First Things First (part 1)

Excerpts of the presentation by Dr. Amundson to the students, staff and faculty of the School of Art, Design & Architecture on Friday, September 11, 2015

2ndgradeI bet dollars to donuts that none of the talented and committed faculty of this School, when they students years ago, imagined their current job as faculty. We all started out as students aspiring to work in a creative profession—but somewhere along the way, we branched into teaching. Some of us have taken a further crook in the road from fulltime teaching to administrative positions. Taking this path requires really compelling reasons, since being a professor is one of the great jobs in the world. Giving that up, and engaging in something new and different is not easy…. We all have origins stories, and I want to share mine with you to explain how I ended up here—and why it matters to you.

The accompanying picture shows me in second grade, courtesy of an amazing primary document from my family archives. This is the scrapbook that my mother kept for me all through grade school and junior high. In addition to providing a generally interesting—maybe occasionally cringe-worthy— trip down memory lane, it gave a point to some things that, in my memory, had lost some of their sharpness. Every year starting in second grade, I took advantage of a blank line in the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” section to project an alternate future to more conventional suggestions made to girls growing up in the 1970s. Here in second grade I recorded my plans to become a “potter,” since I didn’t know the word “ceramicist.”

Thus began my life in art. Actually, I know it was a significant thing even earlier, since the first time I remember getting into real trouble in school—which didn’t happen often!— it was in Kindergarten, and it was because of art. I relished any and all programs in art offered right through high school, when I frustrated my guidance counselor who couldn’t understand why someone who tested well academically would want to take a course in graphic design rather than Latin grammar during the year she was applying to colleges. Once I got to college, I soaked up an even broader curriculum in art. I studied interior design and architecture and added as many electives in my university’s College of Fine and Applied Arts as I could fit. My final undergraduate semester was a wonderland that included classes in set design for theater, watercolor painting and metalsmithing. Even as I chose my academic specialty in grad school, courses in ceramics and photography snuggled in with the demands of the architecture curriculum; later, my vague interest in old movies became more focused on silent film that finally manifest itself in the pretty respectable representation of German Expressionist cinema in my home DVD collection.

By the time I concluded my architectural internship, another path had opened up; I received word that I passed the architecture registration exam quite literally as I was moving across the country to start a Ph.D. program in architectural history. And it wasn’t that I wanted to leave practice, but rather, history opened opportunities to thinking about architecture that I found more compelling. And perhaps I was always destined to be a teacher, and a writer, which I pursued first at a university in North Carolina before coming to Judson.

While these years of focus on history and theory were intellectually rich, they did take me away from that early impulse to make things, and it’s only recently that I have started finding my way back to the fun of making. One of the best things I did during my sabbatical last year was to take time away from writing to enroll in metalsmithing workshops. In the hours that I have spent since then, hammering hot iron on an anvil at the school, or slicing through copper on the jewelry bench we’ve set up in the basement, I remembered how great it is to make stuff with my hands. It was exactly during this period that I received my first phone call from President Crume about this position, and the rest fell into place slowly, but with a certain logic, for me to accept a position administering all these creative disciplines that I’ve engaged in, one way or another, my whole life.

It is always a challenge for someone who is a specialist in one thing to step into a role that oversees a lot of related things—in part, because it is human nature to categorize people with discrete labels. I deeply hope that  with this address I can dispel any assumptions along these lines that might exist in this room—and, more importantly, live its aims during the next two years. While, in the most severe professional sense, I am an architectural historian, I am certainly not the architecture history dean, nor even the architecture dean. It’s my great privilege to actually, after diving deep in one pool, surface, and take in the broad ocean of art, design and architecture, and work among these many disciplines that I have sometimes practiced, or at least admired, from a close distance. I see my role as dean as a wonderful opportunity to facilitate and support work for which I have a great enthusiasm and affection, but because of the way modern professional life works, can’t fully engage in. If you’ll allow me the analogy that the School of Art, Design and Architecture is like a candy shop: architectural history may be my go-to Snickers bar, but that does not make the Twix and M&Ms any less delicious. I just can’t eat them all, all the time.

In this role I have the privilege to get to know more corners of the shop, which is really not just a desire, but a responsibility, and one of my first self-imposed jobs to address. Although I am familiar with Judson as a whole, I have taught a very narrow portion of our curriculum within the School. I recognize my need to re-learn this place; not only to see it with my own fresh eyes but through the eyes of everyone here. For that reason you may find me, in the coming months, lurking on the sidelines of your classes and on the fringes of your reviews  as I strive to understand better what is going on all around our big house.

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