The night before Siu Challons-Lipton was married in 1991, she greeted guests at a reception in what is now Withers House. She wasn't yet working at Queens, but remembers looking across the road and thinking, "Somehow that place will be important to me."
She later taught at Queens part time while her husband did a medical residency in Charlotte. She then traveled to England, where she studied French and Scandinavian art, and gained a doctorate in 19th-century art from the University of Oxford. She trained at Sotheby's, London, in 19th and 20th-century decorative art.
She had lived all over the world, growing up with a father working for the United Nations, and had attended McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for her bachelor's and master's of art degrees in Baroque art. Yet, this world-savvy art historian nevertheless felt a "strange sort of link to Queens."
After Oxford, she went to work at the University of South Carolina. In 2005, an opportunity to come to Queens as an associate professor of art history made it possible for Challons-Lipton to follow her fate.
Changes at Queens
When she joined the department full time, there were no art history majors. At graduation that year, only three people walked across the stage to receive art-related diplomas. But at this year's commencement, 35 seniors graduated from the art department, which Challons-Lipton now chairs, completing majors in art history, interior design, new media design and studio art.
Art history major Hannah Caddell '13 will be leaving Charlotte for graduate school at the University of Liverpool, joining other alumni who have entered prestigious programs at the Smithsonian, UNC Chapel Hill, and Savannah College of Art and Design. It probably helps that Challons-Lipton personally reaches out to the graduate schools where her students apply. Calling on a student's behalf helps communicate how much she values her students, she says. "They realize that the student is important to you."
Challons-Lipton may not be the only reason for the art department's growing success, yet her enthusiasm and one-on-one attention are having a life-changing impact on students.
It reflects the life-changing impact art has had on her own life. Early on, as a child traveling the Pacific, Africa, Asia and Europe with her family, she was struck by the universality of art; art represented culture and history wherever she went. "It was an interesting language for me," she says. "It's crucial to our whole way of being."
Helping Queens students to translate, analyze and evaluate that language is a welcome challenge for Challons-Lipton. Here they are much more open to discussion and the Socratic approach," she says, referring to a question-and-answer teaching method used by Socrates. "They are open to many things. You give them the possibility, and they will seize it."
Last year, Challons-Lipton encouraged Hannah Caddell to apply to a summer program at Oxford. Caddell was accepted, and while there, she studied and wrote about the Grand Tour, the educational rite of passage through Europe traditionally undertaken by wealthy young European men. Her teacher had been a student of one of Challons-Lipton's mentors.
When she wasn't studying, Caddell learned to punt boats amidst weeping willows, explored both Bath and London and made a trip to Paris where she was agog with Monet's Water Lilies and wondered how to get the Musée de l'Orangerie home with her.
Caddell, whose Queens internship at the McColl Center for Visual Art led to a gallery staff position, aims to ultimately curate an art museum. After helping Challons-Lipton install an exhibition in fall 2011 "that required a hilarious amount of effort," she realized how much she loved it. "Figuring out where the art should go, and what story you want to tell the visitor is something I thrive on."
That enthusiasm for telling the story of art is shared by another of Challons-Lipton's former students.
Art is "one of the most intensely personal forms of expression," says Catherine Carlisle '10, a master's student in art history at UNC Chapel Hill, who hopes to continue into the PhD program. No matter what the artist might have intended, the art will reveal cultural, societal, political, religious and economic conditions, Carlisle says. Art history, then, is "the perfect lens through which to study history."
"The importance of art for all of us can't be seen in a silo. It is our history, our identity, our culture."
- Dr. Siu Challons-Lipton, Chair, Art Department
A Tutor from Oxford
Something crucial to Challons-Lipton's way of being as a professor is her experience at Oxford. There she learned a professor is not just an academic educator, but also a "moral tutor." She fully embraces the liberal arts notion that a professor helps students not only learn a subject, but also find their path in life.
To her, studying art can be a path to just about anything. Her current research, which she presented in March at her alma mater's Oxford Roundtable, explores the creativity fostered in an art classroom.
Art students learn there is not one straight line to follow, she says. "We talk about process a lot. It's not always getting to that end result, but the process of getting there."
This creative and critical thinking helps students cross disciplines and take charge of creating a career. "If they choose art history, or even if they choose something else, they are at an advantage," she says.
She suggests it might "sound sort of corny," but after a big sigh Challons-Lipton describes the most rewarding thing about teaching as "seeing [her] students' dreams realized."
Students are like a canvas whose "colors come out" while at Queens. They evolve as critics and independent thinkers, to become not only "great art historians, but also great people, great thinkers and great individuals."