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Community as Classroom: Creativity in the Public Realm

As an undergraduate at Alfred University, the last thing 18-year-old Rebekah Modrak was expecting to do on her first day of college was enter a wide-open field to create sculptural planes using only her body.

And yet there she stood, hand-in-hand with her classmates, feeling a transformation underfoot. “My world was so small when I entered college,” said Modrak. “Then suddenly, in that moment, it expanded.”

Two degrees, a book, and many exhibitions later, Rebekah Modrak is now an associate professor at the Stamps School of Art & Design. Through projects like the Re Made Company and eBayaday, Modrak explores encounters between art, commerce, photography, and identity. As a professor, Modrak's interest in social critique and her constant pursuit of expansive thought fuels Stamps students with far more than 2D, color theory, and photography curriculum alone.

In her Studio 2D course, Modrak's students craft camouflage cubes that are interspersed throughout the building, creating surprises around every corner. While the activity provides students with a solid grounding in perspective, it also encourages them to make the building their home, start conversations with passersby, and create a tangible offering to the Stamps community. “Getting out of the classroom is so critical,” said Modrak. “It shows students that their work, their presence, has an effect on other people.”


When a student in Studio 2D suggested that a color theory lesson might be interesting to turn into a ROYGBIV Color Parade, Modrak was only happy to accommodate. “When we take our learning into the public sphere, it really makes the stakes much higher,” Modrak said.


In addition to a trip to Argus Farm Stop for lunch, the students on the ROYGBIV Color Parade met with Hilary Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore, who spoke with the students about her career trajectory and entrepreneurial pursuits. “Hillary opened a bookshop when nearly everyone around her was telling her that a poorer business decision couldn't be made,” Modrak said. “And yet, her business is thriving, a staple of the Ann Arbor community. Art & Design students especially need to be inspired and connected with living examples of people who are committed to doing what they love.”

When studying the history of portraiture and the backdrop as an opportunity to play with identity, Modrak's Introduction to Photography students created their own backdrops and took them to central campus to ask passersby to sit for a photo portrait. “A few of my students were really nervous about approaching people,” said Modrak, “But after the ninth sitter, the fear was totally overcome. When you take your creativity into the public realm, whatever limits you have, you just don't have them anymore.” Like technique and practicum, confidence and participation are skills that Stamps students will carry with them for years to come.