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May 30, 2014
Painting professor reflects on art, teaching, and 'lives changed forever'
By Lane Cooper, Associate Professor, Painting
Another year gone, another year of endings and beginnings, another year of lives changed forever: graduating in Painting, Forrest James, this year’s student speaker, with easy wit and surprising insights, provided context for this rite of passage. He noted the remarkable transformation that four years can work on a student and implored his peers not to lose sight of what they’ve gained here. He convincingly urged all of us to move into the future thoughtfully, with a mind to the consequences of our actions. He earnestly pleaded with us to contribute to this culture in ways that make it easier for all to live in it.
His was a most appropriate salutation for this day, for commencement doesn’t just mark a passing for the students. It is, an opportunity for all within the Institute – the faculty in particular – to reflect. Commencement sets the stage for the future and offers the students a final installment of their curriculum: a master class on how to live well. The content of this day is meant to propel these, as CIA President Grafton Nunes addressed them, our “dear” students, forward. They hear the Institute’s last words, the last bit of armor to aid in the quest of their ambitions, and a reminder to those of us who teach of our ethical obligations to the future.
At the Institute we teach, in part, by example. Our faculty are professionals, regularly distinguishing themselves in their own creative practices. The best of us, however, transcend mere professionalism. They fulfill their ethical commitment through the generosity of their natures, by selflessly sharing their expertise, their life experiences, by giving more than could be expected, and by distinguishing themselves with more than the products of their hands but also by the contents of their hearts. Such faculty serve more than the students they teach. They provide their colleagues and their community with a model of what it means to be a teacher, truly. They demonstrate through courage and devotion how to change lives. There are no finer examples of this than our newly designated emeriti faculty, Allen Zimmerman and Brent Kee Young.
For thirty-seven years Allen Zimmerman, soft-spoken, thoughtful, wise, with a vast ocean of caring within him, has given himself to the Institute. Teaching such courses as “Creativity + Taoism,” and “Ways of Thought: Confucianism and Zen,” Allen has brought his students to the shores of new continents of thought while working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure their emotional well-being. Allen’s unique qualities have moved him through a variety of positions that have served and supported the Institute, beginning in 1977 as an adjunct, and later dean of students and student counselor. He has also served as an advisor on countless individual BFA committees. Allen is someone that students and faculty alike have regularly turned to for his always-honest insights and fresh perspectives.
Like Allen, Brent Kee Young is revered for his commitment to his students. Recognized as one of the most renowned glass artists working today, Brent has work in museums and private collections throughout the world. Over the past forty years Brent has used this expertise to build a truly distinctive Glass program at CIA. The students graduating in Glass leave CIA with a technical and creative expertise rarely matched. Nate Cotterman, Slate Grove, Uri Davillier, Jake Moskowitz, Eric Hernandez and Rene Culler are just a few examples of this.
Beyond their artistry however, which is extraordinary, is their ability to succeed. It is well known that often an artist’s talents are not enough to ensure success. This is where Brent’s teaching has had its most profound influence, because through mentoring and personal guidance, he has imbued his students with a level of professional understanding that has prepared them in the best possible way for the very challenging world in which they must thrive. And thrive they do.
Allen’s and Brent’s retirements mark a major transition for the Institute, but their academic careers demonstrate how teaching is rightly done and provide evidence of the rewards that those who give themselves to it might reap: to look back and to know that you’ve contributed to the success and excellence of generations of creative professionals.
Since 1980, Illustration Chair and CIA alum Dominic Scibilia has likewise demonstrated the effects that consummate professionalism – married to a deep commitment to student success – has on a program. This year he received the Victor Schreckengost Award for Excellence in Teaching in recognition of that commitment. Dom’s influence as a faculty member can be seen in the transformation of the Illustration program over the years. Moving from a relatively small department with only a few students, it is now the largest program in the school. With alums like Valerie Mayen, Michael Gaydos and Brian Bendis, it is a program built largely on its reputation for educating highly professional and extraordinarily versatile alums. Illustration’s success is a testament to Dom’s leadership and his extraordinary love of his students.
In keeping with the idea of commencement as a master class and a celebration of a commitment to and a passion for creative excellence, the commencement speaker provides the crescendo to the day’s events. His or her address in some fashion acts as a benediction, a prayer for the future. With this focus in mind, it is with good cause then that this year’s speaker, Fred Bidwell, was chosen. In partnership with his wife, Laura, Fred Bidwell has provided prescient leadership to Cleveland’s creative and philanthropic communities. Through the Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Foundation and in establishing the Transformer Station, a preeminent exhibition space dedicated to contemporary art, Fred and Laura have demonstrated the value of privileging artistic excellence. Their actions give evidence of a deeply held belief in the idea that a great people “deserve great art,” and that great art is necessarily the hallmark of a world-class city. Most recently, and as a testament to his place in the community, one of Cleveland’s most valued cultural institutions turned to him for leadership through what was an unexpectedly tumultuous period. It is to his great credit that the Cleveland Museum of Art has arrived on the other side of its challenges seemingly unscathed and with its reputation intact.
In his address Fred offered anecdotes of a circuitous professional life that failed to follow the course he had originally mapped. He noted that while the path of his career was unimagined, it had, nevertheless, managed to exceed those ambitions he once set for himself. He talked about his transformation over time, from struggling photographer, to art director, to advertising executive and company CEO, to finally the philanthropist, arts advocate, and community leader that he is today. He made it clear that it was the unexpected twists in the journey, the openness to unanticipated opportunities that brought him the greatest success and the greatest sense of personal achievement. It is in fact his ability to reimagine possibilities that has distinguished his career. Whether it is the act of reinventing his professional focus, re-envisioning the uses of an electrical substation, or helping to lead what is surely a Cleveland Cultural Renaissance, the message of his address was clear – look with fresh eyes and re-imagine always. His was a final and fitting lesson for the students and a thoughtful charge for the Institute’s coming year: that devotion to purpose, professional passion, and openness to possibility will lead us not only to creative excellence but to lives that contribute and enrich the world around us.
Above: The author at Commencement 2014. To view a full slide show of images from the May 17 ceremony, click here.
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