Testimonial: Neil Johnston, CVA alum 1998

“CVA is closing.”

Since I heard that news, I have been in a state of disbelief. How can this happen? I think these past few weeks have shown to me the power of a community rallying around something they collectively value – creativity. The College of Visual Arts is a part of the Saint Paul community, and has been an option for young artists who want to study in earnest, the one thing that they feel connects them to the world: making stuff. It is an amazing transformation that happens when someone realizes that they can communicate, transform, question, innovate, and participate using a part of their being that society as a whole, devalues. Their individual, unique visual language sometimes is lauded by family and friends, but across the societal spectrum, to study art is “useless”, “selfish” or “unrealistic”.

Many art students have a conflict of following a career path that regenerates and nurtures them, and the ‘certain’ path of a ‘logical’ degree that may not be rewarding, but will ‘pay the bills’. The raw truth is that in our economy, both options have the same uncertainty. I believe that if we encourage people to follow what makes them whole, makes them feel like they are participating, helps them to see hidden solutions, they will thrive. Creative problem solvers thrive in worlds of multiple possibilities. They confidently arrange and rearrange possible outcomes to formulate new plans or ideas. Creative problem solvers assert their confidence into this uncertain world and work to find new, creative solutions. This has happened throughout history, and will continue if our society supports this type of discovery. I would rather have a world of unemployed creative problem solvers right now than a world of unemployed anybody. People trained on a very personal level to see a problem from a new vantage point; from outside the ‘logical’ and who implement solutions, will help us innovate out of our economic and social challenges.

CVA trains people to do this. CVA trained me to do this. CVA creates honest, invested, tool-wielding participants ready to solve some of the problems our society faces today. Why would we let that fail?

I am a CVA alum class of 1999. I began my artistic career at a young age and wanted desperately to go to art school. I was told that it was unrealistic, that there are no careers in art, that I was talented but a career in anything BUT art would be ‘better’ for me. I was hopeless. I tried a liberal arts degree, but failed. I wanted to communicate through my art. I wanted to participate with my art. I wanted to explore the world and all those topics at school through my art. I dropped out of college. I found a billboard shop in my hometown and began working. I painted everything, and larger than I ever dreamed! I worked for a decade as a pictorial painter. However, I still longed for a deeper connection with the world through my art. As the digital revolution hit the billboard industry in the mid 90’s, I decided to return to school to study art. CVA was my first choice. I knew of its reputation, being a tough school turning out amazing thinkers, designers, and artists. It was a CVA that I realized that I communicate, interact, participate, and problem solve, through making stuff. I realized that others do the same. I became aware that instead of being ‘irrational’ or ‘not practical’ my talent was completely rational and practical, and powerful. I could participate in the world, not be separate, or marginalized.

CVA helped me to see this. CVA helped me to realize my ‘real’ potential. CVA helped me to see that in spite of the marginalization of the arts in our society, that I can be confident and assertive of my knowledge. I have an obligation to be a participant, not a bystander, not a victim, but a problem solver. Now is the time to support the creation of problem solvers. We need institutions like CVA to weather the economic uncertainties like the one we are in. We need outside the box and from-another-vantage-point solutions to problems that seem to have no answer. This is familiar territory for the ones trained to discover new solutions. This is what I was asked to do as a CVA student and now as an alumnus. I returned to the College of Visual Arts where I taught for several years at the foundation level, supporting and challenging these new students. Later, I earned a position at Century College in White Bear Lake where I currently work as a full-time tenure professor in a fine art/design foundation program. I also sit on the White Bear Center for the Arts Board of Directors. Each of these steps outward from my studio practice: teaching beginning artists and designers at CVA, working at a Community College helping both art and non-art majors to understand the power of creative thinking, and volunteering time and leadership at a Community Art Center, sprout from the seed that was planted at CVA. Please support the College of Visual Arts.

Neil Johnston
Visual and Music Artist
Century College Art Faculty
White Bear Center for the Arts Board of Directors