Accomplished artist and painting and drawing program head Susan Chrysler White retires

Susan Chrysler White, the painting and drawing program head, will retire after 20 years of teaching at the UI. Her work has been installed on campus, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and across the United States.


Contributed/Susan Chrysler

Madison Lotenschtein, Arts Editor

From sweeping, 80-foot long installments to vibrant and colorful sculptures popping from the walls, Susan Chrysler White’s artwork featured in University of Iowa campus buildings is hard to miss. The painting and drawing program head will retire from the UI School of Art and Art History at the end of the spring semester, but her artwork is certain to remain for years to come.

White interviewed for a tenure track position at Iowa in the summer of 2000. At the time, she had been living on Broadway in New York City with her husband and two young children and held a job at Cooper University, a private university in the city.

Two decades later, White taught her last class at the University of Iowa on May 6, and plans to work full-time in her studio after retiring. She said that retirement has been on her mind for some time, since she is preparing to become a grandmother and has been helping to care for her 95-year-old mother, who lives in Mexico.

“I was feeling that incredible pressure sometimes at a certain point where you’re caring for a lot of people … I’m so used to giving 150 percent, I can’t just do it part way,” she said. “I also felt in the last year or so, I felt myself realizing, you just sort of know when it’s time.”

As a professor at the School of Art and Art History, White taught undergraduate and graduate courses in painting and drawing, all while working full-time in her studio in an old facility off campus as a painter, though her work has gravitated towards the art of mixing painting and sculpture together. In 2009, White received a Faculty Scholar Award, which allowed her, for three years, to work full time teaching one semester, and research — practice in her studio — full time the next semester.

When she first started painting in college, White’s work was two-dimensional, bearing what she described as bilateral symmetry. Now, much of her art includes a mixture of painting and sculpture. White first uses glassine (archival transparent paper) to draw and paint on, and adds layering by cutting and tearing it.

After painting images on her studio wall, White starts adding dimension to the work. She attaches several colorful patterns of plexiglass and aluminum panels, held up by radials in the center of rods to build her work upwards, or outwards.

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“I wanted to see what it feels like to be making that in architectural space — actual space — where I’m working on these big panels, and then protruding from the wall, coming off [the wall], and so I’ve been doing a lot of that,” White said. “And then at one point it moved to — and it’s been there for a little while — into the large plexi installation pieces.”

Contributed/Susan Chrysler White

One of her plexiglass sculptures is visible inside the UI West Campus Transit Center near Kinnick Stadium and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The 80-foot painted installation covers three walls and can be seen while coming down the escalator.

White has several other 3D sculptures and 2D paintings installed at the UI. Her piece Giardini hangs in the Department of Radiation and Oncology, consisting of painted plexiglass with abstract versions of plants and butterflies. Steel armatures at the main entrance of UIHC hold up White’s Migration, where giant green-and-orange painted glass butterflies perch from the ceiling.

“I did these [installations] a number of years ago, they were great,” White said. “I mean, project art has been amazing, in terms of me, you know, giving them [the university]drawings, having ideas, and then just letting me make these things, and they’ve been super supportive of it.”

Along with her commissioned work for the UI, White has had several pieces installed at Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa. White also shows her work at galleries in New York, Miami, and various art fairs.

As the professor prepares to work in her studio full time, she said that she has been rethinking her use of plexiglass in her art because of its negative impact on the environment.

“Here’s this very light, very ethereal material, but it’s got this real bad footprint,” White said.

White grew interested in environmental biology and botany during her undergraduate career, which she spent for one year at the University of California Santa Barbara, and the rest at University of California Berkeley and continues to explore ideas surrounding landscape and the environment through her artwork, according to her website.

For White, once she was introduced to painting, she knew there was no turning back.

“Well you know, a lot of artists say that; it happens,” she said. “And it’s  like, if there was something else that really ignited your sensibilities and your intellect and your curiosity, you would do it, right? Once you get kind of hooked into making art and problem solving within that… it just takes you off.”