My teacher, Chris, tells the class to write everything we know about our character down in five minutes. He then tells us to take this character and make them suffer by witnessing a traumatic event. We are given ten minutes to torture these people of our imagination.
Every summer, 500 high school students from all manners of artistic backgrounds attend California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA), a month-long selective program that offers courses in Animation, Creative Writing, Dance, Film and Video, Theater and Visual Arts.
CSSSA is held at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, near LA. The campus is relatively small, with a great view of the hills and mountains in the distance. However, the college’s building is large and mazelike, full of rehearsal rooms, theaters, galleries and studios.
To apply, prospective students must submit an application that includes their own artistic work. Those who are accepted are given the state-recognized title of “California Arts Scholar” and on graduation from the program are given a medal for this. The title of California Arts Scholar is the highest honor a student artist can have in California.
Singers hit higher and higher notes in the hallways, animation students sit at the cafe drawing strangers to fill their sketchbooks, film kids set up tripods to record actors delivering lines, and people tune their guitars and practice while their laundry dries.
CSSSA has been my home for the last two summers. I have been drawing and making my art my whole life. In sophomore year I was in Advanced Studio Art, but CSSSA was what made me improve so much on my way into AP. Last year, I was accepted for Visual Arts and chose to major in Painting and minor in Digital Arts. Class sizes were and are very personal and medium sized so I had no trouble getting to know the people in my classes. In my painting class, I learned so much about color theory, composition and technical skill.
We worked on color grids, color mixing, still lifes, self-reflective works, and pieces with abstract themes. My favorite project was working on a piece that incorporated photos of moments and places at CSSSA and architecture that represented our family background. We also did a piece on a wooden plank that was supposed to abstractly represent an emotion. Part of the wooden plank had to show through the paint.
CSSSA also assigned me classes such as Figure Drawing and Sculpture that really helped me with my anatomical drawing skills and my understanding of 3D space and how it could affect my art. In AP Art this past school year, my improvement due to CSSSA was very evident to me.
This year I am majoring in Creative Writing, with a focus in fiction. I have a core class of students that rotates through poetry, scene-writing, independent “zine” writing and fiction. On Wednesdays, the whole creative writing department gets together for a full-day workshop, where we experiment with forms such as “found poems.” In this specific activity, we created a verbal collage of writing we found on the walls, titles of books in the library, and words on signs throughout campus and rearranged them into a poem. Though the month is still young, I have already learned so much about word choice, form and structure, suspense and narration.
In my fiction class, topics have varied from descriptions of our rooms to detailing the life of an idiosyncratic narrator to fairytale retellings of our own experiences.
But our arts education has gone beyond just our individual department classes. Students from all departments are allowed to attend animation screenings, dance and musical recitals, gallery showings and film screenings put on by students and faculty. This cross-pollination allows for growth in students’ general knowledge and appreciation for all art forms.
CSSSA had its first summer session in 1987. The founders – the California Legislature – wanted to reverse the pattern of artists leaving California for other cultural and artistic hubs across the country.
At CSSSA, students are worked to the bone, but in the most amazing way. Classes can be longer than six hours a day, not including homework. This intense schedule allows students to really sink their teeth into what they are learning in a way they usually can’t during the school year.
I left CSSSA in 2015 feeling secure in my desire to continue with art, whereas before I had been uncertain. I already feel very positive about my writing this year, now about halfway through.
Perhaps my favorite thing about CSSSA is the diverse group of friendly students. Most are from California, but some make the trek from all over the country. My roommate, for example, is from Pennsylvania. There are even students from China.
The student body is very ethnically diverse as well.
California students from all socioeconomic backgrounds apply, as the state pays for much of the cost of admission, lowering it from $5,200 to $1,700 for all California residents. In addition, there is very extensive financial aid for low-income California residents; some students pay as little as $100 for room, food, classes and supplies.
During my summers at CSSSA, I have met people from all backgrounds who have art as a common ground. Students cheer each other on at Visual Arts fashion shows, dance recitals and drama performances, showing up to support their fellow artists.
The technical, emotional and cultural knowledge I have gained at CSSSA has been invaluable. The friendships I make are close and long-lasting; I am still in contact with all of my close friends from last year. Though this is probably my last year in the program, I feel complete.