The Imagination Lab
by Susan Warmbrunn
In the mid ’90s, the Scripps College Art Department moved into the old science building on the northwest side of campus. It could have seemed like an odd coupling, the Oscar of academia taking over fastidious Felix’s flat. But at Scripps, the natural sciences and the creative arts aren’t seen as polar opposites. The art department advocates a meeting of minds, inviting the left brain and the right brain to see what they can create together.
The art program promotes both experimentation and cross-pollination. Department chair Ken Gonzales-Day estimates that Scripps has between 16-20 studio art majors every year, and the department annually serves about 500 students from The Claremont Colleges. These students are encouraged to explore and combine different mediums, as well as to incorporate academic studies into studio art.
“My fundamentals class is like a laboratory,” said Susan Rankaitis, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Studio Art, who teaches combined media. “I really try to get students to take risks and make projects related to things they’re really interested in.”
“One of my favorite things to do is to experiment, to see how materials react to one another and the environment,” said Morris, an art major with a minor in creative nonfiction writing for the visual arts.
Camille Robins ’13 echoed Morris, saying it takes discipline to allow oneself to play and embrace the education of imperfection.
“You have to remind yourself constantly that it’s okay to make a lot of mistakes,” Robins said. “You have to let yourself be a victim of the process.”
Robins studied physics, nutrition, and Spanish literature before choosing to major in art. In the art department, she found she could feed her omnivorous curiosity and express herself not only verbally but visually.
“I could still be a critical and analytical thinker, but art allowed me to also approach things creatively,” Robins said.
Many art majors double major or minor in another field, a choice welcomed by the department.
“We believe the more diversity of approaches and ideas and values and goals the better,” said Rankaitis, who worked in a science lab for four years after graduating from college. An exhibition of her work at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego was called Drawn from Science.
Like the art students with their double majors, most art professors wear two hats, according to Gonzales-Day. Nancy Macko, who teaches printmaking and digital art, was the chair of the Gender and Women’s Studies Department until last year. Macko also teaches in the Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities (Core), as do Gonzales-Day and T. Kim-Trang Tran, who specializes in video art. Ceramics professor Adam Davis’s Core course addresses representations of the male body in contemporary art and culture. Rankaitis has also taught in Core III since its inception. Kitty Maryatt ’66, who teaches typography and directs the Scripps College Press, offers a Core course on artists’ books.
This kind of intellectual bouillabaisse is part of what makes the Scripps art department unique, Gonzales-Day said. “You’ll find few places where studio art faculty would be so thoroughly engaged in non-studio art programs.” The art professors also are practicing, established artists who use their professional connections to help students after graduation.
“We try to support them all through their careers, from helping get them into graduate school and beyond,” Gonzales-Day said. “We stay in touch. We email all the time. We’re a community.”
Gonzales-Day readily reels off some of the ways alumnae have translated their multi-faceted arts education into a fascinating arts profession. There’s Mitra Abbaspour ’99, associate curator of photography at the Modern Museum of Art in New York; Jessica Duffett ’06, who helps run the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York; and Han Yuan “Hannie” Chia ’06, who oversees the education program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and artists represented in galleries across the country. (For more details and examples, please see the Alumnae in the Visual Arts page on the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery website: www. rcwg.scrippscollege.edu).
“These are very smart women,” Macko said of art department graduates. “How they’ve put it all together and used their creative experience as a foundation is so powerful and inspirational.”
History of the Present
At that time, the department was teaching mostly the same mediums — painting, drawing, ceramics, sculpture, printmaking, design, fiber art — that were taught in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, when Millard Sheets ran the art department.
In 1954, Sheets left Scripps, and the College attracted another generation of influential artists. Just to name a few: the painter and multimedia artist Paul Darrow, who had studied and worked with Sheets, began teaching at Scripps, as did artist, inventor, and teacher Paul Soldner, whom Davis calls “a patriarch of American ceramics” and who led the ceramics department at Scripps for three decades.
Current professor of painting and drawing Alan Blizzard and the artist James Fuller joined the faculty in the ’60s. Samella Lewis, an artist, art historian, and curator, came to Scripps during that decade, as did the sculptor Aldo Casanova, who joined the Scripps faculty in 1966. Neda Al-Hilali continued the tradition of fiber art established at Scripps by Marion “Hoppy” Stewart.
When Macko began teaching at Scripps in 1986, she said there were “funky dark rooms” in the building that became Malott Commons, but no official professor of photography. Macko had been hired to teach drawing, design, and printmaking, but a couple of years after she joined the faculty, Arthur Stevens, the head of the art department, asked Macko if she would consider teaching a computer graphics class.
“I said, ‘Well, sure, but I don’t know anything about it.'”
At that point, her “advanced technology” consisted of a typewriter with a backspace corrector and carbon paper. Soon, she secured three little Macintosh computers — and computer graphics at Scripps was born, putting the College at the forefront of a new artistic medium.
“Just like we now have an art conservation major that’s cutting edge, the fact we had digital art was totally unique,” Macko said.
In 1995, Gonzales-Day became the first tenure-track professor of photography. Then, after Casanova retired, the sculptor’s position was filled by Tran, a video artist. Today, Davis offers ceramics classes in hand-building — incorporating clay in sculptural pieces — as well as wheel throwing.
“If the previous generation was the 20th century, I think we’re doing a really good job bringing the department into the 21st century without losing a connection to our history,” Macko said.
Art students make sure the 21st century is well represented. One senior is working on the images of women in video games, while another is making pieces incorporating HTML coding. Many of the very modern mediums reflect the world of students who have been “using computers since they were four,” Rankaitis said.
As the art department incorporates new mediums, it continues to cherish more traditional methods. Scripps is one of the few colleges still running a printmaking program, using an actual press, with messy ink and metal plates. “It’s very analog,” Macko said.
Ceramics also has a long history at Scripps and is in the midst of a kind of renaissance as the College nears its 86th birthday. Last year saw the unveiling of the Joan and David Lincoln Ceramic Art Building. Joan Rechtin Lincoln ’49 and her husband, David, also endowed a full-time visiting position with the Claremont Graduate University, designed for a ceramics professor who will teach both undergraduate and graduate students, similar to the setup in the ’40s when Joan Lincoln spent hours shaping clay on a whirling wheel.
Davis says, “Mrs. Lincoln’s dream and our own” will rejuvenate ceramics at Scripps, with graduate and undergraduate students working together in a stateof- the-art studio that’s open to students every day, at all hours.
“We believe it’s going to do wonderful things,” he said.
The past can be present even in mediums and methods unimaginable when the College was founded. On a tour of the seniors’ art studio space, Rankaitis stopped to talk with Michelle Plotkin ’12, a double major in art and psychology who mixes photography, painting, and drawing to reveal and reconsider the way women are traditionally represented. Looking at Plotkin’s ornamented images, Rankaitis said, “Millard Sheets would probably say, ‘Go, girl.'”
“It was really important to him in his time that the work the students did was of the present moment,” Rankaitis said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have a high regard for artists of the past, but rather you try to create the work of your place and time.”
Rankaitis believes by continuing to create the work of today’s place and time, the art department honors its heritage of innovation and experimentation.
“If our department were to try to emulate the actual work of a Paul Soldner or Millard Sheets, we would be going back in time, and I can’t imagine any of those artists would think well of Scripps because of that,” Rankaitis said. “It would seem to me that they would be thrilled that students are exploring these new arenas and are keeping art at Scripps vital.”
When Rankaitis set up her combined media studio on the second floor of the Lang Art Building, she imported second-hand couches and arranged them to face each other. She says she was inspired by Ellen Browning Scripps’ belief that a great learning experience comes not from a lectern, but from sitting around in a circle, talking and debating.
Standing in the middle of this classroom where the walls were once covered by periodic charts and the tables were full of glass beakers, Rankaitis said, “It’s a wonderful, wonderful place to teach.”
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