Professor of Art Bevin Engman has taught painting at Colby for more than two decades. Over time, her approach to teaching has changed, but her understanding of the importance of painting in the liberal arts curriculum has not. Engman sat down with Colby Magazine writer Laura Meader to talk about painting as improvisation, the need to be rooted in the body, and how to embrace what we don’t know.

You’ve been at Colby 23 years. Has your teaching changed?

When I was a younger teacher, I thought, “How shall I teach this?” And then after several years it became, “How should I teach this differently?” And then it moved into the question of, “How did they learn?” which is really different. And I would say now, with a longer view, it is, “How do they live? And how does painting interact with the richness of their life in a way for them to reflect on what has meaning?”

So how do they live?

People are so out of their own nature at this point, pulled in so many directions, and there are so many concerns about the world students are entering. We’re also not rooted in the body—there’s a deficit of that these days. The sitting still and the screen time have depreciating returns.

Is it difficult for you to witness this?

Yes, and it comes up with my peers. I mean, we’re responsible for our curricula, but the care of our students is becoming more important.

Professor of Art Bevin Engman points out how the light is falling on sophomore Dora Wang’s head in Engman’s Painting II class.

How does painting fit in?

I’m so glad painting is in the liberal arts curriculum. It provides for students a practice, through academia, a connection with another type of practice. … I mean, it’s such a part of being human to interact with your environment and transform materials. I’ve talked to [Associate Professor of Theater and Dance] Annie Kloppenberg about this, that painting is a particular form of improvisation.

In what way?

There’s a wonderful emeritus professor from Stanford, Elliot Eisner. He has a piece about what the arts teach if taught well. One of the points he makes is that it teaches judgment in the absence of a rule.

How well does that work?

It’s very threatening to the ego, because the ego likes to know what’s going on, and it likes to actually direct us toward what’s going on. It’s based on preserving our own sense of control.

But if you become open to those experiences, like any contemplative activity, I would say, it lets loose the ego and we become very insecure.

Sam Onche ’22 is reflected in a mirror as he works on his self-portrait.

What do you do in those situations?

In the classroom, I just say, “I understand there’s a freak-out factor here. … What you’re feeling right now? That sense of anxiety, of not knowing what to do? Of trying to develop that judgment in the absence of a rule? Work in that place. Don’t avoid that. Embrace what you don’t know.”

I tell my classes—swim in the pool of risk. Become comfortable with this risk. Right now, it’s just a painting, but maintaining that sense of equilibrium while you really don’t know what’s going on? That’s part of the fun.

How did you come to this understanding?

I was an athlete when I was in my first undergraduate liberal arts experience before I went into painting. I was a field hockey player and lacrosse player, and part of the thrill is that it’s improvisation. Things never go according to plan. And part of the fun is to see how well you can adapt to these external surprises. And painting is like that. It’s physical activity.

Professor of Art Bevin Engman, center, works with Sophie Montague ’23 on her self-portrait as Nate Goddu, a junior, studies his reflection in his easel-mounted mirror.

Which addresses your concern about not being rooted in the body.

It’s about getting back into our bodies. I think it’s one of the reasons why kids feel like they get so much out of athletics. You know, it’s such a release, it’s such a relief to move back into the body for a time. I hear from students often that their time in the studio is not only stimulating but restorative.

What types of students take your classes?

Some people come like, “I’m an artist, I want to express myself,” which is a perfectly fine motivation, but it doesn’t contain very many specifics of how to do it. It’s sort of an end goal. There’s a huge distance between where we stand and the goal.

We also have a lot of crossover in the studio art major with biology. Science kids are all about process, and for these students, painting is another lab, and they’re manipulating physical materials with great curiosity and expectation of finding out something.

What challenges do each face?

I would say the kids who are more expression focused sometimes have to learn to be patient, to break it down into this, after this, comes before that, and now you can build on that, build a foundation, and go from there.

Some kids in biology just love the experience so much that they have to be encouraged to figure out what they want to do with it. What are you trying to say? What will be the content of your work? What kind of material do you want to use that’s best suited for your aesthetic or your developing narrative or content interests?

Sophomore Christine Chang examines her face to identify its various shades and hues.

They must keep you on your toes.

Each student is really different. That’s what makes it interesting.

And an honor, I’d guess.

Yes. I know my colleagues feel the same way. That’s why we’re working here rather than an art school. It’s sort of, “So now that you have this skill, what do you want to do? Now that you know how to take a photograph or make a print or paint, who are you, and what are your interests?” And that is so much richer than only working from expression. It enriches expression. It informs it.

This makes me want to take your class, but I can’t paint.

Anybody can paint. Everybody can paint—they should if they feel like they want to. There are skills I can teach you. And I can help you grow. You can get there on your own if you never take a class, but it’ll take a much longer time.

And if you feel limited and confined, and your work never seems to embody what you hoped would happen, then you’re being held back by what you don’t know. So my job as a teacher, and yours as a student, is to … break down what you don’t know and become informed about what you don’t know. That’s a form of freedom. I think that’s why you take these courses—to have greater freedom.