BY HOLLY JENNINGS
Hannah Paas, a Fairport native, has just completed her first year as an art major at Alfred University. A particularly ambitious student, Hannah took an additional eight-hour a day drawing class after the year officially ended, which was spent at Letchworth and Stony Brook state parks taking in the scenery and putting it on paper. Now she’s home for the summer, and we are able to connect while I am in Philadelphia for a conference. I am walking distance from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and the Rodin Museum, so I feel very ready to talk about art (and the Rocky movies if she is up for it), and to hear all about her experiences as a first year college art student.
One of the unfortunate misconceptions about art students is that their major is all fun and doesn’t constitute “real work.” I think it’s because people believe that artistic ability is based primarily on talent, that hard work is not necessary, and that art students simply slap some paint on a canvas and walk away not having put forth much effort, kind of like Picasso at the end of his career. However, being an art major takes up an extraordinary amount of time, a lot of emotional energy as well as physical and mental stamina. It is hard work and seemingly endless. I speak from (limited) experience. During my junior year in college, I opted to take a photography course to fulfill my art elective. I thought it would entail a lot of running around campus, looking very cool with my Olympus SLR hanging around my neck. Instead, I spent all of my Saturdays in a pitch black room fumbling around with film canisters (which I was constantly dropping) where no one could see me looking like a hip photographer even if they were in the same room with me. I spent more hours working toward those three credits than on any course, and I only got a B. So when Hannah tells me she mainly lived in the art studio and often survived on four hours of sleep a night, I have no doubt she is telling the 100% truth.
Hannah’s passion for art started when she eschewed coloring books at an early age in favor of drawing her own pictures. Her parents encouraged their children to pursue the arts: Hannah’s sister was big into musical theater while Hannah pursued drawing. She attended schools in the West Irondequoit district before her family moved to Fairport, when she took classes from Elissa DeChick and many other art teachers, all of whom touched her life in one way or another. Having such incredible art teachers, in fact, was the main impetus behind Hannah’s decision to pursue a career in teaching art.
Fairport High School has an eclectic and robust art program, and in high school Hannah was exposed to a variety of mediums. She took a special interest in 2D art, especially drawing, and she enjoyed working with charcoal, graphite, and a lot of pen and ink. Colored pencils are her preferred medium. “They’re not a loose medium,” she says. “I love color. I love that you have to layer them to get your desired color.” She didn’t do much painting until her senior year, when she took an independent study that focused on both drawing and painting.
Her senior year of college was also when she took Fairport’s unique artist-in-residence program, where she worked with Art House Press’s own Cordell Cordaro. In fact, when I later ask what artists inspire her, Cordell’s name is first on the list. “I’m not just saying this because this is his magazine,” she says, “but Cordell is my favorite artist. I met him in a six week artist-in-residence program in high school, and he has continued to inspire me ever since. I just love his style and the characters he paints. While he was teaching us, most of the students tried to mimic his style, and I was completely failing at it. He told me not to change my style and to just do my own thing. That made me feel a lot more comfortable about my work.”
For a while Hannah waffled between pursuing art and nursing in college. (She had scoliosis surgery early in high school, and was greatly affected by the dedicated nurses who treated her.) When she told her close friends and family she was having a hard time deciding between the two, again and again she heard the same thing: “Do what you love.” Hannah genuinely admired the nurses who helped her throughout her recovery, but she loved art. So off to Alfred University she went.
Hannah’s website showcases some of her work. There are imaginative still lifes and scenes from nature, but what stand out the most are her portraits, especially those of children. She captures the sheepish joy of a young girl wearing a fedora that partially covers her messy dark hair. A young African girl looks as though she has been posed, her hands folded purposefully beneath her chin, but Hannah has captured her quiet personality through the girl’s small, close-lipped smile and soft eyes. “I do a lot of portraiture,” Hannah says. “I love drawing people’s faces. I see the beauty inside of people, and I try to bring out that beauty in their portraits.” One of her favorite subjects is her musical sister, who comes up several times in our conversation.
And what is a typical week in the life of a college art student? Well let me tell you, it sounds exhausting. An average day for Hannah began with a three-hour freshman studio class, which started at 8:00 am. She would then have two of three more classes during the day, generally in art history or education. When she wasn’t in class, she participated in clubs and worked at the campus library. Nights were spent in the studio. Art majors spent a lot of time working outside of the classroom, and Hannah says an early night meant getting back to her dorm room by 11:00 pm. I didn’t even ask what a late night entailed. Somewhere amidst this schedule, she found time to eat and get a bit of sleep.
Hannah has a few short weeks before she starts as a sophomore. She is excited about taking glass blowing and ceramics next year. (Alfred University is ranked #1 in ceramics at the graduate level.) Like her sister, Hannah also enjoys music. A singer, she will preside as president of the school’s acapella group next year.
Reflecting upon her hectic freshman year, Hannah admits that it was one of the most challenging years of her life. “They really brought us out of our comfort zone,” she admits. By working on difficult, new-to-her project and keeping up with the fast pace of her courses, Hannah learned to adjust and get the most out of her freshman experience. Despite getting an average of four hours of sleep a night, Hannah is adamant: “I had a blast.” I resist the strong urge to tell her to savor it, that these college years are the best years of her life. I think she already knows.