Susan Rankaitis

The Lang Art studios stand at the edge of the Scripps campus, rubbing shoulders with Harvey Mudd’s Keck Laboratories to the north and gazing over the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery to the south. Here, where the worlds of art and science collide, you will find the creative workspace of Professor Susan Rankaitis and her students.

Inside the classroom, the face of contemporary art emerges through the hands and minds of the next generation. Students sink comfortably into the worn couches and begin their critiques. Their discussion is ripe and gritty on the topics of emerging works. The lights are off, but lemony afternoon sunlight streams through the windows. It illuminates an industrial-sized workspace bristling with works-in-progress. These are the artifacts of creative experimentation—half-articulated paintings, mathematical concepts knitted into yarn, a silk dress beaded with French love letters, a collage of evocative images from a plastic surgeon’s trade journal, body parts fashioned from melted wax, and even a pink, guillotine-sized machine designed to offer hugs through a pair of mechanized pillow arms. This is the environment that Susan Rankaitis has created to house and nurture the expansive imaginations of her students.

Susan Rankaitis, the Fletcher Jones Chair in Studio Art, is remarkable for many reasons— one of which is her encouragement of students to experiment between disciplines and to form collaborative partnerships across college boundaries. This conceptual crossfertilization flows naturally from a professional artist whose creative media include airplane wings, medical imagery, memory-steeped landscapes, and new photographic processing techniques.

In 2000, Susan brought her collaborative work “The Problem of the Homonculous” with neuroscientist Dr. David Somers (an alumnæ HMC alum) to the Williamson Gallery. The installation welcomed viewers into a circular space adorned with hundreds of small brain images and a video depicting actual neurological behavior. At the time, I was enrolled in one of Susan’s experimental courses titled “Art, Science and the Landscape.” The class was composed of an equal mix of Scripps art majors and Harvey Mudd science majors. This blend of talents and perspectives led to fascinating discussions on topics ranging from the aesthetic properties of fractals to the mysterious Golden Ratio that pops up in everything from the spiral of a seashell to the face of the Mona Lisa.

I came away from the course awed by the realization that the incredibly complex science unfolding across the street in Keck Laboratories could be just as abstract and subjective as the work produced in Scripps art studios. Scientific inquiry, like fine art, requires hearty helpings of creativity, experimentation, and a willingness to follow numerous dead-end paths before reaching a successful conclusion. Inspired by my collaborations with scientists, I painted the surface of a violin with the resonance patterns that represent how the wood vibrates when the instrument is played at two distinct musical pitches. The appreciation I developed for the similarities and differences between the arts and the sciences also blossomed in my subsequent marriage to Mika Waller, an engineering major at Harvey Mudd and a fellow student in Susan’s interdisciplinary course.

Susan was an indispensable mentor, friend, and advocate during my four years at Scripps. She knew how to push when pushing was needed and how to throw a pool party when it came time to celebrate. As an academic advisor, Susan did far more than recommend courses—she helped me become attuned to the song of my own heartstrings. Even after I tossed my tassel and left the Lang Art Studios, she wrote recommendation letters on my behalf and kept me connected with other art alums by sending out periodic letters with updates on students’ lives.

Perhaps the greatest tribute I can offer Susan is my hope that someday I will be able to pass along these gifts of mentorship and support to a young woman who comes knocking at my door with the partially completed canvas of her life and asks,”Where can I take this from here?”

Sarah Waller recently curated an exhibit, “Illustrating Nature,” which includes her own work, at the Burke Museum as a part of the University of Washington’s Scientific Illustration Certification class of 2006.