Susan Rankaitis holds the Fletcher Jones Chair of Studio Art at Scripps College. An artist herself, her works are most often defined as experimental photography or combined media. She has been included in over 100 museum exhibitions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and has been the recipient of three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as a Flintridge Foundation Award in the Visual Arts and fellowships from the Avery, Borchard, Djerassi, Mellon and Graves Foundations. Rankaitis has been involved in collaborative projects with neuroscientist David Somers, dancer/choreographer John Pennington, biologist Robert Sinsheimer, poet Amy M. Wai Man and writer Paul Monette.
Scripps College: Your work is sometimes described as a merging of photography, painting, and sculpture. What draws you to combine these art forms?
Susan Rankaitis: My trajectory as a visual artist is a long and ongoing process of visually considering our current time, the timeless, place, indeterminacy, and questions. I’m often curious about contemporary science and technology, which I think are important to consider. My work is not narrative or literal; it is inherently abstracted and intentionally indeterminate, as well as one-of-a-kind. I have no desire to make many pieces, and 90 percent of what I make is “handmade.” I work in and between the four visual art fields I love the most—photography, painting, drawing, and sculpture. I don’t consider myself a sculptor, but I have done a few photographic sculptures and sculptural outdoor, ephemeral installations.
SC: What is your background or relationship to science, which has found its way into your art?
SR: My late father was a blue-collar engineer who was primarily self-educated post high school, and he wanted badly for me to study engineering in college. I did high school science fairs and liked science, but I loved art, so I was a painting major in college. After my undergraduate studies, my first serious job was at the PLATO laboratory [a computer-based education research laboratory at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana], where they were inventing the plasma display panel. I spent a great deal of time with some very innovative scientists and engineers, like Donald Bitzer, who were curious about everything and generous with their knowledge. While the PLATO world was very exciting and I learned a great deal, I still loved to go home to paint by myself every night.
SC: How would you describe your dual passions of making art and teaching art?
SR: I still love the struggle and challenge involved in thinking about and developing the artworks in our rented art studio. It is a very solitary activity for me, whereas teaching is a very social and collaborative activity. I am always aware, and I try to make our serious art students aware that any artist is, in a sense, a grain of sand in a 35,000-year-history of art making. It can be a wonderful life if art is what continues to give your life meaning and purpose.
SC: Where do you see art and science connecting in higher education today?
SR: I see more artists pursuing grad school in science or medicine, and more professional scientists and physicians making serious art. My sub specialty as an advisor has always been students who wanted to do both art and science. Quite a few of my advisees have gone—and continue to go—to medical school with art degrees, or with art and biology double majors.
SC: Is there a fact about yourself that is surprising, or that people don’t know about, that you’d like to share?
SR: One summer while I was in college, I worked as a postal carrier on the south side of Chicago. I had to get up at 3:45 a.m. to catch a bus to get to the post office at 5 a.m. to sort mail and then deliver my route for the day. I was on an academic scholarship at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, which covered my tuition, but I had to work for room and board and art supplies.
For more of our Spotlight on Faculty series, click here.