Art Academy of Cincinnati: They run this city for college credit

By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer

Videos and Photos by Madison Schmidt

When participants head for the start line this Saturday morning for the Flying Pig Toyota 10K, there’ll be youngsters sprinting and there’ll be seniors walking; there will be first-timers and there’ll be veterans. And in the middle of the group of thousands will be 10 students from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, lining up for their final project in a one-of-a-kind class called “Creative Running.”

The idea for the class came from, not surprisingly, a couple of runners who are on the Art Academy faculty: Matt Hart, chair of the liberal arts program, and Paige Williams, chair of the studio program. Hart, who’s been running for some 17 years, was inspired during, what else, his daily run.

“I was out on a run the end of last summer, and I was thinking about the fact that the running process and creative process are really similar to each other in terms of commitment, stamina, changing tactics when something’s not going right, in terms of fortitude,” said Hart. “It just hit me that it would be really interesting to have a class where we talked about the relationship between running and the creative process itself.”

The next step was to pitch the idea to Williams, who herself has been running for about a dozen years.

“On a Saturday night I get this text from Matt that says, ‘Hey I have this great idea, let’s have a class where we talk about running and the creative process, and we team teach it, and it’s called Creative

Running.’ And I was like, ‘Okay,’”

One course description with faculty approval, and Creative Running became a class offered this spring at the Art Academy. Ten students are in the class, some who had been runners, and some who had never done any kind of athletic activity before. All said they wanted to try something they’d never tried before—learning how to be more creative through running.

“To be creative, you absolutely have to show up every day, even if you don’t want to,” said Hart. “One of the things we’re hoping that we do in this class is show students you can develop a set of strategies, a set of habits, that will allow you to continue no matter what.

“Our students have to keep a running log where they have to reflect on the runs they do during the week. So if you miss a day, we ask, what do you have to say about that? How does that make you feel? What can you change so you don’t miss tomorrow? We want them to build on their own creative process, to show up every day to create, just like you show up every day to run.”

Because most of the students had never run before, the first need was to get the right kind of shoes. Board members helped sponsor some of the runners to pick up the cost of their gear, and Frank DeJulius from Fleet Feet Sports gave students deep discounts on new footwear. Throughout the semester, the class heard from guest speakers like ultra marathoner Harvey Lewis, preparing for his 19th Flying Pig, and from the Cincinnati Zen Center on the mind and body connection.

Part of the class requirement is, of course, running, but another part of it is required reading every week.

“Some of the readings are inspirational,” Williams said, “some are literature that deals with running, writing, making art and risk taking. When you embark on something you haven’t done before, whether it’s running a race or writing a poem or making a painting, you don’t know what the outcome’s going to be. There’s always the possibility that you’re not going to succeed, but hopefully you get closer to your goal.”

The third requirement is the equivalent to the question “Did you bring enough for the whole class?” In this case, yes. “You know how you’re a kid and you’re playing soccer and you have to sign up for a time to bring the snacks?” said Williams. “This project is called ‘runner’s gift’ so students sign up for a day when they have to provide a gift for the class.”

Hart likens it to networking—without the business cards and idle chit chat.

“It’s a team building exercise and a gesture of generosity. Part of being a creative person is being social because you want people to be interested in whom you are and what you do, and you have to be genuinely interested in other people.”

The gifts range from snacks to more tangible items.

“We told them to bring something that means something to you,” said Williams, “and you have to talk about why you want to share it with the group. We’ve had homemade granola bars, one student made these awesome big Flying Pig cookies and another made healthy homemade muffins.”

Others used their creativity for wearables—one made buttons with symbols relating to the class; another, bandanas; another, friendship bracelets with the Art Academy colors. “The runner’s gift is a way to get students to think about giving something of themselves,” said Hart, “and being part of something larger than they are.”

And because it is the Art Academy, the class also has to create an art project connected with the sport as part of their final. “If you’re an illustrator, you can’t just draw a picture of somebody running,” said Hart, “you have to make art either using the activity of running itself, or include the activity of running in the final project.”

Saturday’s Toyota 10K comes the day after the last class as the wrap up to Creative Running. Will it be part of the curriculum again? The way the Art Academy schedule falls, it can be held once every three semesters as an elective so it’ll be a while before it’s posted again. But for this semester, at least, Creative Running has offered young artists a new look at running—and, Hart believes, at the creative process.

“You’re not going to make any art if you don’t start making art,” he said. “You’re not going to write any poems if you aren’t actually doing the writing. You’re not going to be a runner if you don’t run. Students are asking these questions and I think it’s helped them build on their own creative process. Because it involves exactly the same steps as running.”

To learn more about the Art Academy of Cincinnati, visit their website.