Strategy Meets Creativity

With dynamic curricular initiatives, Sarah Lawrence embraces progressive education for the 21st century.

Technology is driving change. Clearly, that’s a huge understatement. Seizing the opportunity to be a part of that change—clearly, that’s a wise investment. “To be true to its roots,” President Karen Lawrence emphasized at Commencement 2013, “progressive education cannot be complacent about what it takes to be progressive today.”

By harnessing the kinetic force of rising student interest, Sarah Lawrence faculty responded to one of the College’s strategic goals: taking the lead as innovators at the intersection of art and technology. “My work was simply to channel energy that was already happening in computer science and in visual and performing arts,” explains Jerrilynn Dodds (art history), who was dean of the college as funding proposals and curricular planning got under way. “These were initiatives that grew from faculty work in progress.”

At the time, Dodds heard provosts and deans at other colleges describe turf wars between departments for resources. “And here we had faculty from art and music collaborating spontaneously on new technology for film scoring,” she notes, “and we had faculty from filmmaking, computer science, and game design working closely to lower the partitions between their disciplines.”

As the number of single-specialty jobs keeps dwindling, graduates need to possess more interdisciplinary skills, including digital competencies. “So this is not just something intended to expand our offerings in the arts,” Dodds says. “It’s something that prepares students for nearly everything they’ll do, nearly every field they may wish to enter.”

Stills from a variety of student animation and new genre projects

Without the hindrance of academic or professional silos, team efforts to secure foundation grants have yielded new faculty positions, new equipment and software, new course offerings—and a multifaceted digital culture that now touches every part of the College.

Photo by Quyen Nguyen

In the spirit of alumni groundbreakers like artist Meredith Monk ’64, composer Dave Porter ’94, and cellist Zoe Keating ’93, Sarah Lawrence students continue to venture into new musical territory, such as the visual and aural landscape created by the Experimental Improvisational Ensemble. Already a pioneer in electronic music, the College now has even more sophisticated equipment for film scoring and digital sound recording.

Photo by Dana Maxson

Sarah Lawrence recently launched initiatives in sustainable urban design, building on the architecture program begun by faculty in art history and sculpture, and tying into the environmental studies curriculum. In spring 2015, the Powers of Water exhibit in Yonkers showcased eight class projects reimagining public spaces along the Saw Mill River. Students employed mapping, physical model building, and 3D design modeling to document research and create proposals. In collaboration with SUNY Purchase, a downtown storefront space in Yonkers has become an urban design lab to develop these proposals and serve the community.

Photo by Angela Ferraiolo

In addition to traditional visual arts offerings in painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and artist books, students are exploring new genres and delving into truly interactive art. Designed for experimentation, these courses help develop technical and digital proficiencies while testing the potential of new media forms. “Art from Code,” for example, introduces visual arts programming in the context of a broader analysis of programming cultures.

Photo by Yorgos Prinos

Each semester, the Media Innovation Program brings a guest artist or practitioner to campus for an intensive that provides technological and research tools to effect change. Students learn to employ digital arts in a group problem-solving lab that focuses on real-world issues with social relevance. One course exploring pervasive video surveillance concluded with a multimedia installation. I for an Eye, promoted as “a probe into the permanently visible life of the modern person,” was exhibited in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

Photo by Don Hamerman

Unmistakable student interest and undeniable evidence of the art world moving in new directions converged—leading Sarah Lawrence to expand the place of digital arts in its permanent curriculum. Game design, one of the most popular areas of growth, draws on computer science as well as creative writing and visual arts. More than just a giant industry, game design intersects countless other fields, such as psychology, where virtual reality programs serve therapeutic purposes.

Photo by Don Hamerman

With a robust history in filmmaking, the College is building on core strengths, expanding offerings in animation and experimental film as the program seeks “to ignite the imagination of the next generation of media makers.” The black-tie awards celebration at the annual Reelies Film Festival recognizes outstanding work in categories such as narrative, documentary, experimental, and animated—which can range from digital 2D to classic stop-motion and beyond.

Photo by Ayumi Sakamoto

High-tech resources are encouraging ever more experimental theatre productions. In just one example, students had the opportunity to learn traditional Kuruma Ningyo puppetry from a Japanese master while using modern tools and techniques. Live-feed video projected complex miniature sets as changing scenery, and musicians on hammered dulcimer, Japanese shamisen, and flute accompanied the performance. Developed at Sarah Lawrence, Shank’s Mare toured Japan in 2016 and is touring the continental US and Hawaii in 2017.

Photo by Dana Maxson

The Sarah Lawrence International Audio Fiction Awards have broadened the crossroads of narrative arts and technology. The annual competition encourages storytellers to take the medium into new realms and test the depths of its potential. In addition to supporting The Sarahs and bringing faculty with expertise in radio writing, journalism, and production to campus, grant funding has allowed the College to upgrade equipment in the radio station and digitize programs that now air online.