Scripps Magazine: Focus on the Faculty: Susan Rankaitis, Fletcher Jones Chair in Studio Art

Susan Rankaitis

“I don’t call it retirement, I call it downsizing from two careers to one,” says Susan Rankaitis. This past July, Rankaitis, who joined Scripps’ Art Department in fall 1990 as the Fletcher Jones Chair in Studio Art, began two years of phased retirement. She will no longer teach classes but will continue to write letters of recommendation for her advisees and colleagues. She will also be devoting significantly more time to her own art practice.

“I never anticipated that I would still have a good art career at this point in my life,” Rankaitis says. “I still love making art, and I’ve been hungry for so many years to be able to have more than just summers to do my work.”

Rankaitis’s mixed-media works primarily combine photography, painting, and drawing, with some ephemeral, sculptural installations along the way. Over the past three decades, her art has been exhibited internationally in more than 100 exhibitions, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Rankaitis has collaborated with scientists, dancers, and writers as well as received numerous awards and grants, including three from the National Endowment for the Arts.

But it is unlikely that many of Rankaitis’s students have seen her artwork—she purposefully doesn’t show it to undergraduates for fear that it will sway them from pursuing their own styles and lines of inquiry.

I have really pushed my students hard to take risks, to not be afraid of failure, and to try things they think they can’t do,” she says. “I tell them, ‘You can just crank out something cute and easy and that looks okay, but you’re not adding anything to art or to your life.'”

When Rankaitis applied for the professor of art position at Scripps, she was already a tenured professor and chair of Chapman University’s art department. In fact, it was while she was on a fellowship in France that her husband submitted her résumé and slides of her work on her behalf. So, when Scripps made her an offer, she needed some convincing that she wasn’t making a rash decision. It was only after she became acquainted with the Scripps community—the faculty, enrolled students (whom she thought seemed very smart), and alumnae friends who encouraged her to take the job—that she was persuaded to make the move.

One of the first things Rankaitis loved about Scripps was how students from different backgrounds were encouraged to learn from each other. The kindness and openness of the students was especially apparent in her Senior Art Seminar, a course in which work often incorporates very personal content. “Scripps art majors are very generous in terms of their support of each other,” she says.

If there’s one thing studio art majors of the past three decades will remember about Rankaitis, it’s likely her influence on the Senior Art Opening. During the annual event, she required the seniors to stand in front of their work, greet viewers, and invite questions.

“[That was] one of the things the students did not like about me—I made them answer questions, whether from an alumna, another professor, a student, or six-year-old kid,” Rankaitis recalls. “I told them that part of their responsibility was to educate and make people feel comfortable in that space and with their work.”

The Scripps women Rankaitis has taught have also made lasting impressions on their professor. She still recalls many by name, such as Allison Thompkins ’04, a student with cerebral palsy who questioned why the Core program did not include representations of people with disabilities. These observations prompted Rankaitis to revise the syllabus of her Core III course on representation in film. Thompkins, who went on to create a nationally recognized research project on the subject, changed Rankaitis’s approach to teaching. “Allison had significant influence on the Core program,” she recalls. “It’s important for students to see that their ideas can change a great deal in terms of curricular relevance.”

She also remembers Mitra Abbaspour ’99, an advisee who, during their first meeting, told her, “I expect a great deal from an advisor. You have to let me know you are going to spend a lot of time with me, and you are going to be very helpful to me. I really, really need and want academic advising. I want to make sure you take this seriously.” This was music to Rankaitis’s ears, as Scripps’ one-to-one advising program has been one of her favorite aspects of being a professor. “I had already realized this was a very important feature of Scripps that didn’t happen everywhere. For most of my career, I had advisees who came in to see me at least once a week and who I got close to,” Rankaitis says. “We all need mentoring,” she emphasizes.

Rankaitis, who paid for her own college education with money earned from scholarships and a part-time job, hates the idea that any current student might be held back from pursuing art because of a lack of funds. Helping students with little to no financial resources is immeasurably important to her, even as she leaves Scripps; she has waived the customary retirement celebration and has instead requested that the money be designated toward initiatives such as the Samella Lewis, QuestBridge, and New Generation Scholarships.

As she transitions to full retirement from Scripps, Rankaitis will be focusing on her project Around Bears Ears, a series of works inspired by the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which is under threat of losing its federal designation. She has already spent time photographing the area and talking to locals there during a recent sabbatical, but she believes the project will take another five to 10 years of work to complete. In the meantime, Scripps will still be on her mind.

“I can’t imagine that 10 years from now I’m not going to be writing grad school letters for some terrific students I had in my classes, and I will continue to write professional letters for junior colleagues,” the artist concludes.