Unveiling a new world of learning

5 August 2004

WINSCOMBE, England — Learning about masks unveiled new layers of self-confidence for a participant at the Baha'i Academy for the Arts.

"The very positive attitude towards the students shown by all the tutors is a powerful way of improving both self-confidence and self-expression," said Alison Scrutton, who attended a workshop on performing with masks.

Ms. Scrutton, who is not a Baha'i, said that the academy far exceeded her expectations.

She was one of some 280 amateur and professional artists who attended the academy, held 31 July-7 August 2004.

Ms. Scrutton, a schoolteacher by profession, said the encouragement given to students helped them achieve more than they had thought possible at the beginning of the week.

"The tutors worked hard to develop confidence and artistic growth in their students and everyone's contributions were always valued," she said.

"The course was brilliant," she said. "After a week I felt far more confident about my abilities to express myself through movement and mask work."

Held annually for 12 years, the academy attracted participants came from a variety of countries, including Bulgaria, Greece, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

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Students display puppets made for use in story-telling in Baha'i children's classes.

A British Baha'i, Anne Wong, said that the academy provided an ideal environment for learning.

Participants could work for the highest standard of excellence in their selected courses, said Ms. Wong, who was attending the academy for the first time.

"I enjoyed watching the unveiling of confidence and creativity in people. [At the academy] everyone is engaged in some kind of art whether it be singing, drumming, sculpture, painting, textiles, drama," Ms. Wong said.

"The whole ethos of the academy is based on a profound statement from Baha'u'llah that we are 'mines rich in gems of inestimable value,' and art is a means by which we can manifest these gems," she said.

Some of the courses introduced this year for adults included abstract painting, textile art, black and white photographic printing, drumming, and computer presentations. Junior youth (ages 12-15) were offered new courses in theater arts, creative painting, and dance.

Another new feature was the "Art of Living" class. Drawing on the Baha'i writings on health, hygiene, and the environment, as well as on the results of scientific research in these fields, students learned how to integrate spiritual concepts and the arts into how they looked after their health and managed their lives.

This year's artist-in-residence was pianist Nancy Lee Harper, assistant professor of piano at the University of Aveiro in Portugal.

Dr. Harper taught a master class for experienced artists, including a singer, a violinist, two pianists, and a flamenco guitarist.

"Remaining open to the moment and using consultation as the basis of our work, [we found] the results were truly staggering and far beyond anyone's imagination," Dr. Harper said.

In addition to developing their own individual work, the group created a musical narrative titled "The Journey," which they performed as part of the evening program.

The piece portrayed the dramatic story of the transfer of the remains of the Bab in the late 1800s from Persia (now Iran) to the Holy Land, where they were laid to rest on Mt. Carmel in 1909.

Dr. Harper said that as opposed to some other art courses, academy students are not judged for their abilities, and there is no negative criticism -- quite the opposite.

She said that peer teaching is a very strong element of the academy and that the artists naturally respond to such a helping and encouraging environment.

Evening sessions were also a source of inspiration. A new feature was the screening of films and documentaries, many of them focusing on the artistic creative process.

London-based architect and designer Sabiha Foster gave a lecture on the development of humanity's relationship with architecture, using such examples as the earliest remnants of architecture through to the Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi, India, which opened in 1986.

Theater artist Bill George and his daughter, Anisa, from the United States, used a dramatic performance to explore the relationship of the Baha'i Faith and the theater.

The academy also offered space for students to work independently on their own projects.

Photos by Rob Weinberg.

For more information, see http://www.bahai-artsacademy.com/.

For a story about last year's academy, see http://www.bahaiworldnews.org/story.cfm?storyid=245.