Creativity at Silliman

Creativity at Silliman

Developing creative talent is a major function of Silliman University.

At any good university, students are given a general knowledge of the world – its size, its shape, the nature of the society around and beyond them. They are taught the skills they need to communicate with others, to stand on their own, to control their own future.

Beyond this, most universities provide career training in regular fields: business, law, education, nursing,etc. For ninety-nine percent of college students that’s what they want, and they’re happy to get it.

But in every generation, there are a few students who have a rare gift for artistic creation.  Alone in the Visayas, only Silliman University has programs that can provide the encouragement and training that these students need, centered in the College of  Performing and Visual Arts and in the Creative Writing Major in the Department of English.

From the very beginning, Silliman’s founders understood that any society needs an artistic presence to be complete.So they decided to provide programs, and degrees, for gifted students-to provide that presence in the future. Good for them, good for the future.

Having said all that, what is “creative talent” anyway? “Creative” is a word bounced around like a basketball to mean a hundred different things. Often the command “Be Creative!” only means- “Do something different from what you did yesterday!”

But at Silliman, “creative talent” means something more specific: the ability to bring something out of yourself – an idea, a feeling, an image- and turn it into words, or music, or pictures that can make it part of reality to those around you.

Take music, to begin with. Everyone likes to sing, or play guitar, or drums“just for fun”. On any weekend night you will hear singing, howling, strumming and banging at deafening volume in bars and clubs beside the sea-ephemeral songs and performances, forgotten by morning.

But to study serious music, to learn play or compose pieces that will stay in the world’s ear for centuries- this is a very different thing. Very few people can do this, even with intense effort.

Silliman has always sought out such people. Silliman’s first President, David Hibbard, had a music school in mind, and Silliman has offered professional music training and degrees since 1934. Today, a degree in Music from Silliman University is proof – not only that you meet professional standards, but that you have something unique to offer.

The same goes for creative writing. Anyone who can write at all can usually get basic ideas across – what‘s needed to apply for a job, write a report, hack out jokes and messages to their Facebook friends.

But to write stories and essays that grip the minds and feeling of those who read the words – to carry this forward on every page – this requires special talent. It also requires years of struggle and practice, nurtured by writers who have been through the same process successfully.

Silliman has writers and poets and playwrights like these in abundance, men and women whose works are known to their colleagues and to the reading public. Hardly a year passes without public readings and new book launchings from members of the Silliman English Department.

The annual Silliman University National Writer’s Workshop is a “laboratory course” for creative writing majors at Silliman. Here, for one month a year, Silliman faculty and students gather together with literary figures from many other countries to read and discuss each other’s work. Student writers have a chance to show their work to strangers at the top of their profession. It’s a unique challenge that no other school offers.

“Fine Arts” – The general public thinks of an “artist” as “someone who makes pictures”. If it were so, everyone would be an artist of some sort. Cell phones make pictures, and even a dull child can draw a smiling face.

One step up from that leveland you will find many people who can draw or paint a face, or a landscape, well enough for other people to recognize what it is supposed to be. This requires skill and some effort, but not art.

Skill can be taught, effort can be made, but in the endall that will result,at best,is a mechanically accurate, but lifeless, representation, useful only for scale models of machinery and similar tasks.Fine Arts majors at Silliman are expected to go upanother step from this, and become artists.

To be an artist of any kind certainly requires skill and effort, but more than that, it requires the talent to see more than the eye sees, to see through the surface of things into the center,and the ability to put that vision into visible form.

Paint, pencils, canvas, stone, paper, wood: by themselves these are blank objects that mean nothing beyond what they already are. But used by an artist as material, these things can become not just a “picture”, but a presence that fills the room.

That’s what Fine Arts majors at Silliman are aiming for, what they hope to produce, with the help and guidance of their teachers and mentors.

Paintings, books, and sheet music are actual solid things that, once created, remain. But performances last only in time, and then are gone. Concerts, plays,dances;these leave nothing to their audience but memories – but those memories can make a lasting mark in the mind.

To make that mark, that difference in the mind of an audience, requires performers: actors, dancers, musicians, directors, men and women who must be artists on the same level as any painter or composer. To produce performers on that level is the guiding purpose of the major in Speech and Theatre Arts at Silliman.

Those who are admitted to this program can hope to become actors and players and dancers,people who become so much a part of the works they perform that the audience cannot tell the actor from the play, the dancer from the dance. To disappear into their work is the final goal of all artists.

To spend four years in college, and then your life, to bring creative work out of yourself and into the world is not an easy task,and very few people are capable of it.

For a school to encourage students who are not capable is unfair to the school’s reputation, and even more unfair to the student. Nothing can be more bitter and disappointing than dreams that can never be fulfilled.

To prevent this, the colleges involved in creative work must be satisfied that those want to study there have the necessary aptitude and talent for what they want to achieve, and are ready for study on a college level. Some applicants must be turned away.

But those who gain admission will have joined a great community at Silliman – the creative community that is at the very heart of this University’s reason for existence.


John Stevenson

John Stevenson works as a creative consultant assigned to the Office of Information and Publications in Silliman University. He is an American who has lived and worked in Dumaguete City for more than ten years. He writes a weekly column for a local newspaper in Dumaguete.