Dateline URBINO, Italy

From: Public Affairs

Five hundred years after the Italian painter Raphael walked the streets of Urbino, James Madison University senior Grant Bell explored the halls of the fine arts academy in the Renaissance master's hometown to hear and write about the struggles of today's emerging artists, including Elvis Spadoni.

The Barber of Urbino from Steve Anderson on Vimeo

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Bell, who is majoring in media arts and design with a concentration in digital video and cinema studies, was one of 13 JMU media arts and communication students and two faculty members participating in an intensive storytelling experience set against the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance city in the Marche region. There they joined 13 students from eight other colleges and universities to study with college faculty and media professionals, including two Pulitzer Prize winners.

The Urbino Project, a four-week multimedia reporting undertaking, required the students to be print journalists, photographers, videographers and editors all rolled into one, exactly what the modern world of converged media is demanding of journalists.

"Everybody was responsible for doing a text-and-photo story," said Dr. Steven Anderson, director of JMU's School of Media Arts and Design and, with JMU's Ryan Parkhurst, part of the Urbino faculty. "Then, every two students were teamed up to do a video piece on one of the stories, based on which story was more visual."

Bell produced "Raphael's Children" about L'Academia di Belle Arti and the video "The Barber of Urbino." Like his classmates, Bell studied Italian language and culture every Monday through Thursday. Still, the skills of translators were critical to getting the stories.

Bell said he was fortunate that most of his sources spoke some English. "It took a while, but we would usually be able to figure out what the other meant," Bell said. "I did need the help of translators when I interviewed the director of the academy, Sebastiano Guerrera, and created the video on the barber, Pippi. Neither spoke any English. But it wasn't as difficult as you might think, since our program had great translators helping. It's important, however, to direct your questions to the interview subject and not to the translator. It should be a conversation between the two of you while the translator mediates."

Bell found the people he interviewed very open to telling their stories. "Almost everyone in Urbino was extremely friendly and willing to put aside time in their day to help," he said. "Elvis was no different. After our first interview, he invited me to his art show as well as allowing me to photograph him working at L'Academia.

"I think some of the subjects we interviewed might have first been a little confused, as anyone might, and thought, 'why do you want to interview me?' But everyone cooperated and all of us as students and Americans were extremely lucky to get invited into the lives of these Italians. We kept in contact with our subjects even after we were done with our projects. After creating the video about Pippi the barber, I went back a few days later and got an old-fashioned beard shaving."

The Urbino Project, sponsored by ieiMedia, was exactly what Anderson was looking for in a study abroad opportunity for students. "When I discovered this and saw what the program was about, it seemed to be a very natural fit for what we do in SMAD," Anderson said. "One of the things that's great about SMAD is we focus on text, images, video and sound. This program combines all of those things into a unique kind of storytelling experience."

Anderson contacted ieiMedia's founder Andrew Ciofalo last fall, agreed to teach the video segment of the program with colleague Parkhurst and recruited students for the adventure. While the Urbino Project was open to JMU students from all disciplines, 10 students from SMAD and three from the School of Communication Studies made up the summer group. Eleven JMU students focused on multimedia reporting, while two others studied in the project's magazine program.


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With a compressed schedule, the students simultaneously worked with the professional reporters, receiving a week of instruction in story development, writing styles and photography while finding their own stories to research, interview and tell. Each student had to come back to class with story pitches for the faculty review. The following week was dedicated to video work camera operation, visual journalistic storytelling and editing.

With the faculty serving as consultants, and even rental-car drivers when necessary, the students went after their stories. "They were on their own to get to the story so they had to make sure they knew the transportation system, how to get on the bus if they were going to go to the next town over. Everybody had cell phones so they could be in touch with each other and our faculty and to call the people they were doing stories on. They were all over Urbino, all over the area around Urbino doing stories," Anderson said.

"The Urbino Project really asked the students to get into the culture and learn about it," Anderson said. "It was interesting seeing their maturation through this process and the confidence at the end of 'wow, I can do this, I did it.'"

Bell describes his Urbino experience in one-word declarations: "Amazing. Phenomenal. Beautiful. Unforgettable. It was a very open learning environment. The professors and students bounced ideas back and forth, which helped create the best results, I believe. You get out of this program exactly what you put in, and I was very lucky to learn so much. It wasn't easy, it forced me to get out of my comfort zone and approach people who didn't speak English or had different cultural norms than I did. But once I got out there, I could tell that I was growing, both in my knowledge of the skills we needed for creating these stories as well as my awareness and appreciation for other cultures. I made amazing friendships among the students, professors and Italians that I'll treasure for the rest of my life."

To see the JMU students' slices of life in Urbino, check out the website Anderson created at 2011.inurbino.net.

By Janet Smith, JMU Public Affairs
Published July 28, 2011