12 April 2010

Interview with Chris Ugi

This is the third interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. If you would like to suggest someone for me to interview, please leave a comment below or email me at I would especially appreciate information on how to get in touch with the artists you recommend—or I would love to hear from you if you are in the arts and can offer yourself for an interview.

Interview with Chris Ugi
at the Master’s Academy of Fine Arts in East Greenville, PA
25 March 2010

Chris Ugi is the director of The Master’s Academy of Fine Arts, based out of Quakertown, PA. In this interview, she explains the Academy’s purpose and work. In addition to directing the program, Chris often teaches history in one of the Academy’s programs.

IA: Thank you very much, Chris Ugi, for this interview. Why don’t we start out by you telling our readers about the Master’s Academy and its work, and then we’ll move from there.

CU: The Master’s Academy of Fine Arts is a supplemental homeschool arts program which is based on a foundation of history. All of the arts are influenced by the history of the time period. What we try to do here at the Master’s Academy is to take a time period each year and expose the students to the history and then we fill in with the arts so they get a whole picture of the time period and see the interworkings and the connections between each discipline and subject area and how one influenced the other.

(IA: We have visual arts, music, drama, and then literature of the time periods as well.)

CU: Although we are all creative beings, I am not an artistic being, and that’s why I started this school. I saw a lack of the arts in the homeschool community. It didn’t seem to be important. I knew and I felt that because we are created in the image of God, Who is the greatest Creator, that the arts were important in our lives, and I wanted to establish a program where students could be influenced. And by every account, we should be like God and be the creative factor in the world and not the secular people. We are God’s emissaries. The whole purpose of the Master’s Academy is to reclaim the arts for the Lord.

IA: So you saw that there was a lack in the homeschool community. Did you see that in the churches as well?

CU: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. When discussing future career options for their kids, not one option was ever an artistic option: either a musician or an artist, going into theatre, being a writer. It was all very practical: “I want him to be a lawyer, I want him to be a doctor.” Even if they were taking art lessons and were talented, that was never an option. Going to an art school was not an option. Going into Dad’s business, that was it. They’d rather send their kids to Vo-Tech than to an art school.

IA: Now, the Master’s Academy has been in operation for nine years?

CU: Actually, we’ve been incorporated now for twelve.

IA: And have you seen a change in those years?

CU: I have. I always say my kids are my résumé. Lauren, my oldest—we always knew she had some type of artistic flair, and we finally narrowed it down years and year ago to the graphic design area, and I would have never known that had it not been for Master’s Academy. Joy [her second daughter] has gone into mass communications. She’s a fabulous writer. They’ve all been involved in theatre. Even Sommer [high school freshman, the fourth daughter] who has more of a scientific mind, is very much a drama person.

[Note by IA: Sommer gave a dramatic recitation of Robert Frost’s “Out, Out” in class this year that moved us to tears. She is such a good solo performer that I am trying to write a monologue worthy of her performance.]

So, yes; I see that students can enjoy the arts but not have to necessarily follow that path. They can follow an academic path and have the best of both worlds.

IA: I would say from my observation that your family is probably a microcosm of several spheres: of the Master’s Academy families in general, and then the Christian homeschool community here [in Eastern PA], and then hopefully of the up-and-coming generation of young people: that they are embracing the arts more either as a vocation or as a strong avocational pursuit.

CU: Right. It was always the idea that the Christians should not be involved in the arts. It was a very secular area. Around the 1970s, Christians decided that they did need to become more involved in politics, and thus we have the “Right Wing” (all those terms), but still they did not feel the conviction to become involved in the arts. And thus the decline that we see in that whole area. Vivian [the national director of all The Master’s Academies] and I have a saying: “Christians do the arts badly and twenty years later.” Here’s a perfect example: when you were looking for Christian poetry—you couldn’t find any!

IA: Almost a century ago now, C. S. Lewis said that before he became a Christian, he associated Christianity with bad music and poor architecture.

CU: Yes. How sad.

IA: Very sad. Let’s then talk about the larger movements. And actually it’s my work with the Master’s Academy that helped me get the inspiration for this interview series, because I thought, well, now that I’ve taught my way through most of the time periods I sort of have an idea of, “OK: this is the Renaissance, this is the Baroque, this is the Classical period.” I can sort of characterized them, I can describe the big ideas and the big artistic movements. But I can’t do that for 2010. I can do it for Postmodernism, but then where are we now? Are we still in Postmodernism? So maybe if you want to sort of characterize a little bit of the last couple of time periods and then any ideas that you have about where we are now?

CU: My feeling is that we can best characterize a time period after it’s gone, after it’s passed. We’re so enmeshed in it now that we’re trying to figure out where we are. I’m encouraged by the greater impact that Christians are having. I see this because some of the best universities in the country are recruiting students from The Master’s Academy. They see the benefit of an artistic education in academics. In fact, statistics show that medical schools recruit more music majors than biology students. So that says a lot for the arts. I’m happy to see that trend. I’m happy that Christians are making more noise about the terrible art that’s out there. What I hope is that they will now take the next step and say, “OK, that’s horrible art: Here’s what good art is.” Trends? I’m still not seeing really great Christian artists, fine artists.

IA: What about what’s going on just in the main stream? Maybe, actually, you can just tell me—tell our readers—a little bit about the twentieth century. What were the major events and ideas and concerns that have influenced the arts for the last two or three generations?

CU: Well, war is always a great influence on anything artistic. As we know, after World War One, young people were very very disillusioned with the world. They had gone into the war, which involved literally the whole world; as young people, as young men, they had no background, they had no past that they could go back to and then when they came out they had no future because all they knew was war. They had no foundation. What they had was camaraderie. That’s what developed during they war and so they clung to each other. They had no hope, basically. And that is definitely seen in the artwork and the literature of the time period. You feel for them. There was absolutely no hope. They saw no future. I think then that affected the Twenties, the Roaring Twenties, where everything was “Whatever.” We saw rebellion, standards were not required, you did what feels good because it doesn’t matter what you do, nothing’s going to make a difference. I think war has a great deal to do with it.

IA: Then World War Two, of course, was a huge cultural disappointment for three-quarters of the globe because they thought, “We fought our one war, we’re done. Terrible as it was (we lost a generation of young men), we can rebuild.” And then not even a generation later, turn around and have to do it again. And then the later half of the twentieth century has a series of smaller but also very disillusioning wars that the United States and Europe are involved in. Vietnam and so forth. Do you think, then, that historically speaking we are still in that phase because we are in smaller wars that are harder to characterize? It’s harder to know what victory is in these wars?

CU: Right, because there’s no end. We see no end to it. We’re supposed to be pulling out of Iraq but we’re not. We’re trying to build a democracy, which seems to be America’s mantra all the time. You know: “Save the world from the tyrant”—which I agree with. “To whom much is given much is expected” to a degree. And I do see that. Our young men who should be perhaps artists are trying to protect our freedoms and so I think we’re losing a generation of creativity and of artistic ability because of the concerns over tyranny. I think we’re losing a great deal of talent. There’s also the abortion issue. How many great artists are being lost through abortion? I just think about that. The thirteenth child: Beethoven.

IA: That’s a very profound assessment. Now, you work with young people all the time and you have quite a few of them in your own home! I have been hearing recently, from teachers and theorists and so on, that there is a very big shift in the consciousness of young people right now. You know every generation is sort of given a label afterwards. You’ve got the Baby Boomers, then I guess I’m Generation X, then my first students were Generation Y, and then you had the Millennials, apparently, and the new term—this is a brand-new term—for children who were born after September 11th [2001]. They are called “Homelanders” because they’re born under Homeland Security. It’s kind of interesting because the time period that we’re studying teaching right now, 1900-1960, a lot of this dystopic fiction has a lot of totalitarian surveillance and so on. Some writers are thinking that we might be entering a phase like that. Now those Homelanders are still too young to be in high school yet, to be entering into the arts world. But do you see any difference in, let’s say, this year’s high schoolers versus the high schoolers when you started The Academy?

CU: As far as their attitude towards the world?

IA: Their attitude towards, let’s say, towards government, towards faith, and towards the arts. Let’s hit those three.

CU: Definitely. They are much more opinionated. They have a response. They have an opinion. Absolutely. Whether it’s their own or whether it’s something that they have heard from the media. They definitely do. They’re more outspoken about it. Not in an angry way, but they seem to voice their opinion. Also the music that they’re listening to, which they call Christian (although I would have a problem with that!), which to me sounds like noise, but to them it’s saying something about perhaps what they’re feeling or what they’re going through. Again, that’s perhaps confusion: “There’s no one telling me the right answer,” maybe, “No one giving me the right path.” And that’s why the Master’s Academy is so important in teaching our students to be critical thinkers and to be discerners and not to be confused because confusion is not of the Lord. They need to be able to give a response, a correct response, based on fact and not on emotion or opinion or reaction.

IA: You think that affects their approach to the arts as well? Do you think that they are confused and not sure about their own specific career paths but also about what to create? Let’s say that they are painters or musicians. Do you think that they are confused about what to create? Or do you think that those opinions are going into their work?

CU: I think their opinions are going into their work and I think that they are, as far as themselves, they are sure of their talents and their creativity. I don’t think they are sure of the world. I think they’re sure of themselves and what they want and what they want to create. I see that in my own home. There is no confusion as to what Amber [the fifth daughter] wants to do, the music she wants to play or the music she wants to write or the film she wants to do. I see that in Joy as she writes and what area she wants to get into, and with Lauren with her graphic design. They are very certain about that. I don’t think they are happy with the world.

IA: Again, what you said is a beautiful characterization, in both its strengths and its weaknesses, I think, of the current ideology. It is very particularized. There’s not a totalizing philosophy anymore that runs what might be called the collective mind of America or even of “Western Culture.” Instead, we look at individual moments, individual stories, individual ideas. And then the question is whether or not they add up to something big.

CU: On one hand, you have African-Americans, you have Spanish-Americans, you have Russian-Americans: there’s no more “The America.” And on the other hand, you have government trying to control your health care (that’s just an example): trying to collectivize, trying to make everybody the same. It’s confusing. Are we all individuals needing individual attention, or are we the same? Can we lump everybody in one category? Which is it? Are we a melting pot or are we individualists? Which one is it here? I think that’s where the confusion is with our young people who are trying to decide. I think as they get older they couldn’t care less, but that they need to feel that they know who they are. Does that make sense?

IA: It does. And maybe we will leave it there unless you have any final thoughts. How about a prediction for the future? What’s going to happen in the arts in, say, the next hundred years?

CU: I would love to see like the way America used to be—or actually how Europe used to be. Artists were sponsored and were encouraged to do their craft. It was not a hobby. Now the arts are a hobby and are secondary. I would love to see the churches be able to support, as the secular community supports, their artists. That’s what I would love to see. I am hoping and praying that through the Master’s Academy, through people like you, that the Christian community would come to that point.

IA: Where the church is the patron of the arts again?

CU: Hello! Yes.

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