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A Strong Voice for the Arts

A Strong Voice for the Arts

New Dean of Fine Arts Sheri Wills believes that part of what makes RISD so distinctive is its rigorous approach to studio learning via a wide range of discrete majors.

New Dean of Fine Arts Sheri Wills believes that part of what makes RISD so distinctive is its rigorous approach to studio learning via a wide range of discrete majors. “RISD’s commitment to disciplines is really important,” she says, “and represents an enduring value that isn’t going to change with changing trends in the art world. Even though most artists end up taking a multidisciplinary approach, having that deep disciplinary knowledge gives you something to bring to an interdisciplinary conversation. Otherwise you’re just a dilettante.”

Wills, who assumed the position of dean just prior to the start of classes this semester, looks forward to building on RISD’s incredible strengths. “This group of faculty is so invested and so intelligent,” she explains. “We need to figure out together what makes most sense in terms of vision and direction.”

Originally from California, Wills earned an MFA in film video and new media and an MA in modern art history, theory and criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work in video performance is informed by her background in art history along with her passions for painting and poetry.

“I’ve always been interested in these connections – how the same ideas play out in different media,” Wills explains. And now that she’s leading RISD’s 10 Fine Arts departments – Ceramics, Film/Animation/Video, Glass, Illustration, Jewelry + Metalsmithing, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture and Textiles – she’s even more intrigued by the connections, noting that she’s tempted “to get a BFA in every single one of these disciplines!”

She also notes that the distinction between fine arts and design is somewhat arbitrary and points out that RISD’s separate divisions of Fine Arts and Architecture + Design are helpful for organizational purposes but shouldn’t be seen as separate in terms of process and practice. “Even though the divisions are distinct, there’s a lot of gray area and overlap,” she says. “And that tension is really exciting. What is it, for example, about Textiles that makes it so clearly a part of Fine Arts when there is also so much design involved? Borders are often useful, but at the same time students have the flexibility to explore whatever realm makes sense for their work.”

Thanks in part to the global interest in her own work (Ukrainians, for example, simply love her stuff, and she has screened work in their country many times), Wills has put a lot of thought into RISD’s international community. “How do we prepare students to be participants in a globally focused art world in which so many boundaries have been completely broken down?” she asks. “That’s just one component of a global approach to education.”

As a member of the International Council of Fine Arts Deans, Wills is also interested in how other art colleges around the world are handling the changing demands of higher education. “Even though they’re our competitors, it’s to everyone’s advantage to share information,” she notes. “That’s one of the reasons I did a Fellowship with the American Council on Education. RISD has an obligation to serve the art world in a broader way – to be a role model for other institutions.”

After years of experience teaching art, art history and new media at the University of Rhode Island (most recently as interim director of the Film/Media program at URI’s Harrington School of Communications & Media), Wills is used to engaging with experts in the humanities. But she’s looking forward to working with people who teach liberal arts in the context of an art school education and is especially excited about RISD’s newest concentration in Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies.

“Faculty and students at RISD are working together to understand the meaning of the object in our consumer-obsessed world,” says Wills. “Is the art object a luxury good? It’s important to continually ask that question. Our society is at a turning point, and we need to be a strong voice for the human experience and what it means to be a sentient being on this planet.”

Simone Solondz