March 30, 2015
Grad is taking classes, making artwork in her senior community
By Carolyn Jack
When Shirley Koller ’42 first moved to Laurelmead, the Providence, R.I., senior community in which she currently lives, she took her meals in a dining area called the Rose Room. Though pictures had been hung elsewhere, the wall her chair faced was big and blank.
Koller got tired of that in a hurry. So she made a bargain with the management: If they would let her put up one of her own paintings in that empty space, she would catalog all of Laurelmead’s artworks for them.
Done and done.
But hanging “Pink Floyd,” the colorful, abstract piece she placed in the Rose Room, and organizing her new community’s collection meant more than making herself useful: Those actions represented a new leg of the arts career that Koller has successfully pursued for nearly 73 years. When she turns 94 on April 6, Koller will be looking ahead to the explorations she’s making in pencil, pastels and watercolor, as well as appreciating how far she’s come on her long run as a professional artist, art educator and curator.
“It’s unbelievable to me that I have done this much work,” she marveled.
The rest of us may not be so surprised, given that Koller started nine decades ago and is still at it. Her mother, who had what Koller called “an artistic bent,” may have had something to do with that: A decorator of unfinished furniture, she enlivened surfaces with paint, decoupage and other ornamentation, while tiny Shirley sat on the floor of her parents’ Cleveland-area home with crayons and paper, scribbling her first experiments with color and composition.
“I always had something to draw on,” Koller said.
The urging of her aunt and her teachers at Shaker Heights High School eventually persuaded her parents to let her attend the Cleveland School of Art, as CIA was known then.
“It was very wonderful to go to a place and make art with teachers who were successful in the field. That was very inspiring,” she recalled. “The whole atmosphere at the school was learning, and teachers noticed a certain best in you.”
For Koller, that “best” turned out to be her gift for color and her passion for art education. When she finally left Cleveland for the Washington, D.C., area with a diploma from CIA, a bachelor’s degree from what is now Case Western Reserve University, and Herbert Koller, the husband she had met at CIA married a year after graduating, Koller knew she wanted to teach.
But three things happened – all of them children – and it was years before Koller was able to earn an MFA at American University and begin teaching at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, where she stayed for 14 years.
She made up for lost time by making discoveries: that her “best” included sculpture; that she had it in her to run a gallery, and did; and that, in addition to making, teaching and selling art, she could curate it, too. A show she organized in D.C.’s Washington Square got such good reviews that Koller held one there annually for the next 15 years. When the American Association for the Advancement for Science’s curator quit just as a big art show was coming in, the organization came to Koller. She got the job, retiring from it only four years ago, in 2011. And though she left Washington, her art remains in many public and private collections there and elsewhere.
At Laurelmead, she now curates art displays, works with students, and has joined the Providence Art Club, where she takes classes and has started a series of works featuring injured trees. In March, an exhibition of her pieces from the 1970s and ’80s opened in Providence.
So now the rest of us have made a discovery: Shirley Koller’s real “best” is her knack for seeing an interesting artistic opportunity and energetically seizing it. And her advice for keeping a long art career in the pink?
“Focus,” she said.
Above: Shirley Koller' 42 with "Pink Floyd."
For more information about this or other CIA news, contact us here.