The Art of Building an Art Program

Florida Southern’s Journey Revealed

Story by Ann Gurley Rogers • Photography by Philip Pietri

When bright, young, and energetic faculty join an academic department, remarkable things can happen. That’s the story of the Department of Art and Art History at Florida Southern College. Beginning at the end of the 1990s and over the course of several years, all three of the full-time studio art faculty retired. Art historian Dr. Jim Rogers, then the new department
chair, led the search committees that chose their replacements. Already a new program of advising students within the department had been established, figure-drawing courses had returned to the curriculum, and the department was poised for growth.

Bill Otremsky

Bill Otremsky

In 1999, Bill Otremsky, a classical realist who the year before had received his MFA (Master of Fine Arts — the terminal degree in art) from the University of Pennsylvania, was selected to teach painting and drawing and to head the studio art program. The following year, Alexis Serio, both a painter and a designer and also with a newly minted Penn MFA, joined the team to lead the foundations program — the basic courses in drawing and design that all students take. The year after that, Bob Recht, an iconoclastic designer and abstract painter who received his MFA in graphic design from Yale and was designing websites in London before being laid off at the end of the dot.com boom, was hired to head up the graphic design program.

Before Serio’s first year was over, before Recht even had been interviewed, Otremsky and Serio convinced Rogers that if the FSC art majors were to have any hope of being admitted to graduate schools, the college needed to add a BFA program, an art-heavy, gold-standard degree not commonly offered at small liberal arts colleges. In fact, Rogers feared that both Otremsky and Serio might leave Florida Southern if he could not get approval to add the BFA degree. It was approved, and that was just the beginning. Portfolio reviews were put in place for admission to the BFA program, and that summer, Otremsky constructed nine individual studios out of 2x4s and plywood around the outer walls of the large, main painting studio so that seniors could work on their canvases undisturbed. Most important of all, Otremsky led the faculty in creating a serious work ethic among the students.

When Otremsky began his career at the college in 1999, he knew how tough it was to make it as a professional artist. To have any hope of succeeding in the career of their dreams, his students would have to work very, very hard, so his first mission was to create an ethic of hard work among the art majors. He constantly and successfully pushed for better and better work. Serio and Bob Recht worked with Otremsky on developing the “Art Department Work Ethic,” which manifests itself in the students’ commitment to putting in the long hours necessary for successful growth and pushing their fellow students to work hard and to make good work. Signs — surreptitiously produced by the students — went up around the department with a picture of a scowling Otremsky and the headline “Get to Work!” Ultimately, the hard work resulted in great work, which in turn has been a source of true satisfaction to the students, who see how much they are growing.

Serio later moved on to teach at the University of Texas at Tyler, but she and Otremsky have continued to collaborate, each as visiting artists at the other’s home institution. Serio reported after visiting in 2011, “Thestudents I met had the ‘Otremsky’ in their blood! . . . They were serious, dedicated, well spoken, passionate, and driven.”

To support the work ethic, Otremsky and his colleagues developed a program of department-wide critiques (forums in which students present and explain their work, take questions,and hear criticism) that are conducted at the level one would experience in graduate school. Each year the ultimate critiques are the ones for the senior studio and graphic design majors. During the senior year, each studio major develops a body of work and each graphic design student develops all of the design materials (logo, letterhead, business cards, brochures, calendars, web site, and packaging) for a company that he or she has fictionally created. During these senior critiques each student introduces his or her body of work or company and describes all that went into the project to the entire art faculty and all of the art majors. The critiques are held the day before the opening reception for each group’s Senior Thesis Exhibition, which are juried, with the winners receiving cash prizes. The work produced for the Senior Thesis Exhibitions form the core of the portfolios that students will present in job interview and graduate school applications as they begin the next phase of their professional careers.

Kelley1

Kelly Sturhahn

By 2008 it was time for the second stage of growth for the department. Sam Romero, an FSC graduate who recently had received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was hired as the director of the graphic design program, taking the position that Bob Recht, who once had been Sam’s teacher, had had before moving on and back to London. In 2009, Kelly Sturhahn joined the team as director of the foundations program, the position that Alexis Serio once had inhabited. Sturhahn, who came to the college from the prestigious Michael Werner Gallery in New York and who had received her MFA from Hunter College of the City University of New York, focused on upgrading the skills and concepts that students would take with them into both the graphic design program and studio from their foundations classes.

Romero and Sturhahn have updated the curriculum in their respective programs both technically and conceptually. They have taken students to Art Basel Miami Beach to give them a global perspective on the art world, and Romero believes that this event has enough to offer that it will be a regular field trip. Jessica Du Preez, who has a double major in art history and studio art and who wrote her senior art history thesis on Chinese artist Laurens Tan, had the uncommon experience of being able to met with Tan’s dealer at Art Basel Miami Beach when she was writing her thesis. Trenton Moore, an enterprising senior who is a freelance photographer, observed, “Art Basel is also something that’s very recognizable within the art world. Prospective clients and employers realize the influence and prestige that an established festival of that level has, and they have been impressed that I made the effort to attend.”

Romero and Sturhahn’s efforts are part of ongoing efforts of Florida Southern’s faculty to create opportunities for their students to meet and learn from successful artists. The department has brought in established professionals — from the iconoclastic feminist Guerilla Girls and internationally recognized Chinese artist Laurens Tan to up-and-coming artists such as contemporary Italian videographer Roberto Bocci and Spanish realist painter Félix de la Concha. The design program has developed a wonderful relationship with the large, prize-winning department of creative services at Publix, whose designers generously participate in critiques in graphic design classes and whose leadership has rewarded many FSC students with outstanding internships. Other outstanding designers in the area have been involved similarly with the department.

Artists who have exhibitions at the Polk Museum of Art often are willing to meet with students. In 2012, Robert Puterbaugh, who has been a trustee of both FSC and the Polk Museum of Art, arranged for Louviere and Vanessa, a young, cutting-edge team of photographers from New Orleans who were exhibiting at the Polk Museum, to give a multi-media presentation for the Florida Southern students. In 2011, when Kelly Sturhahn took students to the museum to meet exhibitor Lillian Garcia-Roig, who is on the faculty at Florida State, Garcia-Roig was able to anticipate what these young artists needed to learn about her work and her career path, making the visit a very useful one. The museum’s director, Claire Orologas, and curator of art, Adam Justice, can be counted on to facilitate such encounters.

Not only do art students need to be talking to professional artists and learning from their examples, but also they can have an extraordinary learning experience when a talented artist critiques their art. To that end, Romero and Sturhahn have developed a visiting artist’s series. Anna Niebuhr, who graduated in 2012, was fortunate to have a critique with New York artist Ezra Johnson. Anna said in an e-mail to Sturhahn, “Your connection with Ezra Johnson was imperative to my success for my senior thesis. He really helped me simplify my ideas and gave me such clear and profound direction.” It is worth noting that five of Niebuhr’s paintings from her senior thesis were purchased by Florida Southern and are hanging in the Christoverson Humanities Building.

When bright, young, and energetic faculty join an academic department, remarkable things can happen.
DSC_5583

Sam Romero

Since 1998, the Department of Art and Art History has sponsored art-focused study abroad trips each year to sites around the world from Western Europe to Greece, Egypt, China, Peru, and Australia. This program was initiated by Jim Rogers, who turned it over to Sam Romero in 2012. These travel experiences greatly expand the horizons for young art students who interpret the world through their art. Trenton Moore who went to England, Ireland, and France in 2012 and will be on this year’s trip to India, said, “Lakeland, as wonderful as it is, isn’t always conducive to street photography. Many evenings after midnight, the downtown area can look and seem a bit like a ghost town in contrast to the big cities of Europe. Having that kind of work in my book can really give me an edge over the competition in a client meeting.”

Otremsky, Romero, and Sturhahn have worked as a team, along with eight adjuncts, to deliver a rich curriculum and in the process have brought the department to a new level of excellence. Graduate school now is a common avenue for the studio majors, and a large number of graphic design majors have job offers in hand before graduation. These three influential forces have been able to guide Florida Southern’s art majors along a path toward becoming practicing artists, not only because they are excellent teachers and facilitators, but also because they are exemplars as successful practicing artists.

Jessica Artman graduated from Florida Southern in 2006 and received her MFA from the National University of Ireland, Galway-Burren College of Art. She returned to teach in the program as an adjunct between 2010 and 2011, and in the fall semester of 2012 she worked full-time as a sabbatical replacement for Otremsky. She said she felt that one reason the current students were willing to work as hard as they do is because they respect their professors as artists.

During the fall semester of the 2012-2013 academic year, Otremsky was on sabbatical to finish his most recent body of work, the “Narcissus Series,” which is a series of seventeen
portraits painted of the nude model and the model’s reflection in a mirror. This series will be exhibited in the fall of 2013 at the Melvin Gallery at Florida Southern.

From February 18 to March 8, Sam Romero’s video from his collection “American Chola” was included in the exhibition Minority Rule: 28th Annual Positive Negative Juried Art Exhibition at the Slocumb Gallery at East Tennessee State University. This exhibition was judged by renowned artist Michael Ray Charles, who was included in the first year of PSB’s
Art21 series. Kelly Sturhahn will have a one-person exhibition this May in Miami at the 6th Street Container Gallery.

In order to sustain this momentum on all fronts, the Department of Art and Art History invited Katharine T. Carter, nationally acclaimed art consultant, to visit Florida Southern in January 2013. She was asked to assess the department based upon today’s national art scene. Carter was a natural choice for this assignment because she and her company have worked with the Florida Southern Art Department in a variety of projects during the twenty-eight years of her company’s existence, and before she started her company, she taught for many years on the college level. She was at Florida Southern for three days and had individual three-hour consultations with Otremsky, Romero, and Sturhahn, helping them evaluate their own work; and she gave an inspirational talk to the faculty and students in the Melvin Gallery, giving tips on career development for artists.

More than ten years earlier, in 2002, Otremsky had a consultation with Katharine T. Carter, so it’s interesting to note her observations of his artistic development over the subsequent
years. She told him, “The new ‘Narcissus Series’ seems much more contemporaneous/of the moment than the earlier large paintings I saw a decade ago. At that earlier point, I saw the connection to [Norwegian painter] Odd Nerdrum and was definitely impressed with your skill and ability, but the new ‘Narcissus Series’ particularly held my attention because I could not avoid creating my own subtext, personal associations/projections, and narrative; it grabbed me psychologically. Perhaps it is the starkness and severity of the figure against the black grounds that gave me the space to enter into this internal dialogue.”

Ashley Todd is a freshman at FSC majoring in studio art. One of her class assignments resulted in this untitled piece, rendered almost completely by actual words.

Carter recommended to Romero that he print the photographs in his “American Chola” series larger, and with the department’s new large-format printer, he is doing just that. Carter went on to comment, “Going life-size on the photographs (even cut-outs) could knock the ball out of the park for him.” And with regard to Romero as a teacher she said, “He is a strong artist, with enormous potential. My intuition tells me that he is a wonderful teacher, mainly because he is real and authentic; there is nothing like genuine sincerity when trying to guide others. He’s got that, which is rare. He is unpretentious and open, qualities that students can connect with and learn from in a meaningful way. Likely they won’t find that in most graduate programs where often it is a competition between faculty and student.”

GroupCarter recognized the value of Sturhahn’s previous career experience working at the Michael Werner Gallery in New York both for her career as an artist and as a professor. She said, “This gal has got it together, and I definitely told her to keep that ‘Rolodex of contacts from her past’ involved in her career advancements as they occur; to let them know about her museum shows and other involvements. She got it immediately. She’s met a lot of people while in New York City, and staying in touch with other professionals is part and parcel of anyone’s efforts who wants to be a serious player in the majors.” Carter went on to observe about Sturhahn’s creative process that “Kelly’s ideas are advanced and well developed conceptually, and accomplished curators would recognize that immediately, but they have to see the work first, and know about her, so she’s got to get the work and word out. She is an example for students because she is a classic adventurer of multiple mediums of expression, and I could instantly sense her natural ability to push her ideas beyond the norm. Students
need to be exposed to anyone who embraces exploration and the unknown. She reminds me of [art critic and writer] John Mendelsohn in her willingness to be taken forward, not of her own volition, but by trust and faith in the creative process.”

The art department at Florida Southern has developed into an outstanding center for art education. It has grown from seventeen students in the mid-1990s to more than one hundred today based on the hard-work ethic promoted by Otremsky and his colleagues and by the variety of skills and talents of a diverse faculty who are always looking for ways to tweak the program. The most recent enhancement cleared the college’s curriculum committee just a few weeks ago. Now all art students applying to Florida Southern College, (both BFA and BA candidates) must have portfolio reviews for admission to the department. The students clearly are responding to this environment, and their art and their prospects get better every year.