Nell Ruby
September, 2014



To grow as an artist a student must practice risk-taking and experimentation. My focus as a teacher is to create a community that makes a safe environment for intellectual exploration. Over the course of the four-year learning experience, I work to transition my relationship with students from teacher-as-leader to artist-as-colleague. Together with the faculty in my department, we have designed an educational method that prepares students to navigate the social and intellectual rigors of the art world.

Through varied programming and a purposeful curriculum, students become grounded in what it means to be an artist in the 21st century as they develop a realistic sense of where their skills and interests fit into the contemporary world of art and ideas.

Teaching Confidence and Skills
Part of my approach is to trust that students will live up to my expectations. I consider it my job to prepare and guide the students and to witness and recognize their achievement. I work to identify the places where I should help and where I should get out of the way. I believe the confidence that comes with experience is meaningful. Removing my own ego and allowing a student to succeed—or fail—allows the focus to be entirely on the student. I also have learned not to privilege students unwilling to do the work involved in a particular task, and instead allow them to come to terms with their own reasons and responsibilities. Sometimes these students fail, which I now see is essential experience for maturity. I don’t want the students to please me, but to see the value in pleasing themselves. Students learn from the success of their peers and I act as an advocate for the learner. My skill is in adeptly discerning where and when the student needs acknowledgment or guidance and in communicating in a way that reaches her.

At the foundation level, I give detailed instruction about concepts and materials, and over time I shift the responsibility of project content from teacher-provided to student-invented. At the intermediate stage (200/300 level courses) I ask students to look at their interests holistically: What subjects, media and approaches motivate her? What is her best working atmosphere? Which artists does she find especially inspiring and why? At the senior level, equipped with the tools to understand motivations, interests, and materials, students work independently to define their semester projects and create a plan for their work going forward. They have examined the potential pitfalls and have formulated a model for how to regularize art making. The seniors occupy the third floor of Dana with independent studios that mimic a professional artist’s space. The hub of activity on the third floor seeps down to the lower levels and models a way of studio life. The seniors become a tightly knit group as they go together through the difficulties of applying to nationally juried exhibitions or independently creating their own shows. I promote their self-sufficiency through explicit expectations, information, encouragement and recognition. This method is effective, and I am proud to watch the transition as the students own and live into their artistic independence.

Far left: still image from Yehimi Cambron's award winning senior thesis video, Monumentos: Mi Padre; left Yehimi Cambron, '14, from AP news story on her story and work; middle and right: BK Hart, '13, work from National Public Art Competition

Announcement for Senior Exhibition at Decatur Arts Alliance

The Process Log as a Teaching Tool
A useful tool to illustrate my teaching method and philosophy is the “process log”, a means of instructional writing that I use in my classes. For every class I teach, I institute a class log that I write, and I have each student produce her own process log (or p-log). I teach that the process of making is the goal for learning, and that all creative work is instructive and productive because it leads to the development of the next idea. The notion of the p-log is akin to writing out a long division problem: it is a way for a student to show her work. The p-log illustrates the student’s thinking and skills development. The links in this text will take you to specific examples from the original course blogs. The writing in the class blog is a way for me to expound on my teaching. I can underscore and expand particular concepts, highlight successful projects, link to outside professional artists, or take advantage of surprises in class that are ripe for a “teaching moment”.
For example, this post from my Art160 class log explains the merits of the p-log to the foundations course.

Other posts focus on particular students’ successes. This is a piece is about a student who expresses consistent visual voice across the breadth of her media in painting, photography and the design of her process log.
Post highlighting the work of student Mercedez Hart

I might use links to explain and direct a reader to the work of established professional artists to illustrate class project objectives, as in this one titled The Presence of Absence.

Sculpture by Erin Knox

Because the students are diagramming their work, I can link directly to examples of stellar student projects. This method of peer teaching, fosters an “if she can do it, I can do it” culture. Some students have been particularly imaginative with their personal process logs, which is what prompted the category for a “Hall of Fame” list of links on the Art 160 class site.

Periodic thoughtful posts on the class blog written by the teacher mimics public art acknowledgement, falling somewhere between the act of putting good artwork up on the refrigerator and the professional art critic’s published review–both approaches provide public recognition for notable accomplishments. A good professional art review reveals insights about the work to the artist and the viewer, and should make connections between the art and larger cultural questions. When I emphasize a particular work as significant in my class log, I simulate the professional art practice of integrating public exposure as an important demarcation of the artist’s relevance. The review practice –observing, thinking and articulating – demonstrates the power of intellectual rigor to enhance, expand and reveal meaning. The process logs provide an opportunity for the student to see her work being seen.
Blind Contour image, Art 160, link goes to the class process log.

Because a student sees her skills develop over time, the p-log dispels the notion of talent as a gift, and reinforces achievement as hard-won through disciplined effort. At the foundation level a student can watch her proficiency emerge over the course of the semester, while at the senior level she sees her work maturing across years. This showcase of visible accomplishment builds confidence and pride.  

The powerful notion that careful observation and disciplined practice can make a convincing drawing accessible to every student and not just a “talented” few is again emphasized when class work is juxtaposed in critique. Students often comment about the pride they feel in seeing their accomplishments alongside that of their peers. In critiques, I find it productive to be generous in pointing out project successes in an artwork and carefully but directly delineating what does not work. At every course level, critiques are lively and positive back and forth conversations.

Left: final critique of self portraits in art 160. Right: "18 views of a chair": an animation showing each student's perspective

I check in with my classes frequently about the structure of the course as it is unfolding and I use the feedback I get from conversations and from p-logs to evaluate the day-to-day progress. This way I can take action on concepts that have fallen short, and determine how challenging to make subsequent assignments—individually or for the class as a whole. This keeps me responsive to the specific needs of the class, and makes the students feel cared for.

In upper level courses, I begin to reveal more about my own creative process as a way to model artistic practice. I am interested in illustrating the ways that art can be expansive; no matter the stage of achievement, there is always a next level. The class process blog in these courses reflects a more nuanced approach to teaching, providing a venue for me to insert personal stories pertinent to the learning objective. To take time to thoughtfully craft posts about the work, tacitly models my reflective approach to the creative process. I strive to write posts that are inspired by my own experience, as in the post The Difference Between Listening and Pretending to Listen. An added benefit to this style of teaching is that I continually add to a growing compendium of useful documents.
Post about the call and response relationship between the artist and the page.

Creating a “meaningful comments” assignment, where students are to respond to their peers’ blogs connects the students to one another’s intellectual activity and fosters community.

Seniors transform their four year process logs into a publically accessible web presence as part of their capstone course and often maintain these web logs after graduation in the form of professional websites. I refer to alumnae blogs to connect students to alumnae and to keep up with the lives of my former students. The dynamic nature of the blog means I can always keep my relationships with former students current.

Graduate web logs, left to right: Emily Allred (nee Hauck), '08; Ashley French, '05; Jill Carson, '04; Jordan Casteel, '11

Developing Art-World Ready Majors
The relationships formed during the capstone year act as a strong bonding force for life after Agnes. Students have met local artists and visited their studios. They are comfortable and confident analyzing and explaining artwork. They have familiarity with the Atlanta art scene. They have learned the roles involved with galleries and museums and have met many of the curators and directors who run the local art venues. They have created a digital portfolio that contains not only their artwork, but an intelligent explanation and rationale of its development, too. They have personalized a methodology for generating work and they have a thriving peer-group who share their ethic and vocabulary, with whom they have a strong rapport for supportive and directive dialogue. They are well-prepared to enter the next stage of their life with a solid foundation of studio preparation.

2014 Studio Majors

The Dalton Gallery as a Teaching Tool
The art department’s curricular and co-curricular program meshes well with the local art world on multiple levels. One example of the way we integrate academic research and essential communication skills is through public art talks based on original artworks in the college permanent art collection. Each student shares with the community her research on the work’s genre, media, time-period and artist. Presenting in a public venue gives students invaluable practical experience, and empowers them as experts to an audience eager to benefit from the information. In the senior capstone course, students revisit these skills in a required gallery talk that makes use of the fall exhibition in the Dalton Gallery. Each senior major selects a particular artist’s work for independent study, which includes a personal interview with the artist, in preparation for a presentation for the exhibition opening. This project has become a signature venture for the department, and has proven to be an invaluable exercise for the students, creating bonds between students and artists and preparing a path for entre into the Atlanta art community.

Seniors give public gallery talks in Dalton Gallery, Fall 2013

Another instrumental teaching experience in the gallery is the public “conversation” held with the participants in the showing/thinking exhibition. Juniors and seniors are responsible for leading their professors—who are featured in the show—in a conversation about the process of their creative activity. The students learn the nuances involved in the art of discussion. Because the participants are their professors, this important activity is a way for the students to use their knowledge and skill to highlight the work of and with people they admire.

Collaborative Teaching as Inspiration
As a way to keep myself engaged and learning, I co-teach whenever I can. I am thrilled to engage in dialogue with my peers about interconnected ideas. Modeling this energy in a classroom is infectious and effective. I always learn a lot from my co-teachers in content, teaching style and communication techniques. I like gaining knowledge, and I think this comes across to the students in the class as an illustration of one woman’s approach to a life dedicated to learning.

Studio Art and Art History collaborations
Several times a year our department gets together to instruct in core courses and participate in co-curricular activities. Each fall I “parallel teach” the advanced studio course alongside the art history senior seminar. This class integrates several projects that underscore the important realtionship of these two distinct but interrelated disciplines, for an integrated Art and Art History capstone experience. The entire art faculty is involved in supporting and developing the students to prepare them for graduation. I have team-taught with Katherine Smith in two First Year Seminars, and I am scheming about a future project with Donna Sadler that couples her scholarship with the medieval drama of the pleurants with my interest in performance art. Exploring connections is exhilarating.

Studio Art and Anthropology collaboration
When Campbell Hall was vacated, I saw an opportunity to imagine a new kind of learning environment. I teamed up with the Office of Sustainability, ITS and the Dean of the College to do in depth thinking about how this renewal might look. I ended up team teaching a course with Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt that interwove studio art projects with anthropological study focusing on inventing ideas about how to effectively teach 21st century learners. The class included projects like self-watering broccoli plants in the back stairwell of the library to encourage taking the stairs, yoga as a requirement, and “pop up” dance breaks – an impromptu ipod dance party on the library terrace or a 21 piece marching band making a surprise appearance in Evans Dining Hall. This course, called “Observing and Designing the Social Use of Space: Campbell Hall a Case study”, had a ripple effect. In subsequent years we took seniors to two national conferences on Learning Space Design to present their findings and the experience of the class, and at least one student is studying space design and its social effects as a long term career focus.

Studio Art and Women’s Studies collaboration
I have now twice collaborated on a studio art and women’s studies global awareness course with Beth Hackett, Comparative Women’s Studies and Visual Thinking in New Zealand, a course that has opened up new vistas for me. Visit the travel log for more in-depth information on the content of this course.

New Zealand class travel blogs, left, 2014 and right, 2011

Studio Art and Dance collaboration
Last spring with Bridget Roosa, I taught a class combining advanced choreography with studio art. This course was developed as a part of the Mellon Grant for Undergraduate Research (cohort 2). We designed the course as a semester long artist project, where the students would be co-collaborators. The idea for this course grew out of several years of joining forces for creative projects and performances where we have involved students outside of the class structure, but always longed for more structured time to work together and with the students. In this course the students were co-collaborators, contributing ideas and energy as artists. The course culminated in a final performance in Alston Student Center, incorporating exercises developed throughout the semester.

Studio Art and Technology collaboration
Over the summer, Calvin Burgamy and I taught an online course combining visual thinking, photography and technology. This provided me with a great deal of information about technology that I will incorporate into my “in the seat” courses.

Liberal Arts college and Art School collaborations
When schedules and stars align, I also teach with professors outside of the college. Emory’s sculpture professor Linda Armstrong and I joined forces for a sculpture course collaboration to make “flowers in the garden” from reclaimed/recycled objects in the Oakhurst Community Garden. I worked with Avantika Bawa from SCAD Atlanta to collaborate with her sculpture students for a thematic case design in the Dalton Gallery.

Experience design as a teaching tool
Visiting Kirk Artist
I advocated for and set up the Kirk Visiting Artist program, supported by the Kirk fund, as a way to enrich our teaching curriculum by providing the students with access to professional artists. The project has been in place for three years and each year subsequent to our hire, the artist selected has won the prestigious “Working Artist” award from the Museum of Contemporary Art, GA. This means the students have the opportunity to learn from and form bonds with some of the most exciting talent in Atlanta.

Images from Kirk visiting artists, left to right: Katherine Taylor, 2013/14; Jiha Moon, 2012/13; Sarah Emerson, 2014/15

Seniors Select
In this project, students are given a budget and asked to select a work of art for purchase. Each year the department attends the Art Papers Art Auction, where we have exciting conversations about the work we consider for acquisition. The students research the work beforehand and make a persuasive case for their favorite pieces in a formal conversation with their peers and the full art faculty and gallery director. The high stakes of the object at hand—buying a work that will be on permanent display—makes the students understand that their learning matters. In this case, what they have learned in four years has a profound practical implication.

(This project is explained more thoroughly in the statement on service)

Dana Design
Dana Design was formed as a means for student designers to design and produce projects for campus events. The initiative is intended to engage the design process as a tool for learning. Students form the design “company” while the “client” is a staff or faculty member seeking good design. Together we completely transformed the Writers Festival Magazine from a visually monotonous publication to an exciting collaborative project between the Creative Writing director Amber Dermont and an entrepreneurial group of students interested in conceptually strong and aesthetically stellar design projects. The group also worked on posters and playbills for the theater department, CD sleeves for Cal Johnson in Music, book covers for various faculty publications –Leslie Coia in the Education Department and Waqas Khwaja in English, covers for the SpArc catalog and other projects. My aim for this group was to highlight the experience of working collaboratively and creatively to transform an otherwise mundane project into a lively, meaningful and beautiful enterprise. All of the students who participated in the Dana Design program are currently, or have been, professional designers.

The Liberal Learning Video
(collaboration between the Office of Academic Advising, Admissions and Studio Art students)

This project is a collaboration with the Office of Advising, the Committee on the First-Year Experience, Calvin Burgamy and the Dana Design students. In this innovative design process, summer funds and housing were made available for students so that they could produce a video explaining liberal learning and advising procedures to first years. The students involved in the initial video researched, interviewed, scripted, acted, shot, edited and produced this 33 minute project. The project was wildly successful, and the result was used broadly by admissions and advising, and even burned onto CDs and sent to newly enrolled students.Last summer two students created a new version of the same video. I was creative director and manager of both videos.

A professor of English at Columbia College discovered their process log chronicling the event and subsequently asked the students to write an article that he has since published in his book, The Learning Portfolio: Reflective Practice for Improving Student Learning.


Left, video still from 2014 liberal learning video; right, video still from 2008 liberal learning video
2008 video designers: Emily Hauck, Olivia White-Lopez and Shannon Yarbrough. 2014 video designers, writers, actors, producers: Yehimi Cambron and Gala Cude.

I see teaching as a way to move and be moved by the awesome power of the visual image. In a world that is increasingly reliant on the quick "reading" of a picture, I believe those who know how to "write" have the potential to be especially influencial. Teaching art in a liberal arts setting is meaningful for me, because I believe an artist must evolve as a whole person with a deep understanding of her culture and herself to effectively absorb, interpret and reflect 21st century civilization.