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The Proof is in the Process

This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue

We tend to think of art and design in terms of tangible results—the painting on the wall or the product on the shelf. But there is as much, if not more, value in the process of making.

For KCAD students, each trip through their own creative processes yields new discoveries. The act of creating becomes a journey through which techniques and ideas are investigated, solutions are uncovered, and a deeper understanding of one’s vision and identity emerges. In making, they’re learning how to make things better.

MFA Drawing student Rynita Shepherd has been developing a series of powerfully personal drawings that confront negative stereotypes of women with disabilities. Along the way, she’s come to see herself and her artwork in a new light.

Shepherd has arthrogryposis, a condition of muscle shortening caused by abnormal thickening and scarring of connective tissue. Unable to fully move her arms or legs, she uses a wheelchair to get around and draws with her mouth. None of these facts have any bearing on who Shepherd is as a person, but society nonetheless persists in defining the disabled by their disabilities, especially when it comes to sexuality. Her new work, she feels, can help change that.

Artist in a wheelchair poses in front of her work in her studioMFA student Rynita Shepherd is smashing stereotypes around disability and sexuality with her latest body of work.

“Society discredits our beauty, our sexuality, and our identity as lovers, mothers, and wives. But we have the same desires, physical needs, and relationships as able-bodied women,” Shepherd says. “I want to smash these stereotypes down.” 

Shepherd’s early artistic work was inward-focused and surrealistic, grappling with disability through covert symbolism. Her new series springs from a radically different, human-centered process, exploring disability, identity, and sexuality from a broader perspective. After connecting with other women with arthrogryposis on social media, Shepherd began drawing nude portraits of them informed by their personal narratives.

Once she understands what makes the women feel beautiful, strong, and sexy, Shepherd invites them to take a series of nude photographs that capture that same essence, and she picks the most fitting one as inspiration for her drawing. This process, Shepherd says, subverts social perceptions of disability by empowering the women to celebrate their sexuality and individual identity. 

“It’s easier to hide their body, their inner-self, because they don’t have to feel vulnerable,” she explains. “I want them to show me the goddess they want to show to the world, and I give them an outlet to express that.”

Shepherd’s latest drawings appear traditional. In actuality, they’re created using advanced software with a tablet and a stylus, both of which are pressure-sensitive, allowing her to digitally replicate the nuances of charcoal, paint, and pencils. Adapting to the new tools meant learning how to emulate the “loose” style she once employed on paper, as well as how to convey deeper meaning through subtle details that can be tweaked at a moment’s notice.

Most important, Shepherd has learned that she’s barely scratched the surface of her potential as an artist and an activist.

“These women have taught me a lot about myself, and the further I go, the clearer the story we’re telling together becomes,” Shepherd says. “My work might make some people uncomfortable, but that’s OK; the conversation around sex and disability needs to be disrupted.”

Recent graduate Casey Newberg (’18, BFA Metals and Jewelry Design) has a similar thirst for disruption. As a student, Newberg developed a fascination with electroforming, a centuries-old process in which an electrolytic bath is used to deposit electroformable metals like nickel or copper onto a conductive surface. But rather than simply employing the technique, she’s looking to evolve it.

“Electroforming is a highly technical process, but it’s fairly old, and it hasn’t really been pushed into the 21st century,” Newberg explains. “I want to change that.”

To create her latest body of work—a series of cups, pitchers, and other vessels inspired by feminine imagery—Newberg began by making a digital model of the shape she wanted, then 3D printed the model and figured out which aspects of the object could be created using electroforming. The finished pieces blend the electroformed metal with handles and/or accents that have been 3D printed in plastic.

Woman showcasing a collection of 3D printed objects on table2018 Metals and Jewelry Design graduate Casey Newberg’s bold experimentation with electroforming and 3D printing earned her a $15,000 Windgate Fellowship from the Center for Craft.

Newberg’s focus on vessel-making stems from her desire to create visually striking objects with everyday functionality. 

“I’m pulled strongly toward things that we interact with all the time,” she says. “It’s an interesting relationship between form and function. The appearance of these vessels is very conceptual—my inspiration is coming heavily from femininity and pregnancy—but everything I’ve designed is made to hold liquid.”

The 3D-printed plastic elements imbue Newberg’s work with a futuristic aesthetic that reflects her forward-thinking approach.

“I just really like plastic for its versatility; I don’t want my pieces to look too traditional,” she says. “The material offers a lot of options in terms of the end look of the product.”

Newberg’s bold designs caught the attention of the Center for Craft, which recently named her one of 10 recipients nationwide of its prestigious Windgate Fellowship for 2018. Fellowship awardees are selected for their exemplary skill in craft, and receive $15,000 to further their artistic development in any way they choose.

To Newberg, the fellowship is a validation of the exploratory approach she’s practiced throughout her time at KCAD.

“This award is a huge deal for me,” she says. “It will give me the freedom to keep pursuing new possibilities with my work, and it will allow me to travel and learn about what other people are doing, how they’re doing it, and how I can bring that all back into my own creative practice.”

Like Newberg, recent graduate Grace Springsteen (’18, BFA Art Education) saw her time at KCAD as an opportunity to advance not just herself but her discipline as well. Inspired by the Art Education program’s emphasis on curriculum design driven by cutting-edge brain research and a heightened understanding of the larger issues surrounding K-12 education in America, Springsteen has developed a teaching philosophy focused on helping the next generation use their creativity to thrive in a rapidly changing world. 

“You take these two things and put them together and you really see the possibilities emerge,” she says. “It feels really amazing to know that I have the opportunity to go out and make change.”

Women with blond hair smiles into the camera2018 Art Education graduate Grace Springsteen’s pedagogy of creative empowerment recently earned her the nation’s highest honor for preservice art educators.

Through student teaching, Springsteen found that her own education wasn’t a guarantee, but rather an opportunity she’d need to take full advantage of in order to become an impactful teacher. More often than not, that meant accommodating multiple intelligences, different learning styles, and individual student needs while also being mindful of state and national core standards. 

“The big thing is the 3 R’s: rigor, relevance, relationships,” she says. “If you have a fluff lesson, students will know it and disengage. It’s the same if you are short with them or don’t care to get to know them individually. You also have to make your lessons connect to things that they care about—that’s how students make meaning.”

In the classroom, Springsteen’s willingness to take risks and learn from failure has helped her grow immensely. Her consistently outstanding performance earned her the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Preservice Art Educator of the Year Award, the nation’s highest honor for art education student teachers, just one year after fellow KCAD student Maggie Livengood (’17, BFA Art Education) received the same distinction.

But more important than any award, Springsteen’s experiences have helped her understand that her desire to teach was never really about her at all.

“I used to think that I would change my students, that me being a great teacher would make them great too,” she recalls. “Now that I am teaching, I understand that it’s about asking, ‘What do I need to do so they can succeed?’”

Now ready to step into teaching full time, Springsteen believes that her recognition by the NAEA is proof that there will be plenty more Art Education graduates following in her footsteps.

“It’s a national-level spotlight on the KCAD Art Education program as exemplary, so I doubt I’ll be the last one from the program to win this award,” she says. “We all can be change agents.”