The Art of Learning

By Daney Daniel Kepple


photo: art of learning
Trever Nicholas and Faisal Shaikh ’10

Andrew Whaley ’08 vividly recalls his audition for a fine arts fellowship at Rhodes.

“I was all by myself on the stage of McCoy Theatre. In the audience were all four of the Theatre Department faculty. I went through my presentation and Cookie (professor Julia Ewing) said, ‘Do it again. This time, don’t try to force us to feel what you are feeling. Just let it flow naturally.’

“I left there feeling that there was someone at Rhodes who thought I could be taught.”

Whaley isn’t the typical arts student at Rhodes. He was a member of the initial class of CODA (Center for the Outreach in the Development of the Arts) fellows which provides him with a $12,500 scholarship and training in arts leadership. (The CODA program is underwritten by the Robert and Ruby Priddy Charitable Trust.) Whaley is a double major in religious studies and theater who participates in the Rhodes Singers and takes private voice and piano lessons. None of that explains why he is atypical.

The reason is that there is no typical arts student at Rhodes. There’s not even a typical theater or music or art major. Part of the reason is the broad liberal arts environment in which the fine arts thrive here. The rest has to do with the structure of the three departments, the new Mike Curb Institute for Music and CODA’s emphasis on bringing the arts to life for every member of the campus community.


“We believe that art making and art history are related, so our majors must do both,” says department chair Victor Coonin. The studio arts include painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, digital arts and new media. Art history includes “studying everything from cave painting to the modern era.”

Coonin points out that the Clough-Hanson Gallery and the Moss and Ruffin Lecture series provide unusual bonuses to the department and its students. The lecture series and visiting artist talks bring distinguished experts to campus while the gallery mounts four professional and two student shows a year, specializing, in the words of director Hamlett Dobbins, in “controversial shows that other galleries couldn’t afford to display.”

Dobbins teaches a popular gallery management course in which students are responsible for recruiting an artist who will allow them to organize an exhibition somewhere in Memphis. Locations have included tractor trailer trucks, pet food stores, vacant buildings, churches, private homes and traditional exhibition spaces.

“We are very fortunate to have our lecture series and the gallery, which provides a small, intimate space to mount challenging and innovative shows within a modest budget,” Coonin says. “We are also fortunate to have our partnership with the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and various galleries around town where our students gain valuable hands-on experience through internships and special projects. These outside opportunities are crucial since our physical space is unfortunate. We have limited studio space, no critique space and we can’t teach with media such as oil paint because we don’t have proper ventilation. Those are hurdles but we do amazing things with the resources at hand thanks to our talented faculty and students.”

Douglas Degges ’09, an art major on the studio track, is also interested in art history, philosophy and theology and is seeking a way to unify those interests. The Shreveport, LA, native is considering graduate school in architecture, art or religious studies, but meanwhile he’s grateful for both the aesthetic and practical knowledge he’s gaining.

“Trever Nicholas (assistant professor of art) requires everyone in his classes to write an artist’s statement to develop a vocabulary for talking about our work and why we’re doing it,” Degges says. “We learn to document our work with a camera and develop artist résumés to help us approach galleries and juried competitions. I dropped off a gallery packet with my high school teacher the last time I was home and he took it to a local restaurant that displays art work.

“The department is teaching us to be professional artists outside of Rhodes.”

Kathleen Perniciaro ’09 is a varsity soccer player who is passionate about her sport and her art. She is a business minor who “was always interested in color and how things are made,” But she ignored her passion for art until she studied painting with assistant professor Erin Harmon. After declaring a studio art major, last summer she traveled to Italy with Harmon and six other students. It solidified her choice. That’s when she realized that “majoring in art is not impractical to me. It wouldn’t be practical to do something I’m not this passionate about. When I’m working on a piece or discussing art, I feel invincible.

“My options aren’t narrowed to working in a gallery, owning a studio or teaching. Those are promising routes that may be in my future, but every day I spend embracing art as my passion, my options seem endless. And luckily, the faculty in the art department encourage me to tackle what seems impossible—that is, as long as I get it done in time for the scheduled critique.”

“I like to be involved in the things I care about,” says Rachel Thompson ’08 with characteristic understatement. “Rhodes has allowed me to be a quiet leader without an extroverted personality. I didn’t go through rush and wasn’t on an athletic team so I had no network beyond my residence hall and the organizations I chose to be involved in.” So she set out to build her own.

Thompson served as a work-study student in Career Services her first year at Rhodes, spent the next year assisting in the Chaplain’s Office, then landed an early student associate position working with Professor Michael Leslie, the Corinne Abston Chair in Literature, on a Web site for the British Studies at Oxford program. She now leverages those experiences in the Communications Office where she is the student associate assigned to

One favorite Rhodes memory is a trip to New York with the Kinney Program to study global homelessness at the United Nations. She learned about the life of a new immigrant from a Chinese newcomer she met working in a food pantry. She and another art major toured the gallery district and compared notes.

Thompson didn’t come to Rhodes to be an art major, but her first year, she took photography and was hooked.

“It tapped into my creative side,” she says.

And she has gloried in being a studio art major.

“I love using the creative side of my brain, the constant interaction and feedback from the faculty, the sense of connectedness with the other majors and the faculty.”

Thompson is considering a career as an art director in an advertising agency or perhaps continuing her work as an information architect for a Web design firm.

“I like organizing things, seeing how they work together,” she says. “That feels creative to me.”

Faisal Shaikh ’10 is a history major headed for medical school who took assistant professor Trever Nicholas’ drawing class his first semester at Rhodes.

“He taught us about contour and perspective and pencil techniques, but the class was more about how to apply your personal thoughts to the paper. That class changed everything for me.”

Shaikh was born in Pennsylvania, spent six years in Saudi Arabia (“my mom wanted an Islamic-driven culture”), three in Pakistan (“for family,”) and several more in a small town in Virginia before the family settled in Germantown, a Memphis suburb.

“My big move was from Germantown to midtown Memphis,” he says with a smile. “I love being within striking distance of concerts, eating at cool restaurants and hanging out on the river.”

The cosmopolitan sophomore found his art class to be a nice change from the rules of science and the formality of history.

“Drawing gives me a new means of conversing, of putting ideas on the table in a different way,” he explains. “It’s often what I do when I need to relax and think because it does not have as many limitations as language does. It’s liberating.”


The Rhodes Music Department has about 30 majors and minors and 300-350 students who participate in its various offerings.

“We certainly have students who come to Rhodes to major in music. They are serious musicians, but they come here for a well-rounded education before entering a conservatory,” explains department chair Tim Sharp. “They want to learn about other things as well as music.

“The others are drawn to Rhodes by another major, but music is still important to them—sometimes more important than they initially thought. A good number of them end up majoring or minoring in music. The thing about many of our majors is, we didn’t see them coming.”

Both groups know that Rhodes has a good music department, and it’s getting better all the time.

Building on a strong choral and vocal tradition, the department in recent years is “coming on strong in instrumental, composition and the technology of music,” Sharp says. “We don’t emphasize performance over theory or musicology even though voice and piano remain our highest demand areas, followed by guitar.

“Our goal is to showcase today’s reality,” he concludes. “The arts are much more center stage at Rhodes than at any time in the past and music is carrying its share of the weight. There are more performances, more performing organizations, more ways to get involved. Music has penetrated the liberal arts at Rhodes.”

If Sharp sounds satisfied with the status quo, nothing could be farther from the truth.

“We are always striving to expand our offerings and go to the next level,” he says. “Anyway, I’ll never be satisfied until we have a performing arts center at Rhodes so our musicians can host their performances here where they belong.”

Erik DeVore ’10 headed south from Dayton, OH, to look at Vanderbilt but was surprised to learn that he liked Rhodes better. The varsity soccer player is able to balance his sport with participation in the Rhodes Singers because conductor Sharp meets with him individually once a week during the season.

“I basically have to take a two-month leave from rehearsals but Professor Sharp goes over all the music with me,” he says. “I plug back in just in time for the holiday concerts.”

DeVore knows exactly what he wants to do with his music major.

“I’m an incredibly big fan of movie soundtracks,” he explains. “I think they add a whole different dimension to the story on the screen.”

So he plans to line up an internship in Los Angeles, attend graduate school at USC and take Hollywood by storm. As part of his preparation he’s working on a symphony with Professor Sharp.

“I want to be the next John Williams,” he concludes.

JoBeth Campbell ’08, recipient of the Mrs. Billie J. Scharding Scholarship, like many Rhodes students, arrived on campus with plans to prepare for law school but found that her heart led in another direction. Pursuing the French that she had studied since ninth grade led to a Buckman Scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris.

On a lark, she signed up for music theory at Rhodes, which she had hated in high school, and fell in love with it. That led her back to piano, which she had played since third grade, and to the Rhodes Women’s Chorus. She hasn’t looked back since she decided to double major in music and French.

“As music majors we get to do what we love all day every day, which is make people happy,” she explains. “I’m in love with being a music major. I love the professors, I love going to classes, I love the other students.”

As for French, “You have to understand the culture to understand the music.”

Daniel Frankel ’09 began his college search by looking for liberal arts colleges with strong academics and a good golf team. He found both at Rhodes and a whole lot more.

In addition to playing on the nationally-ranked golf team, which carves five to six hours out of his day, he is president of the Jewish Students Association and is taking an academic overload to accommodate his desire to double major in music and religious studies. He takes voice lessons and participates in both the Rhodes Singers and the MasterSingers. And he is an avid CODA fellow.

Through CODA he teaches visual arts twice a week at Springdale Elementary School and as part of his senior project he has started a music program at Cypress Middle School that will be continued by CODA and several music students.

“I’m working daily to ensure that it will be sustained when I graduate,” Frankel says.

It was also through CODA that he visited his native New York City as a tourist.

“That was a very special experience,” he says. “I didn’t really appreciate it until I went back and saw it through different eyes.”

He’s also grateful for the CODA excursions to San Francisco and Chicago to view the arts scenes in those cities.

He laughs off questions about how he manages his grueling schedule.

“I’m like a new parent,” he claims. “I don’t sleep very much.”

Also, he is able to piggyback many of his music and CODA activities.

“Rehearsals, going to symphony concerts, the opera, plays—those activities allow me to kill two birds with one stone.”

The one thing he doesn’t have time for is planning for the future.

“I have too much to do now to focus on life after Rhodes. I’m just trying to enjoy my time here.”


For many people—even those alumni/ae who remember the days when the department was housed in the basement of Palmer Hall—McCoy Theatre embodies dramatic endeavors at Rhodes. That may be especially true now that the building has doubled in size and houses the entire faculty and staff under one roof. Members of the department are justifiably proud of their new “digs” but hasten to point out that the academic department encompasses much, much more.

Chair David Jilg ’79 explains that besides the McCoy productions that have a loyal following, the department teams up with Asian and Latin American studies for non-English language presentations, works with the Philosophy and Religious Studies departments and the Search program to offer staged play readings and has regular sessions on children’s theater. It’s not unusual to team up with other local groups to present special offerings such as this year’s August Wilson Celebration, funded by the Mike Curb Institute for Music and produced by a coalition including Rhodes, the University of Memphis and Hattiloo Theatre. The most recent addition to the departmental repertoire is a course in Theatre for Social Change.

And while there is no shortage of dramatic companies around town, McCoy fills a special niche, says artistic director Cookie Ewing.

“We are not a conservative theater,” she emphasizes. “Our productions are large in ideas. The issues and questions addressed have import.”

Stephanie Cassel ’10 broke with tradition in her Kent, CT, high school by heading south for her education.

“I loved the idea of branching out into a place where I didn’t fit,” she says.

That hope was dashed as she found she fit in very well here.

“Rhodes is a warm environment to come into,” she says. “All the students are very talented and giving.”

Perhaps part of her acceptance had to do with the fact that she quickly learned to say “y’all.” It could also be related to the energy with which she plunged into campus activities. As a sophomore she is the student leader of Rhodes Rebuilds, was the stage manager of McCoy’s production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” serves as a staff writer of the Sou’wester, is risk management chair of her sorority and volunteers with Friends for Life, a local nonprofit.

“I like to stay busy 24/7,” she admits.

Cassel has a deep interest in both theater and zoology and is still trying to decide what her major will be. Fortunately, she says, “Rhodes is a great place for both. I hope to do some kind of internship at the zoo next semester. Maybe that will help me decide.

“Whatever I do for a career, though, I want to stay involved with theater for the rest of my life because it’s always a place to be open and crazy, to have fun.”

Lucy Mason ’08 was involved in theater in high school but made a conscious decision to stay away from if at Rhodes.

“I wanted to figure out my life interests,” she says.

On a family vacation to China when she was a child Mason learned that she was fascinated by different cultures and wanted to be able to communicate with all kinds of people. She went on a Maymester trip to Spain after her first year at Rhodes and stayed for the summer to complete an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. The next year she declared her major in Spanish with a minor in Chinese.

With that squared away, she auditioned for a role in the McCoy production of “Agnes of God” and landed the title role. The play was directed by Liz McClure ’07.

“Cookie gave us a lot of latitude for creative expression. The experience opened up a lot of different ways of looking at things—intellectual, dramatic, spiritual,” Mason recalls. “It left me with a more holistic view of life and literature. I also made some great friends. It was an amazing experience.”

This semester Mason is working with Ewing on a play about her study abroad experiences. (Last summer she joined international studies associate professor Steve Ceccoli and other students in a language immersion experience in China.) Currently, she’s taking a course on Spanish drama jointly taught by associate  professors Eric Henager ’89 and David Jilg.

After graduation in May Mason plans to do volunteer work in Latin America or China for a year before heading for graduate school to study the golden age in Spanish drama, which she hopes to teach eventually.

“I want to take time to get some life experience before trying to tell others what to do,” she says.

Stacey Cotham ’11, recipient of the Linda Williams Rhea Scholarship, grew up in theater and had an opportunity to see it from every angle.

“I started doing drama at church at age six and stayed with it all through high school. I learned how to run it like a business by managing the box office for two years,” she says. “By the time I got here I knew what I liked—either put me on stage or let me build props. Give me a hammer and a drill or a script.”

When she came for summer orientation and learned that McCoy was staging “Rocky Horror” this season, she inquired whether first-year students were allowed to audition. Her answer: She landed a major role in the production.

“When I read that I was Janet, I just thought, ‘I got a part!’ It didn’t sink in that I had been blessed with a major part that would usually go to a veteran, with an early chance to develop and showcase my talents. What a thrill!”

But that wasn’t her only early experience with the Theatre Department. She signed up for the Theatre for Social Change course that entailed spending fall break at the Heifer Project in Arkansas. The program exposes participants to the reality of poverty by having them live in actual conditions faced by the indigent in various parts of the globe. The Rhodes group was challenged to put together a performance to portray the problems they experienced.

“It was profound on a physical, mental and emotional level,” Cotham says. “I want to go back and experience all the other villages. Then I want to go to the Rhodes program in Arrezzo, Italy and study masking in Commedia dell’arte. That’s another outlet to entertain and enhance awareness. It’s an area that really interests me.”

Back to Andrew Whaley, who came to Rhodes because Cookie Ewing thought he could be taught.

“That’s the way it’s been for me the entire time,” he says. “Rhodes has offered me a community of learning and challenge from both the faculty and my fellow students. It has been a fantastic experience.”

Then, surprisingly, he adds, “I don’t plan on pursuing a career in the arts. I’m unsure of my career path but I am applying to seminaries to continue in the world of study and exploration. I don’t want all this magic to end.”

As for the arts career, he says, “I will always support the arts, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. I’ll be the guy who seeks out the theater in a carpet store or the gallery in a warehouse, not just the main playbook listings. When you enter the business of the arts, though, there’s a danger that your ability to create and explore gives way to the need to survive. I feel I can be a much more effective patron of the arts as an outsider.”

required fields in bold
  • To Email:
First Name:
Last Name:
I am a:
Email address:
Talk Back: