State of the Arts: First Impressions

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Staff Writer

Phoebe-Agnès Mills (C’22) grew up in Sewanee. Her mother, Dr. Kathryn Mills, teaches in the French Department; her father, Wilmer Mills, graduated from the University in 1992; her brother, Benjamin Mills (C’20) is now a senior. When the time came for Mills to choose a college, she was adamant about not going to Sewanee. 

“For college, you’re supposed to venture out on your own and make your own path,” she said. “Ultimately, I think, as many people do, you do the tour and you walk around, and you kind of fall in love.” 

A prolific artist in her own right, Mills toured a number of arts schools as well as liberal arts schools. While she loved a few of the arts schools, she eventually decided that a liberal arts education would give her “a holistic view of the world which would then fuel [her] art.” 

When Mills found herself comparing other campuses she toured to Sewanee, she knew that it was inevitable that she would spend the next four years of her life on the Mountain. As a prospective student, she attended Experience Sewanee, a weekend during which admitted students tour campus, meet other prospective students, hear from current students, and meet professors in departments that align with their academic interests. 

She then went on an arts tour to the Nabit Art Building, led by a faculty member in the arts department, to see if it would allay her uncertainties about pursuing art at Sewanee. Mills remembers running into an arts student in the studio and asking him about the program, to which he responded, “It’s fine.” She learned then that there were few arts majors that year.

“While the department itself has great professors with excellent resources for students, it seemed that the art department wasn’t Sewanee’s priority,” she said. “In the end, I decided that Sewanee would be a great place to focus on academic and personal pursuits while nurturing my love of art on the side. My teachers have been very supportive of me so far.”

The Nabit tour is one of two arts tours that is offered by the Office of Admission. The other is a tour of the Tennessee Williams Center. These tours began in 2008, when significant changes were made to the campus visit program. 

At first, the Office utilized student tour guides, but due to the lack of guides who were theatre majors and studio arts majors, often the students who led the tours would have little to no familiarity with the buildings themselves. Therefore, since last year, faculty members in each of these departments have been providing tours.

“Visiting students and parents are very interested in that connection,” said Maria Watters (C’93). “It’s not that students are not important; it’s just that they view faculty as the experts in those areas.” 

Watters serves as the Assistant Director of Admission for Campus Visits in the Office of Admission and Financial Aid. Aside from overseeing day-to-day tours and campus visits, Watters is in charge of specialized arts events such as choir VIP days, where prospective students attend choir rehearsal and have dinner with choir members. 

As part of the same Behind the Scenes program, students can see the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra in action or attend dress rehearsal for a play at the Tennessee Williams Center. For these events, each art department often utilizes students who have been offered the Fellowship in the Arts scholarship. 

Each department has six to eight Fellows every year. Watters notes that the Theatre Department has particularly been successful in utilizing their Fellows in their tours. 

Kristopher Kennedy (C’23) is a Theatre Fellow. He has “immersed” himself in the theatre program, participating in New Plays in Two Days as well as the semester show, Our Country’s Good. He is now also part of the Sewanee Studio Theatre Company.

Like Mills, Kennedy is a legacy student. His brother, Jake Kennedy, graduated from Sewanee in 2015. As a result, Kennedy first set foot on the Mountain in the fall of 2011, and notes that, since then, “every step I’ve taken on this campus has steeped me further and further in love with it.”

“I’ve had a lovely time so far on the Mountain, and can tell I’m going to enjoy these next four years,” he said. 

While Mills is also enjoying her time at Sewanee, her Arts Fellowship has carried much less weight. Due to her mother’s role in the University, Mills only has to pay room and board. However, the scholarship was designed to add as a bonus to tuition, and does not transfer to the fees ascribed to room and board. 

According to Lisa Burns, the Associate Dean of Admission, this will change for the incoming class of 2024. Recipients will receive a $2000 stipend, separate from their merit scholarships and financial aid. However, for Mills, the Fellowship thus far has had “little effect” on her experience at Sewanee: she has not received any scholarship money, extra classes, peer support, or studio space. 

Instead, Mills is hoping to put her ideas to work through the Art Forum, a student organization which aims to promote and facilitate community engagement in the arts. Last year, the Forum hosted weekly events on figure drawing, which she “was excited about because it’s very good for art development.” 

This year, she hopes to work with its president, Gracen Kelly (C’20), to have a critique group where artists can bring in pieces in progress and receive advice from other like-minded individuals. 

“It’s something I’ve done in my education in art,” said Mills. “It might have been nice if things like that would have come along with this application that I filled out and this scholarship that I thought I would have.”