Austin Manley, a 20-year-old junior from Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, is carefully pasting photos on the white walls of his studio space. He took the snapshots around Manhattan as part of a class project and is preparing to show them to his graphic design professor and peers. A double major in studio art and graphic design, he wears skinny jeans, a loose T-shirt, and stylish glasses.

Manley says he wants to attend graduate school for art though he isn’t sure he’ll be accepted to top programs. His semester at NYCAMS and internship with a studio artist in Brooklyn are showing him what it takes. “So much of the art world starts here or comes here,” he says. It’s also showing him what it takes to be a Christian person in a city heavily influenced by contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Jeff Koons. While some may think of contemporary art “as a sinful or secular industry, it doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. “It can also be redemptive.”

That’s a message Silvis, Dickinson, and other faculty members are continually reinforcing. But they are also exploring the tensions of creative freedoms and emphasize artistic thought and critique rather than moral censorship of the student’s work.

At the spacious loft-style gallery of the NYCAMS campus in midtown Manhattan one Monday, workers scurry about on creaky wooden floors, using drills, levels, and screwdrivers to install art on freshly painted white walls that rise to the 12-foot-high ceilings. This gallery space sometimes displays work by NYCAMS students and sometimes that of other artists.

The show going up this particular day will feature work by students from several top art schools in New York City, such as The Pratt Institute, the School of Visual Arts, and the Fashion Institute of Technology, all members of the College Art Association (CAA). The 10 pieces of contemporary art are not necessarily Christian in nature. In fact, one of the paintings—perhaps the best in the show for its colors and forms—f­eatures the F-word and a hand flipping its middle finger toward the viewer.

“That painting wasn’t painted by one of our students,” said Dickinson. But, in concept, “it could have been.”

As host, NYCAMS’ leaders Silvis and Dickinson judged the art and curated the show for the CAA. The affiliation, they say, helps their students see and understand the work of their peers.  “We bring New York City into the gallery space,” said Dickinson. “We really push our students to question a lot of boundaries that they’ve set or others have set for them.” Beyond recognizing crassness in a painting, he wants students to understand and critique what an artist might be expressing in such a work without necessarily rejecting the work for its vulgarity alone. He wants them to think about how their own work reflects their faith, their thoughts, and their personality as well.

NYCAMS is expanding with post-baccalaureate residencies and an emerging curator program for top graduates. NYCAMS is also planning to expand its writing and design programs and to launch exchanges and residencies for artists in Beijing and Berlin, two cities Silvis considers to be leading edge in visual arts right now.

As a launchpad NYCAMS has worked for some: Jennifer Mills, an alumnae from 2006, has shown her work around the world, received a Harvey Fellowship, and is completing her Master’s in Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Reid Strelow, 25, thought he would be a “Sunday afternoon painter.” But his time at NYCAMS in 2006 was “a real eye-opener for a guy whose summer job only months before was pumping sewers in his rural Minnesota hometown of 3,500 people.”

Strelow got a job working for a high-end design firm in Manhattan and is now pursuing a Master’s in Fine Arts in sculpture at Hunter College in Manhattan. “The making of objects and images is a very immediate exercise in exploring the truth to having been made in the image of God, a creative God,” he said. “I understand making art to be a direct participation in this creative story.”

Meanwhile, Dahlin takes a break from her illustrations and says her visits this semester to contemporary museums make her yearn to live in New York someday. “For now, so long as I’m creating good art and being a good influence, that’s the biggest thing.”

(c) 2011 World News Services. Used with permission.