ISU student open to wherever the art takes her with AmeriCorps ArtistYear program

An ISU student stands between two portraits in a studio in the College of Design

Marielle Denning, senior in integrated studio arts, with a pair of her paintings inside a studio at the College of Design. Denning will put her artistic skill to work in a school in the Denver area, where she was selected to take part in the AmeriCorps ArtistYear program. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – Marielle Denning keeps an open mind, and that’s helped her stay creative and explore other perspectives and ideas throughout her studies as an integrated studio arts major at Iowa State.

After Denning graduates at the conclusion of this semester, she’ll put her artistic skill to work in a school in the Denver area, where she says keeping an open mind will be even more important. Denning was selected to take part in the ArtistYear program, which matches exceptional artists with low-income K-12 school districts across the country to address inequities in arts education. The program was created by AmeriCorps, the federal agency that supports a wide range of volunteerism and community engagement initiatives across the United States.

The ArtistYear program is dedicated to making sure all children have access to art education as a means of improving critical thinking, self-discipline and civic engagement – all aspects that inspired Denning to apply for the position.

“Art helps with fine motor skills and learning how to express yourself, and it can help raise awareness of culture and identity,” Denning said.

She’ll either teach or co-teach in a classroom or work with an art teacher already in the school district to strengthen the school’s arts curriculum. She’s not sure what school district or what age level she’ll teach yet, so an open mind will be essential in helping her adapt, she said.

It just so happens, that’s a mindset she developed while studying art at Iowa State. She’s not sure if the experience with the ArtistYear program will inspire her to become a teacher, but she’s not discounting that possibility either. She might try to start her own studio or continue her education with a master’s degree. She’s open to following her inspiration wherever it leads.

Unbridled creativity

Denning grew up in Minneapolis and enrolled at Iowa State to study interior design. Soon into her academic program, however, she found herself drawn to the unrestrained creative potential of studio arts. She switched to the integrated studio arts major in the ISU College of Design, which challenged her imagination in new ways.

The curriculum allowed her to gain experience in a range of specialties, including photography, metals and textiles. She discovered a love for woodworking during a furniture design course, which also trained her to think in three dimensions.

But she said her main artistic media are drawing and painting.

Among the highlights she’s produced at Iowa State is a series of four portraits of subjects bathed in candlelight. The use of light in the paintings creates a subtle interplay between shadow and the skin tones of her subjects. Denning said she intentionally chose subjects with diverse skin tones so the candlelight could pull that quality to the forefront of the viewers’ attention.

Denning also took part in the College of Design’s semester-long Rome Program, which allowed her to tour historic sites in Italy to study art, architecture and design. She said the Italian churches and museums exposed her to breathtaking works of art in ways traditional coursework can’t replicate. 

“It’s a whole new way of learning art history, not just in a lecture but being able to see it up close,” Denning said. “And, of course, the food was great.”

Diverse perspectives shape art

As a woman of Iranian descent, she said it’s important for students to see artists of diverse backgrounds. That’s part of what inspired her to apply for the ArtistYear program. Underprivileged schools often have diverse student populations, and she’s fascinated with how someone’s background and culture influence the kind of art they create.

It’s all part of that open-minded mentality, allowing whomever she meets and whatever she encounters to influence her artistic vision.

“Having an open mind really helps with art and life,” she said. “I try to be flexible with everything, take critiques from anyone and keep myself open to new experiences.”