Time, Space and Inspiration: The Lessons of Study Abroad


Whilst the idea of study abroad is well established in university level education in America, its specific value to programmes of studio art is less well understood. At its worst, study abroad can be a kind of cultural tourism that contributes little for students’ education other than temporal pleasure—a holiday with academic credit—but at its best it can be transformative in the best tradition of studio art education. The issue then is tourism or education? And if education, then what does study abroad offer studio art students that they cannot get in some other way? I am going to argue, in short, that study abroad can go to the heart of any programme of studio art and enhance its core values.

In this paper I address the transformative contribution of study abroad to studio art degree programmes by drawing upon the experience and evidence of several specialist art schools of which I have knowledge, principally Burren College of Art, Ireland, which has specialised in the provision of study abroad since it opened in 1994, as well as Glasgow School of Art, Scotland and some of the Italian schools. Whilst this paper does not address study abroad outside Europe I feel confident that the core of what I have to say applies elsewhere too. The images you see in the powerpoint presentation relate to one such school, firstly images of the Burren, a unique and inspirational landscape on the wild and remote west coast of Ireland, a place continuously associated with learning since the time of the ancient Christian monasteries followed by images of the Burren College of Art, which is located in the grounds of a sixteenth century castle, and then by the work of its international students.

The evidence I refer to shows that the value of study abroad in studio art derives from and adds to the core of studio art education in the following way:

Conventionally, an education in studio art seeks to take a person on a journey from an initial passion for art through his or her exploration of the subject by means of firsthand engagement with seeing, thinking, feeling and making or doing; and then by going on to an understanding of how artists function in the wider world. In the case of the professional art schools, the journey continues through to the ability to function as an artist in the wider world. Studio art also seeks to transform a student along this journey by promoting unique ways of knowing and innovative ways of being able to respond to the world. It has been found that well conceived and rigorously organised study abroad can have a distinctive role in effecting this paradigm shift for students on a systematic basis. The unique offering of study abroad is that it provides new physical territory to the student who is seeking to explore new artistic and intellectual territory—a new culture and a new take on one’s self. The student is thereby required to explore literally through their life experience the new ground that he or she is required to explore figuratively in their studio. The student becomes immersed in learning, not only by the merits of the curriculum but also because of the new and different physical environment in which the student is learning and because of the different learning styles favoured in Europe by comparison with America. It is in this way that schools like Burren College of Art and Glasgow School of Art can be seen as standing at the confluence of international cultures. When the new physical environment I refer to is itself an inspiring city or landscape this act of transformation can become profound and one measure of its effect is a student comment frequently made at the end of a semester – “I have produced more work in one semester than in the previous two or three years of my degree programme.”

It is worth mentioning, albeit briefly, the different modes of study abroad. The most frequent is Individual Study Abroad, when a student applies direct to the college or applies through one of the US national agencies such as Arcadia or Butler for a Junior Year Abroad or often for one semester. Of increasing frequency is Group Study Abroad, when an American university send a faculty-led group, this having the benefit of lower cost though implying less deep engagement with the host culture through the lack of native faculty; and Summer School when students individually join an international community of students for a month. Naturally, the credit gained varies according to the period of study, but it is clear that the longer the period of study the greater the creative benefit.

Location is undoubtedly the core of study abroad, no matter what subject is studied and no matter where. To be somewhere different implies different ways of seeing and thinking, and different ways of doing things—the more so in the case of studio art, which is so much a learning-through-doing subject. Additionally, and most importantly, to immerse in a different location teaches the concept of difference both intellectually and through the osmosis of experience. It is to be hoped that a valuing of difference, be it cultural or personal difference, may lead the student on a personal journey from knowledge, ability and understanding through pluralism towards the ultimate, relativist educational goal of wisdom.

In coming to recognise the effect of location within the study abroad learning process, one can determine three factors that contribute to the transformative effect of the best studio art education; time and space and inspiration:

Time is a crucial factor in the freedom from the concerns of home, the more so in freedom from urban distraction and the availability of dedicated studio space for 24 hours 7 days each week. Within this opportunity exists an invitation to the student to go beyond the basic requirements of the curriculum and to pursue creative ideas as far as they can go rather than as far as the credit rating of a course requires. Within an immersive environment, such as I describe, courses combine as a unified experience, each building upon others so that any distinction between learning time and free time disappears – the whole experience of being abroad within a specialist art school becomes the learning experience, whether the student is in the studio, up in the mountains, exploring ancient city streets, or engaged in the energetic debate of art amongst peers that occurs in every available moment. Time is also the key factor in the intensive one on one faculty/student engagement which students enjoy in a specialist art school. The resident faculty that students engage with in the Burren is European, largely Irish (I personally am Welsh, but they let me get away with that!) and this assures an in-depth engagement with a different mindset. It is the ethnicity of the teaching that assures a profound focus on learning, countering any inclination to regard study abroad as a credit-bearing holiday. The time that faculty spend with students—such as within a student to faculty ratio of 8:1—enables faculty to focus on each student as an individual rather than as one member of a class. Time is on the students’ side in the quality art school.

Space also has been found to be a crucial factor, not only in the generously proportioned, dedicated studio spaces that are the students’ 24/7, but also in the vast and spectacular range of mountains that is the Burren landscape and the openness of its wide horizoned sky. This landscape seems to be full of its own vast emptiness, an experience at once both sublime and challenging. The landscape can be a special kind of classroom, with regular field study and a programme of environmental and historical studies adding to students’ understanding of their new location. Taught by environmental specialists this part of the curriculum takes students across the land to explore geology and natural history, archaeology, with some of the world’s earliest man-made structures to be found in the Burren, history including the Celtic Revival (WB Yeats having been a Burren resident) and very recent history that includes the art coming out of The Troubles in the north of Ireland. Other study abroad programs in other parts of the world of course would have a very different natural history and human history to respond to, and let us not forget the perception of the city as a natural landscape that has been advanced by Anne Whiston Spirn(1).

Inspiration is the third crucial element that contributes to the transformation of which I have spoken. The term ‘inspiration’ means, literally, ‘breathing in’ and this takes the form of not only literally breathing in the fresh air of a new landscape and its psychological impact—“the feeling of the air” informing the feeling of the self, as Adrian Stokes put it in his self-psycho-analytic account of studying in Italy(2)—but also breathing in new ideas and new ways of working. In this sense Inspiration offers an alternative paradigm to that of Romanticism, and one that is more compatible with the sensibilities of postmodern culture. There are more things you can do with a landscape than paint it, and the last thing that Burren College of Art would claim to be is a centre for landscape painting, although that is the starting point for some students. The landscape can be taken as a context for reflection and the development of self-knowledge—a context with a heavily mediating influence that contributes to the transformative effect. Whilst the landscape is not always visibly recognisable in the work of the Burren students its influence can nevertheless be recognised, just as the Medittereanean air may be recognised in Stokes’ paintings and writings(3). Immersion in the day to day life of a foreign culture adds resonance to the learning process. The dialogue that takes place between the students and the local residents serves to contribute to an understanding of the students’ new location. It requires a student to be a little outward going to gain these benefits, but it is effort very well rewarded. This is a context that favours the independent minded, reflective, adventurous and enquiring student, which is to say that it is not for everyone. It is less suited to the student who requires strong guidance and close supervision and a different kind of study abroad.

This inspired independence, I suggest, takes us to the core of the creative process of studio art—the principle of art as a process of enquiry. In this sense one can see the student interrogating their location and by extension interrogating their sense of themselves; investigating the new ways of seeing; and exploring ways of dealing with it through any of the many mediums of studio art. I am speaking of an adventure in knowing.

These three factors—time and space and inspiration—combine in themselves as important contributors to an ideas based studio art curriculum, if not in its content then in its orientation. It is a generalisation, and thereby at least partly true, to say that American and European studio art education often differ in their conceptual orientation; the American to the big question of How, an approach that enquires into mediums, techniques and materials; and the European to the big questions of What and Why, an approach that enquires into ideas, issues and a sense of mission. Study abroad anywhere in Europe gives the American student the benefits of both—the merits of both home and abroad—which hopefully each student will come to see as complementary rather than contradictory. This difference goes some way to characterising the new perceptions and perspectives that await a student on study abroad when taught by faculty of the new culture of which they become a part. Whilst this experience may be temporary its effects can be a permanent benefit.

Thus study abroad uniquely contributes to the development of the artist within the student by aligning the change of mind of a developing student with a change of place.

A further value of study abroad is to the curriculum of the home institution that sends the students. This may differ between a liberal arts college, where study abroad complements the home institution’s provision, and the specialist, professionally oriented art school, where study abroad extends and amplifies the home curriculum. Much of what I have said about the European studio art curriculum applies too to the professional art school in America. However, in both cases study abroad offers students something unavailable at the home institution, and is therefore an important part of the quality profile of those American art schools and universities that encourage their students to take it.

The question of study abroad at the graduate level is an interesting one that invites creative thinking. Whilst graduate study abroad is not commonplace, I know of an increasing number of requests by graduate students and graduate programme leaders. Whilst credit-bearing taught courses have been the mainstay of undergraduate study abroad, it is access to a unique environment and access to the specialist facilities of a purpose built art school that the graduate student seems to prefer over the award of credit. If the MFA student is on a trajectory towards becoming an independent artist then it would seem that independence must be respected in a study abroad location and such students may be seen as resident artists as much as students. The Burren College of Art’s experiment with artist residencies has attracted both graduate students as well as established artists, and in terms of their needs and their modus operandii the two a very similar. An art student most needs what an artist most needs; time and space and inspiration in generous measure. Whilst we have not credit rated this kind experience to date, there would be several issues in doing so. It remains to be seen what potential there might be for this kind of independent study to be accredited by the graduate student’s home institution rather than by the foreign art school. I suspect it would powerfully enhance many American MFA programmes as an integral rather than optional element, with the home art school in control of the credit.

In conclusion, I have argued that study abroad has a unique contribution to make to an undergraduate or graduate programme of study in studio art. This contribution is not so much unique in its academic content but in the manner of its transformatory effect. In this sense, study abroad epitomises and enhances what is best in studio art education. As someone who benefited from study abroad personally when a student (I was a student of the Royal College of Art who studied in Paris), I can testify to the way in which study abroad transforms one’s mind and one’s being. Study abroad transforms the way in which you procedurally approach learning; it transforms how you understand what art can be; and thereby it informs the kind of artist it is possible for you to become.


  1. Spirn, Anne Whiston (1985), The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, Basic Books
  2. Adrian Stokes (1947), Inside Out, reprinted in “The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, Vols I-III”, Vol II, Ed. Lawrence Gowing, London, Thames and Hudson, 1978.
  1. Ibid.

This paper was first presented at CAA2007, the annual conference of the College Art Association, New York 2007, in the session Venturing Overseas.