Guerilla Academia: art education without accreditation

By Matthew Morowitz

New York City, with its leading institutions of higher learning and wide array of museums dedicated to culture and the arts, offers a large variety of educational opportunities for the aesthetically minded.  But auditing university courses can be expensive and museum lectures can sometimes go over the heads of the audience members.  Many might also feel that they are not receiving a very personalized or hands-on education by taking these types of classes.  In this series, “Guerilla Academia,” Art in Odd Places will be highlighting different organizations and individuals who are offering innovative and engaging art education opportunities outside of the traditional venues of the university and the museum.


Described as “a concentrated seminar in visual art” by his brochure, Gene Wisniewski’s Six Hour Art Major “is geared toward anyone with an interest in visual art or creativity in general.  Even those with an arts background will find opportunities to explore fascinating new insights.”  Mr. Wisniewski’s course involves lectures geared towards art history and art appreciation, as well as hands-on drawing exercises so students develop an understanding of the art making process.  As it is a basic survey, no previous art education or training is required to take this seminar.  Included below, Mr. Wisniewski answered some questions that delve deeper into the course, how it came to be, what to expect, and where to take it.

How did you come up with The Six-Hour Art Major?

I started as theater major at Rutgers, but took a couple of art classes, some with Leon Golub, who was a big deal.  I started studying art in the late 80s and early 90s at the New York Art Academy and National Academy of Design, mostly nights and weekends while working for a living.  I worked as an administrator in offices and different companies until the financial crisis, where I became unemployed and couldn’t find work for two years. Then I decided “I’d rather work for nobody for myself than work for nobody period.” This was 2008-2010.  I credit the idea of the Six-Hour Art Major to a chance meeting with an LA acting teacher on the bus who encouraged me to pursue creating this seminar. I spent two years researching the material for this, which is as much time that goes into writing a thesis.  I am going to make a book out of it.

What need do you hope your program will fulfill?

The course is meant to give people the experience of what it’s like to go to art school so they can go to a museum or gallery and look at art and be able to understand it more on their own.  I want them to understand what goes into making a piece of art, knowing the artist’s hand through looking at the strokes, to understand it the way an artist would.  They do a few drawing exercises, they get a brief rundown of art history, and there is a whole section on how to look at a painting from an artist’s standpoint, what an artist thinks about.  I have exercises that are specifically geared towards how to understand the differences between doing realistic art and doing abstract art because I think there are different mindsets. When people say “this course really opened my eyes” or “I’m going to look at art a completely different way now” then it feels like I accomplished what I set out to do.

What are your classes usually like?

Generally get more women than men and a lot of teachers.  Some of the people I have taught have had advanced degrees in things like creative studies so those classes are a little intimidating.  It’s very conversational and very relaxed. It’s a lot of give and take. It’s essentially a Powerpoint presentation, and there are a lot of images of about a couple hundred different paintings because each one is supposed to represent a very specific point.  For example, if I am talking about economy of line I show them a Toulouse-Lautrec and a logo and a cartoon for a few seconds in order to get the point across, and there is a lecture that goes along with it. They also get some basic drawing exercises, essentially pencils and crayons, but they’re legitimate exercises for teaching the students something about art and they get some hands on education.

How are you working to find new material and to update your course?

Part of it is when things just don’t work I eject them.  Also, a lot of it comes from class suggestions.  People are encouraged to ask questions and I like when people throw in information because then I get to learn from my students and if I can’t answer some of their questions it gives me something to look up.  It helps the program expand and I am able to make it more interesting.  I am afraid sometimes that this seminar is going to get out of hand as it has grown in length.

How is the timeframe of the course broken down?

I try to make it worth the travel time and do two 3-hour sessions; it is really like a part 1 and a part 2 so that works out very well.  The first part is more about the drawing and the creativity part, while the second is the appreciation and the history.  I wish people would do it in one 6-hour session but I think that is too much of a demand, and nobody has ever taken me up on that offer.  It varies though; at one place I am going to do a 4 ½ hour session, as that is just how their schedule works out, so I am going to do it in one day with a lunch break in between.  The course is very modular and adaptable; I can cut some information if the need arises.  Since it is done in units I can in some cases just do a 1-hour talk on, for example, the art history alone, or take it out altogether and the program still stands with or without some material that I include in the full 6-hour seminar.

What venues do you use for this seminar?

I teach at the 92nd St. Y, JCC Manhattan, city colleges, adult education programs, therapy centers and health facilities, and it is offered privately and for corporate events as well.