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Reflecting on Culture, Crits + Self-Confidence

03/16/2017

New faculty member Carla Edwards MFA 04 SC is pleased to be back on campus working with juniors in Sculpture.

Brooklyn-based artist Carla Edwards MFA 04 SC, who first came to RISD as a graduate student in 2002, is back on campus 15 years later teaching juniors in her former major. Lauded for her mixed media work, she examines how dominant culture and its artifacts shape our sense of self. In her Shades of Ambivalence series, for example, she reinvents the American flag with unexpected shapes and colors, reminding viewers that there is nothing fixed or universal about the experience of citizenship.

Edwards has exhibited nationally and internationally in the US, Canada and Switzerland, most recently in a solo show at Fields Projects in NYC, which Hyperallergic described as extremely relevant given President Trump’s “desire to start policing what citizens may do with the flag.” Here she reflects on her pedagogy and the evolution of RISD’s Sculpture department since she was a student.

How has RISD changed since you were here as a graduate student in the early 2000s? 
This is an exciting time to be at RISD because we’re reinventing ourselves, especially in the Sculpture department. The faculty is really invested in building on what was here – the hands-on approach to making – but also thinking more broadly about other aspects of what it means to be an artist: thinking critically and globally and creating space for real dialogue. And the department has grown a lot in terms of who’s here and what their work is about as well as in the diversity of mediums they’re working in.

What’s your approach to teaching sculpture? 
Mentors were really important to me when I was a student, so I approach my position here as a mentorship in which I’m both teacher and learner. I want students to know how to build things so that a lack of technique never gets in their way when they’re pursuing a project. And it’s also important for me to teach diversity in terms of the artists I’m showing and the readings in critical theory I assign.

What do you think about recent criticism from students who feel marginalized because of their race or background? 
I have a great deal of respect for the students doing this work. I can only speak for the Sculpture department, but [Department Head] Lisi Raskin is really committed to fostering an open dialogue between students and faculty about what’s not working, what students need and how to make things better. We’re trying to be inventive about solving these problems, which are cropping up in academic institutions across the country. It’s time to figure this out.

How are you working to address issues of equity and identity? 
This year everyone who teaches in Sculpture engaged in an intensive training session about strategies we can use in the classroom and in crit to address diverse student needs. It was a really generative experience and I came away from it with new tools for building dialogue in the classroom. 

The goal is to keep it safe but also make sure crits are meaningful for different learning styles and experiences – and to overcome any fear around engaging with a perceived “other.” Students are not afraid of having someone challenge the choices they’re making in their work. They want to improve as artists, and they need help figuring that out.

How would you assess the quality of the work juniors are producing? 
They’re making incredible work. They’re really thoughtful about what they’re doing and fully immersed in the experience. I’m just blown away by these students.

You taught older students at the City University of New York before coming to RISD. Do you notice a difference in life experience now that you’re teaching undergrads? 
There is a big difference in age and socio-economic backgrounds in some cases, but RISD students have a lot to say, and they don’t seem in any way sheltered. They’re thinking critically and globally and taking a stand. And I’m so impressed with the diversity of mediums they’re using.

You work in diverse mediums, too, don’t you? 
Yes. I use a broad range of techniques: dying fabrics, sewing textiles, casting…. I just had a show close that included some cast iron, encaustic roped objects and a large textile flag I made as part of an ongoing series. And I recently casted concrete on a large scale and worked with an old-school statuary company in Brooklyn to cast a concrete grotto for the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. I utilized a form rooted in Catholicism to talk about how people use objects to display their beliefs and values.

How do you decide which medium to use when you’re conceiving of a new piece? 
I usually approach things materially. So with each specific piece, I’m using the coded cultural language of that material to tweak the conversation. I’m really adept at jumping in [and experimenting with] different ways of making, which is what I’m trying to teach my students.

What’s the most important thing you’re trying to pass along to students? 
I’m focusing on developing their trust in themselves and their creative decisions. Artists come up with their own unique investigative processes, and they’re constantly second-guessing themselves. But that individual approach is what makes you interesting as an artist – what makes you stand out.

Junior year is exciting because students have a really strong technical foundation and are just starting to pursue their individual trajectories. I’m here to develop their confidence and push them to keep exploring.

interviewed by Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, faculty, Sculpture, diversity

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.