Art professor Erin McGee Ferrell isn’t afraid of AI — yet

Erin McGee Ferrell
Erin McGee Ferrell

While the thought of artificial intelligence in the classroom may be enough to spark headaches in the minds of educators across the globe, one art professor at the University of New England is not just embracing its use — she’s incorporated it into her curriculum.

Erin McGee Ferrell, adjunct assisting teaching professor in the School of Arts and Humanities, is no stranger to using new techniques and technologies in her studio, having garnered international attention for her interactive paintings and installations.

Now, she’s teaching her students to do the same.

Ferrell has integrated the use of AI into her 2D Design Studio Art class, in which students complete assignments using both digital and traditional methods. Students first create an AI image based on Ferrell’s prompts. Then, they produce a similar image using conventional tools — pen to paper, paint to canvas — in the studio. 

In one lesson, Ferrell said, students may use AI to generate a still life of an apple depicting emotion using dark and light values. The exercise reinforces a visual design technique, and the students can apply the learning to their hands-on studio projects. She said the methodology affords students — many of whom are majoring in the sciences and haven’t taken an art class in years — the flexibility to learn new techniques without the fear of failure due to the lack of learned studio skills.  

“AI allows people to say what they want to communicate visually without having to develop mastery in every specific technique,” she said. “A lot of people feel very intimidated by a blank piece of paper or a blank canvas. AI can provide them a reference to manipulate while giving them a better appreciation of what it takes to be an artist come time to do it on their own.”

The methodology is inspired by Ferrell’s love of innovation in the creative arts.

In October, Ferrell traveled to Pittsburgh to visit the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where she met FRIDA, an AI-powered robotic arm equipped with a paintbrush. Unveiled in February, FRIDA — which stands for Framework and Robotics Initiative for Developing Arts — uses AI to collaborate with humans to develop works of art based on text descriptions and submitted images

While there, Ferrell met with CMU robotics researchers to discuss techniques of interactive painting using robots, Final Art creation and ownership, and future art objectives using robotic artist tools.

“I was very impressed, and I loved the exploration into the process of trying to teach FRIDA how to paint,” Ferrell said. “There are a lot of limitations to AI in art right now, but I was very excited by it.”

Researchers at CMU maintain that FRIDA, named for famed artist Frida Kahlo, isn’t intended to take artists’ jobs. Rather, they say the goal is to promote human creativity. 

It is the same message Ferrell incorporates into her lesson plans at UNE.

“The end goal of FRIDA is not to take over our lives and replace other artists but to learn the dexterity to use tools and complete more utilitarian tasks,” she said. “The same is true of how I use AI in my own classroom.”

And while debate rages on about the ethics and implications of artificial intelligence — such debate was the focus of UNE’s recent President’s Forum event, “AI: The End of the World or the Dawn of a New Age?”— Ferrell said artists shouldn’t shy away from the technology as it continues to proliferate the artistic sphere.

“AI doesn't have to be an enemy to the artist,” she said. “In fact, it’s important not to be so afraid of artificial intelligence not to realize that it can actually be a very powerful tool.”

“Once you understand it more, it takes the fear out of it,” she added. “At least for now.”

Ferrell’s works can be found at