From the Dean

Ken Lambla, Dean of the College of Arts + Architecture University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Ken Lambla, Dean of the College of Arts + Architecture
University of North Carolina at Charlotte


Most people think that this word implies people speaking different languages without really seeking common ground; artists and designers see banter as necessary discourse. “Necessary” implies we rely on tools of communication developed through artistic practice and design thinking, precise rituals developed over centuries. Drawing, sculpting, moving, singing, listening are the mediums of our banter. But let me be clear—this work seeks to translate the world around us into questions of our being human, our relationships, our ecology, our institutions. These are not categorical “themes” to capture on our sleeve, but they do confront how we find our place in this world.


In the first of Six Drawing Lessons, entitled “In Praise of Shadows,” presented by the South African artist William Kentridge for the 2012 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University, Kentridge reflects on a miniature circus he attended comprised of an acrobat, his wife, and one untrained goose:


“We the audience became the performers, our act that of believing and disbelieving in the same moment. There is something emerging here, a separation from Plato. [Kentridge previously references The Republic.] The movement of ourselves as more or less enlightened observers toward an awareness of ourselves as agents of understanding. The pleasure in the moment of us believing and not believing at the same time is a jolt of self-assertion. This split, believer and disbeliever, becomes a crack in Plato’s edifice.”


Our alumni—those previous “observers”—continue to challenge the questions we ask through our educational processes. “Lifelong learning” is not a pedantic goal; we invite these voices into our current discourse about how ideas cross disciplines. There will be resistance; we do not presume that these voices of alumni are consonant with what we taught them. As John Berger writes in The Shape of a Pocket, resistance is essential to the making of art and the design of our environments. It is both internal (of oneself) and external (of one’s culture) simultaneously. The dynamic—believing and disbelieving at the same moment—leads to hybridity and creativity. It is thus our goal to present these voices as they raise new questions about their work, methods, intent, and practices and reflections about their past, present, and future.


Approximately 150,000 students graduate each year from art and design programs in the United States. They do not all become symphony musicians or studio artists or licensed architects. They do, however, apply the skills learned in a variety of fields in which their creative habits of mind flourish. They ask questions about education, cities, farm workers, rivers and air, isolated people, inequity, craft, machines, neighbors, their hands, cold and hot, an old stone, spirits, and beauty. You will read here how they have translated what they have learned into their work.


In 2010 the Knight Foundation partnered with Gallup to deliver the results of a survey across 26 communities, including Charlotte: What drives community attachment? “Soul of the Community” (2010) reported that—unanimously—the three factors driving people to connect were: social opportunities, openness, and aesthetics. (These were selected over jobs/economy, infrastructure, safety, education, leadership, and social capital.) Commitment to the arts and design of a city were considered critical to its success, and lack thereof is considered a factor in loss of such commitment. It was a good question.


Our own questions continue to shape the work of the College of Arts + Architecture. These questions do not always conveniently come out of our strategic plan or administrative duties, or even curricular maps and course syllabi. They mostly arise as we reflect on how we are preparing our students to enter the next phase of their lives—the after college life.


How do artists and designers respond with reflection rather than reflex? 

Curiosity is never sufficient to develop a raw appetite into new cultural narratives. It is just a beginning. Artists and designers require immersion, a blending of current challenges and life experiences, along with the immediate material—writing, gestures, paint, a musical verse, a brick—to develop an approach to their work that relieves them of the everyday life and demands something new. We don’t go to museums or performances knowing what we will see, or how we will respond. Nor do we walk the sidewalks of Pilsen (Chicago), Willowbrook (Los Angeles), or Newark (New Jersey) fully understanding how they sound, smell, or will look one week to the next. What infuriates many people is that there is often no “beginning-middle-end” to the work. Why should there be? There is also no “blank piece of paper” in our work, since we toil with the sense that we are betraying our elders, heroes, and foremothers. The demand to reflect is borne with some horror—but also honor.


Why have the arts become so separated from science and technology, when the history of the art|science exchange so vividly depicts interactions and shared experiences?

Too often, representations of arts and design have devolved into acts of illustration and problem-solving. Our work is valued as a service, a trade/commodity, and a method to extract simplicity and fulfillment from obvious chaos. But there is a demand to attend to social justice, inequity, community and interdependence, place-making, and simple shelter through multiple strategies shared by artists and scientists alike. There has long been a “trading zone” (exchange) between artists and scientists. It has often been said that no good scientist works far from art. The examples are legion, but we continue to disavow the shared ground, accepting that designers and artists often live in a bubble, rarely casting their gaze over the wall.


How are creativity (practice), communication (narrative/text), and collaboration (interactions) foundational skills and how do we teach them? 

Our work is largely about learning the ability to lift up other narratives through translation to other languages. We differentiate between creativity as an individual domain and creativity residing in networks and collective domains. We learn how to suspend our disbelief (Samuel Coleridge) through productive dialogue and critical thinking. Action, technique, material, gesture, synthesis, and continuous challenge make for foundational skills to exchange concepts and methods.


How do we stop talking about “engagement” (presumptively neutral), and begin to talk about community exchange? What is the “continuum of the arts” where we look at everyone in the chain and not just end user/recipient? 

For too long we have assumed that artists and designers have a unique capability to “engage” through the making of art, objects, and spaces of occupancy. In the modern classic book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde, art is differentiated from commodity through a focus on the creative spirit being shared by culture as a whole. True sharing is an act of respect; making art, designing, singing, exchanging “gifts” is what connects us in our community. Our challenge is clear: to measure the progress of a community’s culture on its well-being. The “continuum of the arts” includes all civic assets and artistic expressions, in all forms and between all people, as contributing to health.


How does self-perception lead to personal decisions? 

Each voice in this book tells a story of awakening, transformation, struggle, and accomplishment. As with many human endeavors, it begins with an individual. “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” (Margaret Mead) We present these essays as voices from the College of Arts + Architecture. Each has made an impact in the world and on us. We stand in appreciation.


The journey? 

I once wrote an essay called “Exit Velocity.” In a sense, it was an ode to our graduating students in which I claimed that their time in college was a ramping up—acceleration, amplification, or warping aimed at leaving that protected zone called “education.” It ended with a challenge: Do not lose speed!


What you are going to read about or, better yet, come into contact with, are people who have maintained speed. They continue to amaze us; we admire what they do. And they are not alone, as their peers are equally amazing in so many ways. As our College Culture Statement ends: “Be amazing!”


“Ingres [1780-1867] is said to have created an artistic order out of rest; I should like to create an order from feeling, and going further, from motion.”
(Paul Klee, The Thinking Eye, 1958)


Banter. It all starts with some banter.