CVPA faculty serve as mentors on College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Senior Design Day projects

CVPA faculty serve as mentors on College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Senior Design Day projects

Every year seniors in NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology engage in a year-long design project that involves creating or improving commercial products or industrial processes. They are mentored by faculty and industry professionals to get hands-on, real-world experience. This year, three of those projects were the result of proposals written by College of Visual and Performance Art faculty who then served as project mentors.

Gregory Beyer, professor of music and director of percussion studies worked with “Team 35” as they designed a berimbau, an Afro-Brazilian percussion instrument, traditionally made with one string.

Yuko Asada, musical instrument technician, assistant director of the NIU Steelband and director of the Community School of the Arts Steelband worked with “Team 51” as they sought to create a method to mechanically forge the construction fo the steelpan, a process that when done manually can be physically taxing.

Kelly Gross, instructor in the Art Education department in Disability Studies and Technology, mentored “Team 44” on creating a photography system for persons with physical differences.

Design of Berimbau Instrument

“I am delighted to report that the year of work in pursuit of developing a two-string model of an Afro-Brazilian berimbau, a traditional one-string musical bow, has produced remarkable results,” Beyer said. “Not only have we created an instrument that allows one performer access to a wider and more complete compass of pitches, we have also developed an instrument with a unique timbral profile.”

Team 35 was made up of CEET seniors Michael Joseph Abukhader, Matthew J Hasto, and Clayton Lee Smith.

Mechanical Forging for the Construction of a Standardized Steelpan Instrument

Part of NIU’s world-renowned Steelpan Studies program involves the actual building of the instrument, and Yuko Asada sought help from Engineering to help automate the process. “Steelpans are all hand made,” she said. “The most high tech tools we use are pneumatic hammers. It takes a long time for us to create steelpans, and it also causes a lot of strain on the wrists, hands, arms, really the entire body to make them. An automated process would make it faster and easier, and it would also cut down the time that we’re exposed to the noise and vibration as we make them.”

The design team created a machine that used an increment forming process to build one of the small pans. Asada was pleased by the results, though the process still needs some fine “tuning.”

“The issue we encountered is that each note isn’t isolated, so when you strike a note the surrounding area rings,” she said. “So there are some things that can be improved, but as a first step it’s very exciting.”  She said she hopes next year another senior design project team will take on the next step in the process to get closer to the long-term goal of being able to mass produce steelpans which will allow us builders to concentrate on tuning the instrument.

Asada said she was very impressed by the knowledge of the Engineering students and how easy they were to work with. “Being able to work with students from another college and work with those who have the knowledge I don’t have was something I really enjoyed.”

Team 51 was made up of CEET seniors Gabriel Gandara, Nicholas Grimes,  and Josefina Buan.

Photography System for Persons with Physical Differences

Gross submitted a proposal for a senior design project to create an adaptive tripod for wheelchair users. Gross helped set up interviews with the design team and wheelchair users to provide specifics about the factors to consider in developing a tripod that meets the users exact needs.

She worked to familiarize the design team with the kinds of equipment the photographers would be using and the challenges that issues with lack of hand strength or range of motion provide and would need to be factored into the design.  The design team used all of that information to create a prototype mount for a tripod controlled by a remote.

Camera Mount

Gross said the next step in the process will be to create functionality to control the tripod’s movements through a phone app instead, similar to the way users are able to control their DSLR phones.

“One of my goals with this project, which was met was to open their minds in terms of engineering in terms of accessibility,” she said. “The conversations they had with wheelchair users and people with physical disabilities really helped them understand limitations. In terms of moving forward as engineers and thinking of accessibility in the arts and in all aspects of life, I think the project was really successful.”

Team 44 was made up of CEET seniors Daniel Avila, Daisy Hernandez, and Malak Zayed.

Art History’s Sinclair Bell named 2021 Presidential Teaching Professor

Art History’s Sinclair Bell named 2021 Presidential Teaching Professor

Sinclair BellIn nominating Prof. Sinclair Bell for the Presidential Teaching Professorship, Judith Testa, professor emerita of the NIU School of Art and Design, described Bell as “that rare individual among university faculty members: a brilliant, innovative and extraordinarily productive scholar who is also a brilliant and inspiring teacher.”

Bell, professor of art history at NIU, is a world-renowned scholar and researcher with the ability to bring his knowledge of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art, architecture and archaeology, and his experiences in the field, to his students in the classroom. In recent weeks he has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study ethnicity in antiquity, was awarded an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as well as being named one of this year’s four NIU Presidential Teaching Professors.

Fittingly, recipients of a Presidential Teaching Professorship are those who have demonstrated their commitment to and success in the many activities associated with outstanding teaching. As one undergraduate student wrote, “Professor Bell is a highly knowledgeable instructor who takes teaching seriously. He makes students work hard and think critically. These are both very helpful tools for the real world.”

For Bell, his interest in art history and archaeology originated from his parents, beginning with their travels together when he was a child.

“My parents have a passion for history, even though they both had careers in medicine. When I was eight, we left the US for Saudi Arabia,” he said. “As a result of being there for several years, I ended up seeing ancient sites all over the Mediterranean. I was not only able to visit all of the great monuments of antiquity in Egypt, Greece, and Italy, but I also witnessed firsthand my parents’ passion for the ancient world. It was very encouraging for me at an early age to know that studying the past was a legitimate interest.”

Bell majored in classical studies and history at Wake Forest University. He furthered his studies through a summer term at Oxford University, followed by a semester in Athens, Greece. He went on his first archaeological excavation in Carthage, Tunisia in 1994.

“In Carthage, we were digging at a site near a Roman circus—a venue for chariot racing—and that was when I first became intrigued by Roman entertainment,” he said. “It sparked a real interest in this topic.”

That interest led Bell to develop an expertise that has provided opportunities to present his research at conferences all over the world, write for dozens of publications including book chapters, journals, and encyclopedia articles, and to serve as lead presenter for the Smithsonian Channel series, “Rome’s Chariot Superstar.”

He says that one of the things he most enjoys about teaching ancient art and architecture at NIU is the challenge and the opportunity it provides to expand students’ horizons.

“Most students have only the slightest background knowledge of the material I teach every semester in my introductory and upper-level courses,” he said. “Few, or none, possess any knowledge of the ancient languages—Greek, Latin—that are key to the understanding of these cultures. There is no better example of this than my course on the Etruscans, a once-powerful but now-obscure ancient Italic people who lived in the modern region of Tuscany.

“They are commonly referred to as ‘mysterious’ because we lack a full understanding of their origins and their language, and because they were largely written out of history by the Romans who conquered them, the Etruscans are the subject of very few college courses nationwide. But in teaching this unfamiliar material to mostly first-generation college students, I frame it broadly as the story of a people who – although ‘mysterious’ now – left a material record of their lives, hopes, and dreams that is both radically different from and hauntingly similar to our own. Students learn several words of Etruscan and their English derivatives (such as the word augur) and hear about the contributions that the Etruscans bequeathed to our own civilization.

“By the end of each semester of this course, many students confess their enchantment with this ‘lost’ civilization: it is as if an entire new world has opened up to them. Each year, several even head to Italy on digs, to personally search for the Etruscans. This is my greatest source of joy in teaching: to promote a passionate interest in the past by those who had no or little previous knowledge or interest.”

Bell is returning to the field again as part of an excavation near the city of Viterbo in central Italy, a project which is directed by two colleagues, Profs. Lea Cline and Kathryn Jasper at Illinois State University. NIU students are already asking him, “Do you need any help in 2022?” He said he feels gratified that so many of his students develop an interest and enthusiasm in material that they had little or no exposure to before taking his classes.

“It’s not that they just graduate and disappear,” Bell said. “They tell me about how they continue to try to find ways to gain access to the material, whether by integrating ancient imagery into their own artistic practice or through visits to museums or going off on a dig in Italy.”

Bell said one of the things he appreciates about teaching at NIU is the opportunity to work with and learn from other faculty members who are able to integrate their fieldwork into the classroom. He considers retired colleagues Dan Gebo, a professor of biological anthropology, and Jeff Kowalski, professor of art history, to be two of his role models in this regard.

“Students really appreciate when you can ground your lessons with specific examples and not just speak in generalities,” Bell said. “That is, provide examples of you as a researcher at work, so that they can actually imagine: How does art history work? How does archaeology work? I’ve always done my best to illustrate my arguments through examples, such as ‘When I was in the field, this happened.’ I try to contextualize my lectures with examples from my own professional experiences and research interests.”

This approach has clearly resonated with his students. As one undergraduate wrote, “Dr. Bell’s knowledge and stories back up his claims. I love when professors can bring real life experience to their lectures.”

Echoing Prof. Judith Testa, another student remarked, “Dr. Bell is a spectacular professor who creates an environment that inspires his students to do their best work. I came in for a writing infused course and left an educated mind with a greater art historical appreciation.”

This article originally ran in the April 15, 2021 edition of NIU Today

CVPA’s Jessica Labatte and Paula Frasz among this year’s winners of Deacon Davis Awards

CVPA’s Jessica Labatte and Paula Frasz among this year’s winners of Deacon Davis Awards

The Presidential Commission on Race and Ethnicity (PCORE), formerly the Presidential Commission on the Status of Minorities (PSCM), has reimagined the annual Diversity and Inclusion luncheon as a virtual summit. The event will take place on Wednesday, April 14 beginning at noon.

The summit offers three programs including an afternoon awards ceremony, and afternoon program for students, and an evening town hall titled Policing on Campus in America. The town hall will feature Professor Rashawn Ray from the University of Maryland, Deputy Chief Darren Mitchell, and City of DeKalb Chief David Byrd. Dr. Simón E. Weffer-Elizondo, associate professor from the Department of Sociology will facilitate the discussion.

The afternoon awards ceremony will honor six McKinley “Deacon” Davis Award recipients and acknowledge their contributions towards building and sustaining an inclusive campus. The recipients are Jasmine Ivy, an NIU graduate student; Jessica Labatte, associate professor in the School of Art and Design; Paula Frasz, professor in the School of Dance; Michelle Bringas, director of the Asian American Resource Center; Jocelyn Santana, director of Social Justice Education; and President Lisa Freeman. Students, staff, faculty, and members of the community are welcome to attend the event and can register at http://go.niu.edu/1nlfbm.

Jessica Labatte

Jessica Labatte, an associate professor in the School of Art and Design, and two student photographers created an extraordinarily moving project, Faces of Belonging, which can be viewed on Huskie Line buses within the DeKalb community and online at www.belongingdekalb.com.

Additionally, her nominator added, “Her work in the classroom focuses on access and empathy. She makes sure all her students have the best equipment possible, regardless of economic status. Jessica encourages, in fact requires, an inclusive approach to the art of photography, in which students are challenged to question not only what is photographed, but by whom and how. She was interrogating the dominant practices well before the current attention on such things.”


Paula Frasz

Paula Frasz

Professor Paula Frasz from the School of Dance is a legendary dance performance educator in the City of Chicago and at NIU.

Her nominator states, “her philosophy is to unite her community by bringing the art of dance performance to a myriad of audience members, illustrating that dance can universally convey ideas with compelling, creative and lasting images. In her research, she has voiced issues of BIPOC populations and those who have been silenced for so long. She has implemented her philosophy as founder and artistic director of DanszLoop Chicago, a not-for-profit dance company. For 14 years, DanszLoop showcased her choreography locally and nationally. DanszLoop audiences represent all strata of society, from a gymnasium full of African-American third-graders, to 250 artistic elites at the Manhattan Center for Movement and Music in New York City.”


Jasmine Ivy

Jasmine Ivy

Jasmine Ivy is engaged student leader who recently moderated a virtual Diversity Dialogue Series program on race-related trauma and was selected as the 2021 Phyllis Cunningham Social Justice Award winner for her efforts to pursue and support social justice initiatives.

Her nominator wrote: “Jasmine Ivy has been an exceptional student leader for her entire tenure at NIU, both as an undergraduate and graduate student. As an undergraduate student she was very engaged in service and promoted programs that uplift and empower students. She is a very talented, well-rounded young lady with a strong work ethic and is forthright in her pursuit of solutions. Jasmine is a leader that is committed to public service.”


Michelle Bringas

Michelle Bringas

Michelle Bringas has served as the director of the Asian American Resource Center for the past 19 years.  She has built sustainable programs that uplift, support and empower students of Asian descent while engaging and educating our campus about Asian American heritage and culture.

Her nominator states, “Michelle has been an exceptional alumna and leader on our campus for years. She has been engaged in advocacy for many groups which is demonstrated by her standing with Black students and advocating for the original erection of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bust in the MLK Commons; walking in protest alongside students; and without recognition speaking up for those who have been silenced, especially in difficult moments. Michelle plays a major role in developing and sustaining an inclusive campus.”


Jocelyn Santana

Jocelyn Santana

Jocelyn Santana serves as director of NIU’s Social Justice Education program.  Her work extends across and beyond our campus and has helped develop programs, education and discussions that are transforming the climate at NIU.

Her nominator says, “Jocelyn is considered the staff expert on our campus because of her knowledge, willingness to engage in education and healing, and her enthusiasm and personality. Jocelyn works literally day, night and weekends to help provide the support, expertise, engagement and education for our campus and community to ensure we can enhance participants’ cultural competence, understanding and ultimately create environments that encourage conversations and cultural change.”


President Lisa Freeman

President Lisa Freeman

As our thirteenth President and first woman in the role, President Lisa Freeman truly leads our campus and community by example. She continues to lead our university with her consistent engagement, vision and efforts to create a community of inclusivity where all are welcomed and valued.

Her nominator shares, “Dr. Freeman is dedicated to ensuring our students, staff and faculty have the support they need to succeed on all levels. I have observed Dr. Freeman attend difficult meetings and conversations and address students with an empathetic and listening ear and then energize senior leadership to make immediate and lasting changes to meet the needs of students. Her personal engagement with students, her vision even through a pandemic and her relentless efforts to develop a campus that is a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, technology and beyond is commendable.”

For more information, contact PCORE Chair Felicia R. Bohanon at: (815) 753-1868 or fbohanon@niu.edu. To attend for the Annual Summit, registration is required at http://go.niu.edu/1nlfbm.

NIU Foundation launches crowdfunding campaigns, including one to support graduating artists

NIU Foundation launches crowdfunding campaigns, including one to support graduating artists

Those looking to make a difference at NIU have a new tool to help raise much-needed financial support. NIU Impact, the NIU Foundation’s new crowdfunding program at http://crowdfund.niu.edu and features ten campaigns.

One of those campaigns is “Curtain Call! – Support Graduating Senior Arts Projects” to assist with the funding of capstone projects and industry standard portfolio and audition materials for students in the College of Visual Performing Arts as they prepare to start their exciting careers in the arts.

Here’s an example of just one of the senior arts projects funding could benefit.

The crowdfunding campaign for supporting arts students will run through May 10, with a goal of raising $2,000 for students in each of three schools that makes up the College of Visual and Performing Arts (College of Art and Design, College of Music, College of Theatre and Dance.)

The NIU Foundation has experienced significant growth in its digital giving program, seeing an increase of over 100% from fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2020 in dollars raised. “In 2018, we raised nearly $290,000 through digital giving ,” shares Michael Adzovic, Director of the Northern Fund. “Last year, in 2020, we raised $580,000.  Already, in fiscal year 2021, we’ve raised $683,000.”

Much of this growth can be attributed to the NIU Foundation’s Day of Giving program implemented in 2019, but other factors have fueled growth as well.

“The pandemic has been a factor,” shares Adzovic. “We’ve relied more on digital giving opportunities during this season and have found that many people are comfortable and prefer giving online. This is the future of our direct response program.”

That growth has inspired the NIU Foundation’s new crowdfunding program.

How Crowdfunding Works

Crowdfunding is not new, of course. This method of raising funds has been common for years, popularized through sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe.  However, it has just recently become popular in higher education fundraising.

“We see great potential in crowdfunding at NIU,” shares Adzovic. “The platform allows us to work with campus partners to conduct targeted, goal-oriented and time-sensitive campaigns that harness the power of volunteers and their individual networks.”

A key difference between crowdfunding and the NIU Foundation’s traditional methods of fundraising is that crowdfunding is driven primarily by volunteers reaching out and amplifying a cause to their individual networks, as opposed to communications being institutionally driven.  The dollar goal for crowdfunding campaigns tends to be smaller—commonly between $3,000-$5,000. These funds usually support very specific initiatives, such as student travel to conferences, research projects, and scholarships.  The duration of a typical campaign is four weeks.

“We see crowdfunding being a great fit for many of our campus partners to fund needs for which we wouldn’t normally fundraise through traditional methods,” shares Adzovic. “We also view it as an excellent way to attract new donors to NIU.”

Curtain Call! – Support Graduating Senior Arts Projects

Exhibits and conversations promote Belonging in DeKalb

Exhibits and conversations promote Belonging in DeKalb

While the pandemic has been keeping people apart, the City of DeKalb, Northern Illinois University and a collection of local agencies have been working to bring the DeKalb community closer together through the Belonging initiative.

The initiative to develop a belonging community was sparked by a virtual conversation in October 2020, led by Dr. john a. powell, who leads the Belonging Institution at U.C. Berkley. Joining the city and the university in the effort are Family Service Agency, the Ellwood Museum and the DeKalb County History Center.

Aided by a $30,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) in January 2021, and a $5,000 donation from the DeKalb County Community Foundation, those organizations have been working on a variety of public art and engagement activities designed to examine issues around race in the community. The goal is to make DeKalb a more welcoming, inclusive place that embraces diversity.

“We are delighted to be in partnership with the City of Dekalb and our community partners on such an important endeavor,” said Vernese Edghill-Walden,  vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion /Chief Diversity Officer and Interim Chief Human Resources Officer at NIU. “The positive support received from the entire community has been wonderful. We look forward to co-creating a community where all members are seen, valued and respected is a community where all members can live and more importantly can thrive.”

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas is equally enthused about the program.

“The social justice movement that has positively energized the dialogue about racism in our country and in this community since May 2020 has also helped us engage one another in finding what unites and humanizes us,” Nicklas said of the project. “It is our hope that this initiative will encourage our diverse community in the further exploration of how we can better embrace one another as we work, learn and live together.”

Projects funded by the IDHS grant have come to fruition this month, creating opportunities for members of the community to explore issues that create division and potentially motivating them to find ways to tear down those barriers and make DeKalb a place where all can feel they belong. See below for information on each project.

Faces of Belonging

The Faces of Belonging project is a traveling exhibit that promotes “belonging” among individuals who live, work and study in DeKalb. It highlights the rich network of diverse individuals who make up the community through their unique photographs, perspectives and varied life experiences. The portraits capture individuals that work to create a sense of belonging for others in the community. Each shows a person in a place in DeKalb that creates a sense of belonging for that individual. The photographs are accompanied by excerpts from interviews with the subjects of the photographs, sharing insights into what belonging means to them and how to create a sense of belonging for everyone.

The project was created by Jessica Labatte, an associate professor in NIU’s School of Art and Design, and two of her photography students, Amy Fleming and Jacob Rivera. The photographs can be seen on Huskie Line buses. The exhibit can be viewed online at www.belongingdekalb.com.

Arts in Action

Developed by the DeKalb County History Center and the Ellwood House Museum, Arts in Action investigates the history of race relations in DeKalb County with the assistance of nine visual artists. Their work touches upon the themes of fear, exclusion, community and hope.

Arts in Action is designed to be a platform for community members and artists to tell their stories, especially for those whose voices have not always been heard. The project goal is to build a stronger community by sharing, listening to and understanding the stories of everyone in the community.

A virtual exhibit launched March 31 and can be viewed on the DeKalb County History Center Website.

Hateful Things

Northern Illinois University’s Pick Museum of Anthropology, in collaboration with the Center for Black Studies, is hosting the traveling exhibition, “Hateful Things.” Created and circulated by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, the exhibition represents nearly 150 years of anti-Black/racist memorabilia and imagery, each embodying the terrible effects of the Jim Crow legacy. This powerful exhibition lifts objects from their original purposes to serve as reminders of America’s racist past and challenges present-day images and systems of oppression. It is a representation of racial stereotyping with the aim of stimulating the scholarly examination of historical and contemporary expressions of racism, as well as promoting racial understanding and healing. The exhibit is open to the public for in-person and virtual tours through April 9, and reservations are required. A virtual tour is available online.

 Diversity Dialogues

The Diversity Dialogues series at NIU was created to allow participants to understand and discuss a wide range of topics from local and global perspectives. It focuses on participants enhancing their awareness, becoming comfortable in engaging in informed conversations and expanding to social justice actions to create positive change and solve problems. As part of the Belongings initiative, Dr. LaVonya Bennett led a virtual session March 25, co-sponsored by Target, to provide participants an understanding of the historic and current lived experiences of people of color and how trauma is caused and influenced by racial identity.

Belonging Council Formation

The grant has also supported work to create a community Belonging Council to guide such activities going forward. A team from NIU‘s Center for Governmental Studies has facilitated a series of formation discussions with a steering committee of community members working collaboratively to create foundational documents and a vision for a Belonging Council within the City of DeKalb. To date, the steering committee has created a working draft of the Belonging Council’s mission statement, a list of guiding values, and undertaken an analysis of the operating environment. The steering committee will work on the development of short- and long-term organizational and mission-driven goals along with an action plan for the remaining workshop sessions, which are planned to be completed in early April.

For more information about Belonging, visit cityofdekalb.com/belonging.

Header photo: One of the many striking images from Faces of Belonging, view them all online