Undergraduate Student Experience, 2015

Fine Arts Undergraduate Student

Pratt in Venice 2015 undergraduate Fine Arts student Brianne McKain presents her prints in the end-of-program critique.

It didn’t really hit me that I was actually going to Venice until I arrived at the airport in Copenhagen. It was the equivalent of about 2am New York time, and everything in the bathroom, from the toilet and paper towels to the soap and the sink, was electronically activated. The 7-11 in the airport was more high-end than any convenience mart I’d ever seen, and the register calculated the purchases in Danish coins. It was then that I had the realization that things were going to be different, and that I was going to be a stranger in a new place. I also realized that things were not going to be as completely different as they seemed at first. After all, they had toilets and 7-11s. It was incredible to realize that I’d be familiar with and comfortable in Venice by the end of the six weeks and that I’d be living and learning with amazing people throughout my time there. Everything about the transition between Newark, New Jersey and Venice, Italy was less intimidating than I thought it would be. Traveling with other people in the program put my mind at ease immediately, and set me up to know that I’d be able to depend on my classmates for the duration of the trip.

A view of the islands of the Venetian islands from the air. (photo: Polly Cancro)

Unlike the modern Copenhagen airport, Venice had this feeling of overwhelming ancientness about it. I had never been somewhere where everything seemed so old. It was a powerful feeling to be in a building like The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello, which was built in the 7th century and predates the oldest standing building in the US by a millennium.

It was a surreal experience to walk into buildings and gaze upon works of art that had only existed to me theoretically, in photographs of this far off place in a continent I’d never been to. Tracing the procession of a selection of landmarks and artworks with the guidance of experts like our excellent art history professor, guest lecturers, and program leader, was an especially enriching and incomparable experience.

More than seeing Venice through a tourist’s eye, my classmates and I were really experiencing the place like the native Venetians do. The initial orientation we were provided with gave us the preparation to adapt a Venetian lifestyle for the six weeks. We quickly became accustomed to using shutters to block out the sun in our apartments, buying groceries at the market, wearing church-appropriate attire, and getting everywhere by foot or by vaporetto (the water bus). After three weeks, as I began to get annoyed by tourists, I realized that I wasn’t one anymore. I was really living and working as an artist and student in Venice, Italy.

The printmaking shop at Scuola di Grafica was a printmaker’s dream. There were materials for every type of press method you could want to use. Intaglio was the focus, but amenities for monotype and relief were available as well, in addition to physical examples of litho stones and numerous books and portfolios for reference. It was easy to stay motivated and productive, because everything I needed was in one place. It didn’t hurt that there were resident artists sharing the studio with us, creating work inspired by the surroundings just like we were. Our professor and the studio assistant facilitated our learning by providing instruction and guidance, while allowing us to develop our own assignments and processes based off of our own individual interests. 

One of my favorite things about being in the ‘city on the water’ was being surrounded by bridges and canals. Being from Pittsburgh, PA, the ‘city of bridges,’ I thought that I had an understanding of a society and an economy built on water. However, the actual experience of living in Venice was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The cityscape, down to its very foundations (pilings set deep in clay), is based upon the lagoon in which it is located. The canals are the equivalent of streets, and the boats are cars. Footbridges function as beautiful, ornate crosswalks, allowing people walking on foot to cross the canals. They vary in size from tiny bridges connecting a sidewalk to someone’s stoop, to the Rialto Bridge, which connects to the Rialto Market and even houses shops within its very architecture.  

With local Venetian artisans and vendors on every corner selling Murano glass, original prints, hot cups of coffee, fresh produce, and beautiful handmade books, it is easy to get lost in the winding streets. Being in a city where the architecture is artful and the makers drive the economy, I can’t imagine a better place to learn and live while producing inspired works of art.