UArts Dean of Arts Sheryl Oring uses a vintage Royal typewriter to ask incoming students "What does art mean to you?" (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

In the middle of a late summer BBQ at the center of Philadelphia, the unmistakable click-clack of a manual typewriter broke through the music and drew the incoming University of the Arts students to the edge of the campus courtyard.

What they found behind the keys was a woman in a bright red dress, to match her typing machine, and a pressing question. “What,” asked an A-frame chalkboard, “does art mean to you?”

The answers, typed out on 3 x 5-inch notecards, were clipped up on clotheslines stretching between nearby trees. They ranged from curious to flippant to profound.

“Art is sharing your experiences with other people in the hopes of connecting with them,” read one student’s definition. “It’s a form of self-expression, touching deep inside of yourself.”

“Art is the conceptualization of one’s soul. It’s the universal language for creativity,” suggested another.

“Art is like a cat sitting on a windowsill.”

“Art is the only real god.”

“Where words fail, art takes its place.”

First-year UArts film design student Madison McKenzie’s answer to the question “What does art mean to you?” (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

The typewriter set-up is something Sheryl Oring has been staging for nearly two decades, and her “I Wish to Say” performances, where she types dictated postcards to U.S. presidents, have gained international acclaim. But as she was recently appointed dean of UArts School of Arts, Oring decided to try out the technique with her students at the start of her first full academic year.

It proved a hit.

First-year animation student Madison McKenzie, an 18-year-old from North Jersey, hadn’t even known there was a party planned. Then she wandered in, spotted the typewriter, and had a small epiphany.

“I’d never really heard of anything like that, but I’ve been wanting to kind of branch out more with how I express myself, so I figured leaving a little message of my perspective of art could be a nice way to start reaching out and connecting,” McKenzie told Billy Penn.

She didn’t have a set answer when she sat down, but she and Oring started talking, and eventually pinpointed an idea, McKenzie said. “I had to sort of work through my thoughts.”

The analog nature of the interaction contrasts with the never-ending digital stream of content that makes up much of modern life, and when Oring presented the notion of breaking out her classic Royal to colleagues and staff, they were unanimously in favor. (“Yes, please,” was the most common response.)

Oring gives the option of adding a red rubber stamp to the black-and-white note card she typed out for them. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

“The typewriter is a bit of a novelty,” said Oring, who was chair of the art and art history program at Wayne State University in Detroit before being appointed UArts dean last January. “[Students] saw it when they came in and they were all like, ‘What’s that? Why is the typewriter there?’ So they get curious, which is a really important aspect of the work.”

For each person who took a seat at the station, Oring coaxed out a response, then set her fingers to the work of clacking it out in black and white. Some people then added a dash of red, thanks to a set of stamps that say things like “rush,” “fragile,” “confidential,” “past due,” “draft,” “top secret,” “denied,” or “completed.”

Each card is typed on carbon paper, so after the original was hung on display, a copy was handed to the student to use as they saw fit.

Leila Padilla, a second-year film design major, planned to post her notecard on the wall of her dorm room.

There wasn’t much of a back and forth after she sat down at the typewriter — “Just a moment of silence” — but she’d already had some time to think. She purposely didn’t go over until the tail end of the event.

“I had to build up some courage to go and write down what I was going to say,” said Padilla, a 20-year-old who said she didn’t choose UArts as much as “it chose me, really.”

Created in 1985 with the merger of two century-old Philadelphia arts colleges, University of the Arts enrolls about 1,300 students across six distinct schools and several graduate programs. Tuition isn’t cheap — about $51k per year undergrad — but more than 80% of students receive some kind of financial aid, per the university, and a quarter are on work-study programs.

University of the Arts students Leila Padilla (left) and Madison McKenzie surround UArts Dean of Arts Sheryl Oring at her typewriter installation at a back-to-school BBQ on the college’s Center CIty campus. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

While Padilla’s post-graduation hope is to get a job as a film production designer, her main goal at school is to collaborate with other artists who understand where she’s coming from — something she said the typewriter experience exemplified. Several students at the party expressed similar feelings.

“There was one woman who sat down and shared with me that she came from a really Christian family,” Oring said, “and she was just giddy at the idea of being at this place where she was going to be accepted for who she was.”

McKenzie, the first-year animation student, was effusive about the experience.

“I’m very, very excited for all of the opportunities, especially just this one happening right now,” McKenzie said. “I think it’s sort of the UArts experience as a whole, starting off with how welcoming and inviting it feels to be here, and to be around so many people who understand what it’s like to be an artist.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...