Leaving the Nest

Students go beyond USC in search of artistic community.

Photo by Robert Carter

For student artists, college can seem to be paradise of opportunity. Easy access to studios, master classes, college-provided performance opportunities and other benefits create in the environment of USC and other colleges the ultimate hideaway for nurturing the newborn careers of young artists.

“USC’s dance program is great because they always bring in guest choreographers and high caliber professional companies that perform during the year,” says John Green, a third-year dance performance and choreography major and local dancer. “A lot of the opportunities that are afforded are through the school, like recently [when I performed] with Anya Martin during halftime at a USC home football game.”

The artistic opportunities that are offered by USC are a gift to students wanting time to hone their craft. But is the university alone enough for young artists? For some students such as Green, the college better functions as a springboard for artistic success rather than as an all-inclusive experience.

“I look for teaching and freelancing through non-USC-affiliated parties,” Green says. “My very first year at USC, I had the opportunity to dance at the Chamber of Commerce with this non-USC-affiliated hip-hop group. Then ,every year when it’s Christmas time, there’s always an opportunity to guest perform in a production of ‘The Nutcracker.’”

While USC can provide needed training and instruction for young artists, the school can also give students a false sense of security. Easy access to the tools of the trade such as dance studios and visual art showing opportunities keeps students from needing to create their own connections in the “real world” of local creativity.

For students looking to expand beyond these sometimes-limiting classroom horizons, Columbia is particularly fertile ground. Although smaller in geographical size, the city’s arts scene is bustling. With the availability of multiple performing venues, an art museum, a handful of locally run galleries and an arthouse cinema, there always seems to be an artistic event of some sort going on in town.

“We’re not L.A. or New York but there is definitely a much more active art scene than I would have ever thought,” says Dani Thorner, a third-year art education student and visual artist. “The coolest part about it is there are a ton of young people getting involved around the community, so as a young adult you don’t feel alienated.”

With the variety of arts opportunities available in Columbia, students are finding creative ways to circulate their name and their work. Thorner, who works mainly in collage art, currently has her art on display in Cool Beans Coffee Co. and is also working at the Columbia Museum of Art. In the past, her search for artistic opportunities has led her to work with Scenario Collective, a group of local creatives of all stripes.

The small size of Columbia, however, makes it both more easy and more difficult for students to find their niche outside of USC. The close proximity to campus of places such as the Nickelodeon Theatre and Music Farm works to the student artist’s advantage, but this small-scale scene can also be wary of outsiders.

“If you see an artist or a local musician or kids smoking cigarettes outside Drip, ask about their work and what they do in the community,” Thorner says. “The art scene here is pretty tight-knit, so everyone kind of knows each other, which can be kind of intimidating at first.”

With the sometimes-cliquishness of the local scene, creating a community of one’s own can be crucial for boosting both confidence and inspiration. Thomas Bedenbaugh, a third-year English major and bass player in the local alt rock band The Dames, says that curating a personal circle of positive influence is almost as important as breaking into something already established.

“Find people that you enjoy being around and that inspire you, but that share the same goals as you,” Bedenbaugh says. “It’s all about doing what you love, and you have to surround yourself with people who inspire you to continue to do whatever it is you love.”

The most common advice from those who have broken into the local arts scene for students looking to do the same is simple — be annoying.

“For students looking to break into the music scene in Columbia, or the arts scene in general, my advice would be to be persistent,” Bedenbaugh says. “You have to be dedicated to your craft and be a general nuisance in order to get noticed by people.” 

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