EAU CLAIRE — High school students were spotted last week at UW-Eau Claire dancing in fountains, reciting poetry on the campus mall and acting out an epic battle between good and evil.
To outside observers, the summer camp may have looked a bit wacky.
But to participants in the inaugural Midwest Artist Academy, it felt just right.
These were young artists meeting, befriending and collaborating with other young artists.
“We were all there because we had the same thing in common — a love for the arts,” said Memorial High School sophomore Esme Olstadt. “We’re all interested in the same things. Whether it’s music or dance, they’re both creating. We all just love to create.”
The weeklong Midwest Artist Academy attracted 46 students from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Massachusetts.
Attendees learned from professional artists and college students in five disciplines: theater, dance, music and composition, visual art and creative writing.
The idea for the camp originated when Eau Claire author and UW-Eau Claire English professor B.J. Hollars served as a guest writer two years ago at a writing camp in Ireland. It was such a good experience that fellow guest writer and teacher Maggie Pahos of Portland, Oregon, jokingly remarked that they should start a high school focused on the arts. After more discussion, the dream became a reality in the form of a summer camp for artists.
“B.J. being who he is, he made it happen,” Pahos said Tuesday of Hollars, the energetic founder and executive director of Midwest Artist Academy.
Yet even Hollars acknowledged that after all of the work that went into launching the camp amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn’t sure the idea was sustainable.
“When the week started, I really thought it was going to be a one and done,” Hollars said.
But by week’s end, after seeing the collection of extraordinarily talented youths bond and collaborate and talk about how meaningful the experience was for them, he decided the show must go on.
“If we want to foster the next generation of artists in Eau Claire and beyond and support our creative economy, then we need to keep it going,” Hollars said, adding, “The more art, the better the world.”
The camp involved classes focused on various disciplines, presentations by guest artists and time to explore the community through activities such as touring Pablo Center at the Confluence and attending a Sounds Like Summer concert in Phoenix Park.
But beyond the curriculum, students said the best part was probably the way campers made connections and seemed to understand each other as artists.
Olstadt, a musician, said she relished the opportunity to produce original music under the guidance of UW-Eau Claire associate professor of music Chia-Yu Hsu but thought the highlight of the camp was seeing how fast all of the students clicked.
“There was never an awkward day like at other camps,” Olstadt said. “Right away I felt like I was friends with everybody there. It was a really accepting community.”
Memorial junior Kaylie Grotjahn, who hopes to make a career out of acting, said her theater teacher recommended the camp. After reading about it, Grotjahn decided to give it a try and was not disappointed.
“I have told my entire family that it is basically the arts version of Hogwarts (the school of witchcraft and wizardry in the “Harry Potter” book series by J.K. Rowling),” Grotjahn said. “It was incredible. I really loved the sense of respect and how much love everyone had for each other.”
Instructors saw the same thing and were moved by it as well.
“Some of these kids feel like they don’t always fit it, or like they’re the art kid off on the side doing their art,” Pahos said. “But here they all belonged and they made connections that I don’t know if they’ve ever made with other kids before. They really liked being with people who respect and understand their art. It was really cool to be a part of.”
Hollars was touched when a student told him “it was kind of like all of the weirdos from the Midwest came together for a soul-changing experience.” Other campers confided that it was the first place where they felt they could let people see their true selves.
“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we didn’t just change some lives; we might have saved some lives,” Hollars said, recalling many tearful goodbyes when students departed on Sunday.
Perhaps the mutual respect was most apparent when any student who performed on an open stage — whether dancing, acting, reading their poetry, playing an instrument or doing live art — received a standing ovation.
“We didn’t make that policy. The students just did that on their own,” Hollars said. “That was so cool for me.”
Though the COVID-19 caseload had eased enough to allow the academy to take place, administrators still followed health expert guidance by giving antigen tests to all students at the beginning of the week, doing daily health screenings and requiring masks for indoor activities that mixed different groups of students.
After a year in which musicians couldn’t play in bands and actors couldn’t perform in plays, many of the students were thankful for a chance to collaborate with other artists again.
“They were so excited to be together that they were happy to follow any guidelines,” Hollars said.
With little guidance from instructors, the students figured out a way to present a final showcase to friends and family at the end of the week that involved all five of the camp’s artistic disciplines in multiple performances tied to metal, fire, water, wood and earth — the fundamental elements of everything in the universe, according to a Chinese philosophy.
It was a master class in collaboration, taught by the students themselves.
As for the host site, Pahos said UW-Eau Claire’s beautiful campus and Eau Claire’s thriving arts scene and scenic rivers make it a perfect place to keep holding the camp.