Artists frame solutions to myriad problems

Heart sense

A scene from the Heart Sense video game

If you’re looking for works by Penn artists only in museums and galleries, then you’re missing out.

Beyond display cases and gallery walls, Graduate School of Fine Arts faculty and students are exercising their aesthetic sensibilities in the most unexpected places.

Take Joshua Mosley, assistant professor of animation and digital media, and his Digital Media Design students, for example. They have joined hands with Barry Silverman, professor of systems engineering, who is also affiliated with the School of Medicine and Wharton, to design Heart Sense, an interactive video game that clues players in on heart attack symptoms. Students working on the project have designed fonts and logos for the game and are even recording the characters’ voices.

The University’s Digital Media Design program—a collaboration between GSFA, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Annenberg School for Communication—is only one of the ways Penn artists are making an impact in the real world. Another initiative, Penn Praxis, lets students do work for real clients, both within and outside the University, under the direction of GSFA faculty.

“What we’ve got is the fine arts doing things that engage with the world, making real products and real things,” said Gary Hack, dean of GSFA.

Lauren Churchman, who currently teaches a Penn Praxis graphics studio course called Practicum, said, “It’s absolutely hands-on. Part of the requirement for taking on clients is that they have a tangible project, something the students can put in their portfolios.” Churchman’s students are helping the Penn Alexander School design signage to enhance the school’s environmental curriculum. They are also working with the Office of the University Architect, offering concepts for the train trestle over South and Walnut streets that now carries Penn’s name and arms in white lettering on blue background.

Churchman said the course is a plus for community-based, nonprofit clients, who have a need for design solutions but often no budget for it.

GSFA’s reach into the larger world also spans several continents. In another Penn Praxis project, landscape students will advise the city of Taipei on how to improve its image. This is in addition to the school’s normal study abroad program, which offers as many as six opportunities per semester to do work internationally, said Hack.

And while the school excels in the traditional elements of art—painting, sculpture and photography, to name a few—Hack said art education at Penn is unique because it offers students so many interdisciplinary opportunities.

“I wouldn’t want to do an advertising design program alone. I’d only want to do it with Wharton,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do a product design program on our own steam. We can do it uniquely with Mechanical Engineering. I think the real potential is for boundary crossing.”

Originally published on January 16, 2003