Inspired art from spiritual infusion

2 August 2003

WINSCOMBE, England — "It is the atmosphere at the academy that makes you want to learn more and become better -- it gives you life and spirit!" said Chanelle Fusco, 20, describing her experience at the Baha'i Academy for the Arts in England.

A singing course at the academy three years ago inspired her to become a professional singer.

The academy is held at a boarding school in Sidcot, Somerset, for a week during the summer.

It opened in 1993 and now provides some 18 courses open to people of all ages.

This year's academy took place from 26 July to 2 August and brought together professional and amateur artists from 16 countries.

Course topics range from weaving to calligraphy, filmmaking to mural painting -- and all aim to infuse spiritual values into artistic expression.

Ms. Fusco illustrated her experience at the academy by describing a singing course which, she said, gave her a tremendous amount of energy for her art.

4 images
Art of relaxation...students and tutors take a break at the Baha'i Academy for the Arts.

Participants in the course sang gospel-style and Baha'i prayers set to music, a form of learning she found instantly appealing.

"I liked music but during that week at the academy I feel I discovered myself," said Ms. Fusco.

The academy taught her to set goals. She now writes her own songs, has moved from Lancaster to London to concentrate on her career, and is currently preparing her first album.

The arts academy originated with Cecilia Smith and Margaret Appa, two Baha'is who wanted a summer camp for their children, one that combined arts education with spiritual values.

That initial concept became an academy which grew from just 20 enrolled students when it opened a decade ago to 260 this year.

"We have a very strong, spiritual source which of course is the writings of Baha'u'llah, but the artistic and educational philosophies are a very strong and very positive part of the whole event," said Ms. Appa, who serves with Ms. Smith and others on the organizing executive committee.

In contrast to conventional courses -- typically built on competition and comparison -- the Baha'i Arts Academy aims to challenge, encourage, and empower students in order for them to discover their hidden spiritual and artistic "gems".

"The energy and the power that comes from an environment where there is no judgment, no criticism, is huge and empowering," said Ms. Appa, an art teacher by profession.

"People feel safe to risk success, rather than accepting failure."

"It's a more positive mindset," she said, explaining that seeing successes encouraged all students to feel they can achieve their potential.

Photographer Darius Himes, who taught the photography course this year, said that the distinction of the academy lies in the fact that the community at the school -- individuals and families together -- strive to combine spiritual values with their art.

"It is the living qualities of being a Baha'i," he said. "Courtesy towards others, inclusiveness, friendliness, respect, a deep concern for others, and being full of thought -- those qualities infuse the academy."

Mr. Himes, the editor of "photo-eye", an Internet-based bookstore and gallery of fine-art photography, encouraged his group to look at the different roles photography can play in representing spiritual ideas.

"Spirituality is a difficult thing to define. Mindfulness, attentiveness, ever striving for clear intent -- these are the qualities that I emphasized in the class because I see these qualities manifested in great art.

"The Prophets call forth these qualities in us as humans.

"To manifest those qualities in our chosen fields is the dream and goal of humanity."

The academy provides four hours of tuition daily. Each day has a period of "morning focus", when all the students gather to set the spiritual tone for the day with the help of prayers, music, and drama.

The evenings are filled with musical and theatrical performances, talks, or academic presentations.

At the end of the week the groups are invited to share the progress of their art with the rest of the participants.

Jessica Naish, an English theater director and performer, has been working with teenagers who have personal problems. She said that when starting to learn anything for the first time people, face barriers of self-consciousness and embarrassment, but the academy provides the perfect atmosphere to break these boundaries.

"The academy is like going on a journey," said Ms. Naish, 32, who this summer tutored a course on performing with masks.

"You come as you are; you can start from nothing, in competition with yourself, and go through spiritual, artistic, and personal development."

She said that the power of the academy comes from the mutual encouragement and love that exist among the students and the tutors -- and that helps them strive for personal excellence unashamedly.

The arts academy is also a meeting point for artists from all around the world.

"It doesn't matter if you are an amateur or a professional -- what makes it unique is the amazing artists you meet there," said Liza Gerhold, 22, a university student from Germany, who discovered photography as her medium at the academy.

"I learnt that art is not about putting one's self in the center of attention but to work on the gifts one has and share them with others," she said.

The executive team of organizers, also including Farzaneh Seegoolam, Aidan Matthews, Rob Weinberg and Ranjit Appa, has started planning for next year's academy.

"We are in a stage of transition," said Ms. Appa. "We are planning to become an educational trust, part of which would be the arts academy."

The trust would also provide a forum for professional artists where they could challenge one another and evaluate their own personal development.

At the same time the team would like to focus more on the development of the arts within the Baha'i community and explore possible ways of assisting tutors of Baha'i study circles and children's classes.

For more information: