty to draw people to the space. Student thespians now have what they never had before--a professionally run "black box" theater complete with nicely appointed dressing rooms and an area for constructing sets. A new Digital Media Center offers students the technological resources to design Web sites, edit digital videos, burn CDs, and create three-dimensional computer models, among other things. There is also a new darkroom for photography, music practice rooms, a dance room, and space-- long-sought-after meeting and office space--for Homewood's student activity groups.

And then there are the visual art studios. The Homewood Art Workshops, consigned since 1974 to the cramped and nearly windowless basement of Merryman Hall (which Hankin ruefully referred to as a "sensory deprivation tank"), now sprawl across the sunlight-strewn top floor of the center's Ross Jones Building.

The youthful Hankin, who has gleefully described the new space as "the Promised Land," says that classes have taken on a whole new life because of the setting and light. The new studios are all windows, some frosted, some shielded by white mesh screens that pull down like shades. Light permeates the rooms, seemingly from without and within.

Spacious, sun-strewn studios have given art classes a whole new life, says Homewood Art Workshops director Criag Hankin '76. The proof: 122 students on waiting lists for fall classes in painting, drawing, cartooning, and other subjects.

The new studios double the Art Workshops' space and also make the program much more visible. "This gives a sense of location, a point of focus, for students who might not be aware of us otherwise," says Hankin, an advocate for the visual arts at Homewood since at least the time of Hopkins President Steven Muller (1972-1990), who is credited with originating the concept for the center.

Says Hankin: "We've always depended on word of mouth. Now people wander in, they're curious about our display case, they see the studios." Typically the Art Workshops have offered five classes a semester. Hankin increased this to six classes for spring 2001 and has seven planned for fall. Yet there are still 122 students on waiting lists for fall courses. Hankin hopes to offer eight classes in spring 2002, adding a three-dimensional design class to the drawing, painting, photography, cartooning, and architecture classes.

As the students work, Hankin wanders the room and comments on their drawings. One portrait shows the model's head and shoulders; another crops the top and side of his face. Hankin suggests incorporating into the portrait the view outside the window behind the model, as a study of interior vs. exterior. "You can contrast loose handling of background with the portrait," he says, as he continues his slow tour of the easels.

Consigned since 1974 to the cramped and windowless basement of Merryman Hall, the Art Workshops have now arrived in the "Promised Land." In the back left of the room, Clarence Lin '03 sits at an easel. Over the past year Lin has revived the once-defunct student Art Club. Last fall he coordinated trips to an art supply store in Towson so that Hopkins students could buy materials and draw with a live model; the club also sponsored a juried exhibition of student work in Levering Hall. Now, says Lin, such activities can take place right here at the Mattin Center.

Notes Hankin, "There is much more of a spirit of inclusion for art that absolutely didn't exist 25 years ago. I can tell you that this is the best time for me--and anyone who is pursuing the arts--to be at Hopkins."

All three buildings of the Mattin Center open onto the courtyard. There is a triangle of grass, a few Japanese maple trees, and a tranquil metal fountain, but mostly cement. Metal tables and chairs are set out throughout the day.

Maria Bonilla, a graduate student in economics, does some reading for her dissertation over a cup of coffee from the café behind her. Bonilla says she really likes the space created by the new buildings, but she laments the loss of the white oak and tulip poplar trees that formerly graced the site. The areas around the center have only recently been landscaped, and the new trees and bushes are small, leaving a bald appearance. Without mature trees, the sun beats down unremittingly.

One of the objectives in designing the Mattin Center, administrators say, was to better connect the Homewood campus with the Charles Village neighborhood that lies to the east. Some critics have said the center's long brick walls facing Charles Street fail to do that, instead making the building intimidating to approach.

Says architect Tod Williams: "I know I've been slammed for the Charles Street facade, but it will green in, it will become part of the landscape as time goes on."

The contemporary buildings look nothing like the rest of the neo-Georgian campus, though they do bear the stamp of other work done by the New York firm of Tod Williams, Billie Tsien & Associates, a team known for its use of materials. (In the lobby off the Jones Building alone there are more than a dozen, including black granite from China and green ceramic tiles from California. The benches are made from cherry trees cut down on the very site on which the center now stands.)

The architects planned for the center to be something "to discover." The outward-facing walls are almost entirely brick. To see what the center is, one must move within the interior courtyard. There, looking around at the triangle of buildings, one gets the feeling of being in a maze--a maze connected by second-floor balconies, by ramps and stairways. Before construction began, the wooded site was a popular cut-through for students walking to campus from the east. The area was crisscrossed by footpaths, which partly inspired the many walkways both inside and outside the center.

Williams says the Mattin Center is not so much a destination as it is a public space, defined by people. "If you walk through it there are constantly changing perspectives," he notes. "There are a great many places for a person to be-- whether it is a bench in a hallway, or a step or stair outside on a balcony--where there is a view."

Inside the café on this day in late spring, Ines Guariguata '01 sits before a flat-screen monitor, using one of several computers available to check e-mail or surf the Web. Guariguata looks pleased; she has just found the online version of an article her sister wrote for her college newspaper. The café is a stationary version of the coffee carts located in the MSE Library and Gilman Hall-- students and faculty can order lattes, Italian sodas, pastries, sandwiches, and salads. Olive-green tiles, reminiscent of a subway corridor, cover the walls. Silver tables and chairs fill the room.

From the other side of the room enters Ruby Agoha '01. She asks for two empty cups, then heads back to the Richard and Rae Swirnow Theater in the center's Morris W. Offit Building, where she and Ivana Vaughn '02 will use the cups to scoop dirt to make a garden. Tonight is the opening of the Dunbar Baldwin Hughes Theater Company's rendition of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. The performance of the play-- set in 1948 Pittsburgh against a backdrop of blues music and the African-American struggle for equal opportunity and self-betterment--marks the student troupe's eighth year at Homewood.

Right now the crew is putting the finishing touches on the set. Making the garden--a wooden frame with a white metal fence and rows of plastic flowers--is a dirty job. Agoha and Vaughn jokingly complain as they shovel dirt. Says Vaughn, "The question is who's going to clean this up." Agoha replies, "I can tell you who's not cleaning this up."

Tonight also marks the debut of the Swirnow "black box" theater, which, true to its name, has no permanent stage, no wings for exits and entrances. Such flexibility allows each group that uses the theater to customize the space--space considerably roomier than that afforded by Levering Hall's Arellano Theater.

Spacious and sleek, the new dance studio has become a mecca for a wide variety of student dancers. The facility also includes a green room, two dressing rooms, and an office for a new technical director, William Roche. The Homewood campus has never had such resources. Nor, it seems, has student interest in the dramatic arts ever run so high.

Just ask John Astin '52, who came to Homewood this spring semester to teach an acting class in The Writing Seminars. "When we had a drama department here at Hopkins years ago there was nothing compared to the enrollment that we had in this course. Nothing to compare with it," says the veteran actor of The Addams Family fame. Astin ended up teaching three sections instead of one. Students came from a wide variety of majors, including biology, mathematics, psychology, political science, and biomedical engineering. ("That was a new one to me," says Astin.) On the next April weekend, he and his students will set up the Swirnow Theater to perform a series of student-written plays (selected in a university-wide competition).

"Without culture, without a broad perspective, we cannot really be good citizens," says Astin. He's heartened, he says, that today's Hopkins undergraduates have the opportunity "to expand into many different areas and to soak up a broad liberal arts perspective, even if they might be specializing in electrical engineering."

Since the dance studio has opened, student groups have "come out of the woodwork" to practice. As the lunch hour passes, students begin filtering into Susan Weiss's Music in Performance class in the Second Decade Society room. Weiss, chair of the musicology department at Hopkins's Peabody Institute, is teaching two classes at Homewood during the spring semester. "I suggest you sit more to this side," says Weiss, motioning her class to form a semicircle around a baby grand piano, "so that you can see his hands."

The room, with its high ceilings, is large enough to comfortably seat an orchestra. The Concert Band, Choral Society, and Big Band are among the ensembles that use the space to rehearse, mostly in the evenings.

Today, pianist Enrico Elisi Degli Esposti, an advanced degree candidate at Peabody, plays Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin. He plays, he stops, he talks, he fields questions. At one point there is a debate about whether Beethoven was deaf by the time he wrote the piece Esposti is playing. "I think he heard this," answers Esposti with his Italian accent. Later in the afternoon Weiss will lead a dozen students in her second class, Italian Music and Lyric in the Early Modern Era, a course that is part performance, part lecture, part discussion, and part Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Glenn Miller rings through the halls of the Jones Building. The Second Decade Society room, already today a classroom and an a cappella rehearsal space, has been transformed again. "It's great to have a place where students can congregate and have all the arts classes held," says Weiss. But she wishes this classroom had been equipped with "smart" technology; for her classes she needs access to a data projector and the Internet, to better compare live and recorded performances.

Weiss, who has been on the Peabody faculty since 1987, sees a burgeoning music scene at Homewood. She hopes to convince administrators, in fact, that the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences should have its own music department.

By late afternoon, the Digital Media Center is hopping. Two members of the AllNighters, an all-male a cappella singing group, edit a comedic video for their upcoming concert. The two are using Adobe Premiere on one of the center's 12 high-end computers.

Though there are other pockets of digital media resources on campus, this is the first high-visibility center devoted specifically to students working outside class. "We are here to help students create art in a nonacademic environment," says Joan Freedman, the center's director. "People have a lot of talents when they come to Hopkins. In order to grow students as whole beings we need a space to continue that." The Digital Media Center provides the equipment for students to develop a range of computer-based projects--from pulling together a PowerPoint presentation to animating a video short. Or, students can just explore and play.

Clarence Lin has come to the Digital Media Center from Hankin's portrait drawing class. He switches back and forth between working on a layout for the spring 2001 issue of the Black and Blue Jay (he is the humor magazine's editor) to preparing overhead transparencies for his upcoming presentation in Biological Macromolecules. Moving deftly, he scans in a diagram from the text, uses Photoshop to clean up the image, and prints out a transparency.

Freedman says the center allows students to take what they've learned in class and pursue additional projects such as making digital films. She plans to offer tutorial classes on the different programs and hopes to bring in artists to talk about how they integrate computer technology and art.

"A lot of students approach academics with a very prescribed method, without perhaps exploring and learning about other fields and how to think in different ways," says Freedman. "We'd like to help students think of themselves as creative individuals."

As the dinner hour comes and goes, activity within the Mattin Center recedes, then surges again. In the long wing of the Jones Building, a cappella singing season is in full swing. The AllNighters rehearse in the Second Decade Society room. Down the hall, the Octopodes practice in a smaller rehearsal space that was specially designed for a cappella practice. Across the courtyard in the Offit Building, the Mental Notes--another a cappella ensemble--prepare for their spring concert tomorrow night.

The Octopodes were the first a cappella singers to join the Student Activities Commission, back in the late 1980s. Since then, six more groups have sprung up at Hopkins, two of them just last year.

It is 7:30 p.m. and William Miller '01 walks into the women's dressing room in the Swirnow Theater, where April Land '04 sits before a huge mirror trimmed with bright, round light bulbs. "Louise," he says, using her character's name, "we need to go over that scene."

"What? Scene 3. OK," Land says, but before the last-minute rehearsal can begin, a dress needs to be zipped, jewelry fastened, and makeup applied. Shoes are everywhere in the room--on the floor, on the countertop.

With just 15 minutes until showtime, director Benedict Dorsey (who by day is assistant director of Student Financial Services) gathers the student cast members into the green room and gives his advice: Stay in character, project, make sure the blocking is correct. And if a line gets lost, someone gets confused, flow with it. "We protect each other out there," he tells the group.

The cast disperses and Dorsey heads out to take his spot behind the audience. The stage manager calls "Places!" and the cast files out, as Land sings her way into the backyard of a postwar Pittsburgh tenement: "Anybody here wanna try my cabbage? Just step this way. ..."

Glenn Miller rings through the halls of the Jones Building. The Second Decade Society room, already today a classroom and an a cappella rehearsal space, has been transformed again. The black chairs have been rotated 90 degrees to form a semicircle around the conductor of the Johns Hopkins Big Band.

Someone has drawn a floor-to-ceiling gold curtain around two sides of the room to make the space smaller for the 17-member student group. The trumpet players stand in the back row; in front of them the trombones, and then the saxophones. To the sides are a bass and a drum set. The room swings as the band runs through "Sing Sing Sing," "Little Brown Jug," and "Don't Be That Way."

Scattered around the room are empty instrument cases, trumpet mutes, a stray tennis ball. Until recently, the Big Band practiced in the gym of Homewood's ROTC building, where the acoustics were horrible--like "being in an airplane hangar," recalls band director Matt Belzer. Here, the Big Band shares a storage room with the Choral Society and other instrumental ensembles. "The acoustics are much better. We can really drill down and improve," says string bass player Doug Keen '01. Last fall, a second group spun off from the Big Band; the Johns Hopkins Jazz Ensemble now acts as a "feeder" to the group, Belzer reports.

The musicians are not the only group to have a new permanent home. In the Offit Building's dance studio, two members of the student Modern Dance Company practice atop the light wood floor. Lizet Christiansen, an Earth and planetary sciences graduate student, is rehearsing with Alan Brown '02, who choreographed the moves. Brown explains scurries: heel, ball, toe, heel, ball, toe. Then the two dancers launch into a discussion of whose dance style they like better, Alwin Nikolais or Murray Louis (with whom Brown has studied). They study themselves in the mirror as they rehearse; there is a lot of counting to eight.

The room is spacious and sleek. A panel mirror covers one wall, on which is mounted a ballet bar. A gold curtain can be pulled to section the room into smaller pieces. Off to the side is an alcove with wooden benches. The south wall of the room is a large window overlooking the Baltimore Museum of Art's sculpture gardens.

Though a dance room previously existed in the Newton H. White Athletic Center (until construction on that building closed it last fall), the dance troupe did not practice there often since it was usually reserved for Athletic Center classes such as aerobics. Members of the company have danced all around campus--in Levering's Glass Pavilion, Shriver's Clipper Room, a residence hall's multipurpose room, and classrooms in Shaffer Hall. "You name the room," says Brown, "and we've been there--at least once."

Since the new studio opened, Brown says groups have "come out of the woodwork." In addition to the Modern Dance Company and the Ladybirds--an all-female troupe that performs at sporting events--Brown reports a breakdancing club using the room. But tonight it's just Brown and Christiansen, meticulously going over their moves. "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8..."

Outside the dance studio is more music. The AllNighters have moved their rehearsal to the outdoor balcony of the Jones Building. In the deepening twilight, from down in the courtyard, the singers are barely visible. The balcony has an elbow-high brick railing, so the singers are more heard than seen. They have a routine to go with their song; every now and then a flurry of arms shoots up from behind the wall. On the ground, three young people--grad students or junior faculty, it's hard to tell--stand and talk by the door to the café. One member of the trio starts bobbing up and down to the a cappella music.

It is after 8 p.m. and the April evening air is a cool slice of spring. From outside, the windowed pieces of the Mattin Center give off a lanternlike glow. From the ground, the angled buildings and lights recede to a point.

The AllNighters finish their song and then start another. The bobbing man in the courtyard rests his bag on a metal chair and shows his two companions a dance. "Left, right, left, front," he says, clapping. He starts dancing around-- forward, backward, side to side. On the balcony, an AllNighter sits on the brick ledge. He is conducting the group, bouncing up and down as he does.

Hands shoot up from behind the wall. The group sings. The man dances. The song stops, and the man keeps dancing.

Barbara Kiviat '01, a former intern for the magazine, was a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic over the summer, and is now entertaining job offers.

Return to September 2001 Table of Contents

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