Diversity leadership winner Robinson eyes new models for educators

As K. Lynn Robinson explores collective learning in her research, she’s convinced it can help change the art education profession in ways that better represent the nation’s diverse populations and communities.

For her efforts, the School of Art doctoral student has been named the recipient of the 2022-23 Dr. Maria Teresa Velez Diversity Leadership Scholarship. The award is given annually to a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona who’s committed to diversity and inclusion through teaching, research or outreach and service.

“My research is less about teacher development than it is about modeling new possibilities for all educators,” Robinson said. “We tend to look at education as the sole work of the teacher, but students learn in nearly all the spaces we find them in. Grandma’s house, at the community center, or in their dad’s garage. What if we gathered all these educators and gave them access to art materials and ways of doing?

(From left) Tehan Ketema, K. Lynn Robinson, Mayor Regina Romero and Prof. Sama Alshaibi attended the 2022 MOCA Gala. (Photo courtesy of K. Lynn Robinson)

“What if we encouraged them to work together and shared authority in the design of the lessons their children will engage within the classroom? We’d then have the village our ancestors spoke of, and we’d return to a collective learning environment more conducive to the diverse populations we serve.”

As a graduate research assistant, Robinson helped create an arts equity student fellowship for the College of Fine Arts and has been “key to the successes” of the university’s Equity in the Arts, said Dr. Amy Kraehe, associate vice president for the Arizona Arts’ program.

Robinson, also a graduate teaching assistant, calls the Art & Visual Culture Education program in the School of Art “one of a kind,” led by Drs. Kraehe, gloria j. Wilson, Ryan Shin and Carissa DiCindio and Robinson’s first-year mentor, Dr. Manisha Sharma.

“The art education field is over 70 percent white women, so joining a program that has such a diverse faculty spoke to my own experiences in the arts and education and the kind of practice I hope to have,” Robinson said. “Getting your Ph.D. is a certain kind of evil and really takes everything from you in the process, but (these professors) have given me such a fulfilling and multidimensional perspective on the power of the arts and how interwoven equity can be in its practice.”

Robinson received her B.A. in History & Peace, War and Defense from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her M.A. in Heritage Preservation/Public History from Georgia State University. While earning her master’s, she began consulting as an exhibit and program designer for small and large museums around Atlanta.

As for what to do with her Ph.D., Robinson is still working on her career plans.

“I’d love to teach ways the arts can be integrated into the curriculum for formal and informal education,” she said. “It’s a big passion of mine as I received this kind of teaching from my parents and schooling.

“I’d also love to continue into the arts business world and open my own gallery/community space in the communities that have been largely excluded from access to the arts. I want a space where people can talk the talk and walk the walk. Where art and education are accessible and transformative at all levels.”

For Robinson, art education has a “keen ability to work against the grain.”

“If we allow it, the methods of art education, in all of its reflexive beauty, can be elevated in such a way that it touches the deepest parts of our humanity — that urge to come together.”

ABOUT THE VELEZ DIVERSITY LEADERSHIP SCHOLARSHIP

  • Named in honor of Dr. Maria Teresa Velez, associate dean, University of Arizona Graduate College, and her lifelong commitment to promoting graduate student diversity and inclusion.
  • The award consists of $25,000, plus full base graduate tuition and student health insurance for a year.
  • More information

Alum Adam Rex mentors aspiring illustrators, writers

Long before DreamWorks turned his children’s book into the 2015 animated film “Home,” Adam Rex sat in a University of Arizona art classroom and dreamed about his own career.

David Christiana taught me so much,” Rex said about the School of Art emeritus professor. “Anatomy, how to paint … but the greatest thing he did for me was just be a walking, talking object lesson — here was someone who wrote and illustrated picture books, proving it was a real thing that people did.

“I needed that. You can know a certain profession is attainable, but if you don’t actually see it, it feels a little like saying you want to be a wizard when you grow up.”

You could say Rex has become a wizard in his own right, having written and illustrated more than 40 books for children — including several New York Times bestsellers — since he graduated with a BFA in Studio Art in 1996.

Adam Rex
Adam Rex (www.adamrex.com)

And in fall 2022, Rex channeled Christiana as the Tucson Public Library’s writer-in-residence, offering one-on-one sessions to aspiring authors and illustrators at the Himmel Park and Woods Memorial branches.

In 2017, Rex won both the Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature for “School’s First Day of School” and the 2017 National Cartoonists Society Book Illustration Award for “The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors.” His debut novel — “The True Meaning of Smekday,” which DreamWorks developed into “Home” with Rihanna — was a 2007 nominee for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

He got his start drawing comic strips for the Arizona Daily Wildcat student newspaper and making art for games such as “Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.” Rex, who lives in Tucson with his physicist wife, Marie, and son, answered questions for the School of Art.

Q. Can you tell us about your first career break out of college?

Rex: I got my earliest work by taking a portfolio out to the San Diego Comic Con in the nineties and showing it to anyone who would look at it. I slept in my car and just hustled for the full weekend each year. That led to some jobs in RPGs and card games, which led to better work in the same field, and that kind of stuff paid my bills for years while I was trying to break into children’s books.

Q. What advice would you give current School of Art students?

Rex: I’m not sure what to say specifically to students in school right now about this moment, but I think this one is evergreen: Slow it down. Learn everything you can and try new things. That’s our job when we’re in school. But in my day, there were always students who got up on critique day and presented the same thing they always did, in the same medium and style. Style, in particular, became their armor — if anyone in class questioned their work (shaky fundamentals, lackluster composition, sloppy rendering) this kind of student invariably said, “That’s just my style; it’s supposed to look like that.” You couldn’t teach them anything …

Q. What would you like people to learn from your one-on-one library sessions?

Rex: Well, piggybacking on that last answer, I guess I’m hoping an aspiring writer and/or illustrator will show up to our one-on-one consultation looking to learn something. Something about my experiences in my field, or my beliefs about art and writing, or even my opinion of their work. And then they can walk away with everything I said and decide for themselves if it had any value. Maybe I’ll have said something that really helps them — I sincerely hope I do — but I could be wrong! Even the process of picking apart why I’m wrong could lead them to a better understanding of why what they’re doing is right.

Book movie collage
Rex wrote and illustrated “The True Meaning of Smekday” (2007), which DreamWorks adapted into the animated movie “Home” in 2015.

Q. How did you develop your writing skills?

Rex: By writing a lot of really bad stories. And reading a lot of really good ones.

Q. What did you create for the Daily Wildcat?

Rex: Oh, I had a couple short-lived comic strips during my years as a student. The first was a Far Side/Bizarro-style single panel strip, except not good. And the second was more of a Doonesbury/Bloom Country-style serialized strip, except not good.

Q. Where do you get ideas for your books?

Rex: “Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich” was a title that popped into my head, fully formed, while I was on a stair stepper machine. I didn’t know what it meant but decided to try writing a book that might be called that.

The True Meaning of Smekday” came out of the books of American history I was reading at the time, and I set out to write an alien invasion story that would encourage the average American kid to sympathize with the colonized rather than the colonizers (if you think that aspiration sounds a little fraught, it was — I made mistakes that cause me to have mixed feelings about that book now). Another book came from an anecdote my brother told me. Still another came to me when I misread a sign.

So, the point I’m getting to is: ideas come from everywhere, and I never know where lightning is going to strike next. If I did, I’d go stand there.

Q. What projects are you working on now?

Rex: My next book to arrive in stores is called “Digestion! The Musical.” It’s a stage musical about how digestion works, but in book form. I think it comes out in October. But right now I’m working on a young adult novel and a chapter book series, neither of which will be out for a couple years. Traditional publishing has a long lead time.

Q. You grew up in Phoenix and attended Thunderbird High School. Why did you make Tucson your home?

Rex: I never got a sense of Phoenix having any personality. I probably just lived in the wrong part. Tucson has personality — sometimes an embarrassing surfeit of personality. Tucson is a dog who has a million followers on Instagram because it’s so ugly it’s cute.

PRAISE FROM A PROFESSOR

David Christiana, a professor emeritus in the School of Art, illustrated more than 20 picture books for children and authored four for international publishers. He reflected on Adam Rex, his former student:

David Christiana

“Adam was an outstanding student. It was clear from the get-go that he wasn’t merely a picture maker nor simply a designer or typographer. He was then, as he is now, a human with a personal vision. That, though not unique (everyone has a unique perspective) is too often surprisingly underserved. In Adam’s case, his uber-unique perspective just seemed to ooze out all over everything he did. Further, it oozed with arresting clarity and skill. I mean, he soaked up what was going on in and out of class, twisted things around with exceptional skill, not to mention wit, and worked like a bull to make his imaginative jaunts come to life in pictures and words.

“He was also as serious as he was playful, both in the execution of his work and his approach toward a career. I remember how, early on, he grouped the works he featured on his web site into age-appropriate categories. That may seem like a natural step, but to many artists whose creative flights are as playful and original as Adam’s, taking that practical step can be difficult.  What was it they used to say about mullet haircuts – ‘business in the front, party in the back?’ Well, to force the analogy,  Adam was like a mullet in reverse – party in the front with business in the background. It’s a balance, or perhaps more precisely, a dance.

“Adam’s success is truly one of my great rewards as an educator. There are many perks when it comes to teaching at the School of Art and none is greater than seeing a student launch and succeed, but to see one take flight and soar with such grace and aplomb as Adam has over the years is more than satisfying, it’s a gift to relish, and I do.”

Centennial winner Kray raises mental health awareness

What began as a way of understanding her nightmares has turned into an art project that Emily Kray hopes will act as “a portal” to help others cope with mental illness, trauma and stressors.

Kray, a School of Art graduate student, is the recipient of the 2022 Marcia Grand Centennial Sculpture Prize. She will use the $10,000 award to expand her project, “N is for Nightmare,” into an edition of 66 three-volume large accordion books and three art installations to serve as mental health spaces within the University of Arizona and community.

As Kray tried to analyze her nightmares, she said she started to write and create illustrations that depicted her dream-self conquering “the monsters.” But when that didn’t help her heal, Kray began to depict the monsters not “as villains, but instead as comrades, friends and lovers,” and she began to organize and curate the illustrations into alphabetical order.

Emily Kray

“With this process, not only did I allow myself to cope with my mental illness, trauma and stressors in a compassionate way, but I also see it as a portal for others to see and understand this process themselves,” said Kray, 26. “My experience is not unique, and knowing this, I hope that this project allows others to reflect upon their own inner monsters.”

For more than 30 years, the Centennial Sculpture Prize has been given to an MFA candidate, specifically to support the completion of sculptural/3D artwork. The recipient is determined by a committee of staff and faculty through a proposal process. Recent honorees included Mariel MirandaBenjamin Dearstyne HosteMarina Shaltout and Karlito Miller Espinosa.

“I’m honored and so excited about this project being financially supported,” Kray said. “This project, when compared to my other recent works, is highly personal and talks about feelings and modes of expression that took me a while to become comfortable enough with to share.

“It feels incredibly validating to have this body of work recognized because it means that my personal story can be made available to share with a larger audience for years to come.”

Kray plans to place the mental health art installations and “N is for Nightmare” books at the Poetry Center and renovated School of Art building on campus and at Groundworks Tucson, a non-profit community arts space. She also will donate the books to Special Collections at University of Arizona Libraries.

“Emily investigates life in her art process with vigor and tenacity,” said Professor Karen Zimmermann, assistant director of the School of Art. “She tirelessly produces work that investigates personal narratives and explores materials and forms.”

Kray’s large accordion books will contain pop-up elements and can be displayed more easily in a gallery setting and at national exhibitions. The pop-up elements are shown as alphabet blocks that appear in the valley of each fold of the accordion book. She’ll letterpress print the books using photopolymer plates.

“Emily has beautifully incorporated the best of analog and digital processes to create her book works,” said Zimmerman, who has taught Kray in her classes. “I am so impressed with her work and approach to taking serious issues and making them accessible to all.”

Within Kray’s planned three mental health spaces, the books will be displayed on shelving units in installations that will resemble a bedroom.

“The furniture and other items within the room will be designed to resemble the monsters in my nightmares,” Kray said. “These monsters will be transformed into objects of comfort,” allowing people to lie down with a red snake body pillow and a blanket covered in beetle embroidery.

“The bed frame itself will be designed where you can lay and relax within an alligator’s mouth,” Kray said. “Having these monsters being transformed again can be conceptually viewed as the artist attempting to comfort and connect with their audience.”

Kray is a visual artist working primarily with watercolor and book arts to investigate the complexities and fallacies of memory by manipulating our attachment to nostalgic and familiar forms. She began her artistic career by living and working in Las Vegas, and received her BFA from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2020. That same year, she began her MFA at the University of Arizona.

“At (the School of Art), we’re lucky enough to have faculty members who have a wide breadth of experience with book arts as well as incredible letterpress equipment,” said Kray, who singled out Professors Cerese Vaden and Zimmermann. “I’ve been dabbling in bookmaking as an art form since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Holding and making a book is a very nostalgic experience for me and mentally brings me back to flipping through books throughout my childhood,” she added. “It’s that simple comfort that the medium can extend to my audience as well.”

Kray, who plans to earn her MFA in spring 2023, has participated in group shows nationally since 2016 and solo shows across Nevada and in Arizona. She’s a graduate teaching assistant at the School of Art, where she’s mentored undergraduate students in Color, Theory and Design (Art 100) and Elements of Drawing (Art 200).

After graduation, Kray plans to continue as a visual artist, researcher and educator, while making art with a focus on community involvement and nostalgic comfort. “My inspiration typically comes from my community, as art is rarely made in isolation,” she said.

“Being an artist and an educator allows me to fill the shoes of those who have inspired me,” Kray said, “with hopes that I can elevate the voices of my students and my community as my teachers and comrades have done — and are still doing — for me.”

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