Awesome! An Art School that is wholesome

It is a wet windy day in Kalamazoo, but my hostess Hon Dr Betty Udongo ( has set up an appointment for me to meet Tricia Hennessy, the director of the Gwen Frostic School of Art, College of Fine Arts at Western Michigan University (, where she did her PhD in science education, focused on education policy in crisis situations, a couple of years back.

As experienced by Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi

The same Monday, same date and month, in 2003 back home in Uganda, I received a call from my brother, Hon Simon Mayende, one time State Minister of Higher Education in Uganda and now a Director of Information and National Guidance, that our beloved mother, Atwooki Erina Bachayaya had passed at about 5.00 am!

We had been to see her a day before and had gone back to our respective places to collect some necessities, return and wait for her time. We actually were expecting it because she had been ailing and her heath was on a downward trend for over a year.

Photo ops and downs

Charles Le Blanc, a multi-talented industrious, TV producer and presenter, who has been driving us around since our arrival, drops us a couple of meters away from the stairs to the entrance.

As we walk towards the building and in spite of the unpleasant weather condition I notice the majestic metal sculptures ahead and the magnificent architectural structures, which in a way make me forget the coldness.

I am tempted to take pictures like I usually do. I have, since last year, devised a way of taking pictures of myself, so that I do not have to depend on others to do it for me. Getting someone else to take your photo on request is one thing and getting it done the way you want it is another. There have been cases when my head has been dissected and in others the focus has been elsewhere but where I would have preferred.

I have been told that tourists in some cities in Europe have lost their cameras to volunteer photographers. Especially in crowded places where groups in an effort to have their photos taken with every one of the group appearing in there, have fallen victim to seemingly good Samaritans who willingly offer to take the pictures.

On being handed the camera/cameras, the volunteer starts by pretending to move a few steps back to gain a vantage point, in order to get everyone in the frame. A few back-steps later on turn into quite a few strides, and before the unsuspecting victims realize it, the volunteer and their camera/cameras have vanished among the multitude of people.

Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi.


From cold weather to warm paintings

On entering the building we are encountered by a magnificent room with walls hosting art pieces with audible colors addressing and announcing the transition from the cold, dull weather to the warm and bright weather.

The impressive works of art on show are by Marilyn Johnson and Sy Ellens (, the famous Kalamazoo painter whom I met in his studio a day before, when I toured the Parker Trade Center in downtown Kalamazoo where many artists have their studios.

Some of the art is pure abstract and open to personal interpretation by the viewer while other pieces are impressionistic landscapes punctuated by tracts of water. Not surprising, after all Michigan state is home to thousands of rivers and lakes, just like my motherland Uganda, aka “the land of friendly people”. (

Marilyn Johnson

In the exhibition preview, Tonya Durlach describes Johnson as “a consistent participating artist in West Michigan for several decades, and is known for her early focus on local architecture and the urban landscape.”

The current show “will exhibit works from the last 10-12 years, in which Johnson has experimented with the use of landscape in abstract paintings that explore color and shape. While the landscape gives structure to the works, Johnson re-invents her studies of real places to overlay forms and shapes that refer her compositions.”

Sy Ellens

Durlach further states that “Ellens has taken a grand view of the landscape, but the gaze starts in the abstract world. Details are brought along at the end of the process, when Ellens brings to life a landscape full of rich colors and textures—all remembrances of the Midwestern landscape of agricultural fields and wooded areas from the point of view above the horizon.”

Art discussions

As I am getting engrossed in the art, I am reminded by Betty that Tricia is waiting and so she calls her to announce our arrival. We are well received by Meagan Sloat, one of the members of staff who takes us to meet Tricia, a pleasant and warm academician/administrator, who graciously ushers us into a small but ideal conference room.

After introducing ourselves we engage into discussing art and design. Tricia has a design background, she ended up in administration and is now heading an art school of high quality.

Our discussion touched so many areas of mutual interest. Applied art, the role of art in community development, art therapy, graphic design, textile art—especially batik—and a host of others. The discussion also touches on the centuries old debate of what is and what is not art?

We seem to agree that art is best described and appreciated in a cultural context.

We also talked about the possibility of my having an educational art show and lectures and batik workshops in future.

Art discussions.

A guided tour

Tricia informed us that the school is named after Gwen Frostic who was a very successful printmaker and had donated $150 million to the school. She was of the view that few, if any, knew that Gwen had that kind of money when she was still alive. The subsequent tour of the school confirmed that the money had been put to good use.

After our meeting Tricia asked Meagan to give us a tour of the entire facility and make sure that we met Don Desmett, the Director of Exhibitions at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts, to explore the possibility of an art show, lecture and batik workshops. Don too was hospitable and welcoming despite his heavy schedule. He showed us around the spaces which host art exhibitions.

The Richmond Center for Visual Arts is a masterpiece of architectural design, inside and outside. The award-winning architectural masterpiece, was completed in 2007 with three expansive galleries and outdoor sculpture garden that host contemporary art, large installation, video and sculpture exhibitions. Nationally and internationally recognized artists have been hosted with their works in the high ceiling.

The exhibitions are enhanced with gallery talks by artist or curator, lectures, receptions and other special events that are open to the public, which have made the center become a vital part of the campus arts village.

As we are taken around the facility, I observe that the entire architectural design took into consideration most of the requirements of the art students and art teachers, not forgetting the community.

Not only does the school have all key departments under one roof, it also provides ample space for individuals and classes. Personal studios are provided as well as lecture or communal spaces where group discussion and critique sessions take place.

Innovative spaces

The Gwen Frostic School of Art is housed in a cutting-edge, environmentally-conscious facility with 140,000 square feet of new and recently renovated spaces. The facilities offer innovative spaces for the creation, exhibition and study of art.

Its proximity to the Department of Dance, the School of Music and the Department of Theatre provides inter-disciplinary opportunities to visual and performing artists. Together they form the college of Fine Arts at Western Michigan University—a center dedicated to future-oriented creative excellence.

In their brochure, which I endorse with no reservation, they describe their facility as equipped for both traditional and experimental art-making process, and constructed with the health and safety of their students in mind.

The Richmond Center for Visual Arts, designed by SmithGroup architectural firm, features multiple galleries, lecture halls with state-of-the-art technology, a computer lab with a resource area and print center, a full service Design Center and studio spaces for the graphic design program, and classrooms for art history program.

There is also the attached Kohrman Hall that offers upgraded warehouse-sized studio spaces for painting, photo/intermedia, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, metals/jewelry, art education, and foundation coursework.

In other words it is a one-stop center for those seeking to acquire skills in visual art theory and practice. Indeed it is an awesome school of art that is wholesome.

Nuwa Wamala Nnyanzi is a visual Arts Practitioner/Consultant. He can be reached at or