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RISD Honors Excellence in Teaching

06/13/2014

Illustration Professor Jean Blackburn 79 PT (left, with interim Provost Pradeep Sharma) and HAVC Lecturer Dalia Linssen were honored at Commencement 2014 with the John R. Frazier Award.

Professor of Illustration Jean Blackburn 79 PT and History of Art and Visual Culture Lecturer Dalia Linssen have each earned RISD’s highest academic honor: the John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching. Presented by interim Provost Pradeep Sharma at Commencement, the award was given to Blackburn for being a “strong conceptual thinker whose technical proficiency matches the caliber of her ideas” and to Linssen for creating “a culture of curiosity and dialogue in the classroom, encouraging students to ask questions, share observations and articulate opinions.”

“I was thrilled to receive the award,” says Blackburn, who began teaching at RISD in 1982. “The Frazier is such a wonderful prize and something everybody aspires to.”

In her studio practice, Blackburn focuses on sculpture, painting, illustration, photography and mural design, and is always ready to share her wide range of artistic experience with students. As a teacher, she strives to help students develop a coherent artistic voice that pulls together disparate ideas and various aspects of their lives, incorporating “as much of the whole person as possible.”

“Being able to talk about your work is a great tool,” Blackburn says. “That helps you figure out what you believe or even what you’re not sure about. And part of being a good artist and a good teacher is being comfortable with your own uncertainties.”

A RISD alumna herself, Blackburn remembers being inspired by the late Gordon Peers 33 PT, a legendary Painting professor who taught at RISD for more than half a century and was a protégé of the late professor and former RISD President John R. Frazier 12 PT, for whom the top teaching award is named. “He conveyed his love of color to me,” Blackburn recalls. “I was absolutely enthralled, walking around seeing color in a whole new way. I try to bring some of that to my classes – to teach students to really look at what they’re seeing.”

Equally focused on what students see, Dalia Linssen is dedicated to establishing “deep connections between history and practice.” Since coming to RISD from Boston University in 2010, she has been wowed by the exceptional resources here and makes a point of using them on a regular basis. “I hold some classes at the museum so we can look at original works,” she says, “and I also use the RISD Archives (particularly the photography, my area of specialization) and Special Collections at the library.”

Linssen earned a PhD in Art History from Boston University, where her dissertation focused on the photographs of Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel. Before settling on a career in academia, she worked at a number of museums, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

At RISD Linssen quickly discovered that she’s endlessly inspired by “the diversity of backgrounds students bring to the classroom. Their upbringings, the range of interests they have and their ethnic diversity is such a remarkable, enriching part of the RISD experience,” she says, adding: “Students really feed off each other and learn from each other. It’s exciting to teach in an environment that values that kind of openness.”

Instead of lecturing, Linssen encourages open discussion in the classroom inspired by assigned readings and tangible objects borrowed from various RISD collections. “Seeing photographs without glass in front of them is a key opportunity,” she says. “The nuances, the texture of the paper, the emulsion, the luminosity of the prints themselves –these objects shape our understanding of social events and the world we live in.”

Like Blackburn, Linssen sees teaching at RISD as a privilege. “My job is to help students contextualize their work in a meaningful way,” she notes – “to encourage an understanding that this work exists in the larger world.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, faculty, History of Art + Visual Culture, Illustration

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The men in this 1903 portrait class were serious about the business at hand.