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

An internship provided Izabella Gieron the conducting experience she’s long waited for

An internship provided Izabella Gieron the conducting experience she’s long waited for

Izabella GieronIzabella Gieron knew she wanted to be a conductor since high school, and as she completes her degree in the NIU School of Music, an internship this year with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO) has given her the chance to get hands-on experience.

“My high school band teacher, Jeanette Soebbing (Argo High School, Summit, Ill.), is an amazing conductor,” Gieron said. “Watching her movements; the way she expressed the music only through hand and arm gestures felt unreal. From that moment, I knew that was something I needed to study. I tell her to this day that she’s the reason I am doing conducting.”

Gieron is majoring in music education and violin performance, with independent study in conducting. She’s a senior who will graduate in May, and is grateful for a long awaited opportunity to study conducting.

“I knew all along I wanted to be a double major, so I stuck with that. We had conducting classes which were fun, but it wasn’t until Dr. [Benjamin] Firer came that this opportunity was given to me. He emailed us and asked if anyone would like to take lessons with him and I responded in a heartbeat. It was something I always wanted to do, and when that opportunity came up, I was going to take it.”

Firer is a visiting assistant professor who teaches music theory, orchestration, advanced orchestral conducting, orchestral literature and directs the NIU Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Theatre. Last summer he was named to replace retiring, longtime MYSO music director Lawrence Sisk, and it turned out to be a great opportunity for Gieron, too.

“Dr. Firer had mentioned that he had an idea of how to keep me involved, as he knew this was something I have always wanted to do,” Gieron said. “He helped create an internship/assistant conductor position, and ever since then, I have been part of MYSO. It’s always something I look forward to during the week. It’s so much fun, and I get to make music with all of these young musicians.”

MYSO was founded in 1959 and seeks to promote and challenge talented young orchestral musicians by providing an opportunity to perform repertoire of a wide variety of styles and historical periods. Membership includes junior high and high school students form Joliet and 21 surrounding communities, as well as students from Lewis University and Joliet Junior College.

Gieron’s duties as assistant conductor puts her in charge of sectionals, marking the bowings, doing playing tests, grading playing tests and provides her opportunities to conduct the orchestra, which includes being given a piece of music to conduct in every single concert.

“Witnessing Izabella’s journey into a skilled conductor has been a highlight of my time at NIU,” Firer said. “Her natural ability on the podium and outstanding leadership qualities make her a perfect match for the MYSO internship.  It’s a special experience seeing our students take what they’ve learned at NIU and make an impact.  Izabella has an extremely bright future in music, I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

COVID-19 presented challenges for the orchestra. “Everyone is six feet apart and this year, we’re only doing strings,” Gieron said. “In the beginning, it was quite challenging; the sound reflection was totally unbalanced and delayed as we were all spaced out. To adapt to the unordinary circumstances, Dr. Firer and I had to train the musicians to not try to listen to others, but to concentrate more on watching the conductor to resolve the sound delay dilemma. Eventually, the students started adapting and teaching in an uncommon environment was normalized. Things are going well.”

Gieron has also had the chance to study and perform with the Avalon String Quartet, the artists in residence at NIU. “Blaise Magniere [Avalon String Quartet member and Richard O. Ryan Endowed Chair in Violin in the School of Music] was my primary teacher,” Gieron said. “He opened my eyes to how important it is to study basic material. When you really understand the fundamentals, you can perform or do anything. Now in my teaching, I apply all that I’ve learned and make it a good habit to pass on the knowledge I have been given. There’s a quote I always like to use, ‘In order to be a good teacher you have to be a good musician.’ I’m so happy he prepared me for that.”

As she looks at graduate schools, Izabella also reflects back on the opportunities she was presented with at NIU that have helped her chart her path. “It’s definitely been life changing and eye opening,” she said. “Especially with conducting. Dr. Firer knew I was serious, and he definitely raised the standards and had very high expectations. I studied Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” which is one of the most challenging pieces ever written. I conducted a Beethoven symphony and a Haydn symphony as well. We have done intense score studying and provided me with different resources and materials to practice. It is one thing to learn how to wave around your hands to conducting, but what I cherish the most from these experiences were learning the deeper side of the art of conducting. To understand the meaning of the piece, to study how the composer wrote each piece and what they did to achieve such musical success – things that are often forgotten when studying music. I can move around my arms and conduct a musical composition, but music is more than that. It’s about the meaning and the feeling of performing it.”

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

Reggie and Mardra Thomas featured in immersive online experience “Into The Mist”

Reggie and Mardra Thomas featured in immersive online experience “Into The Mist”

Reggie Thomas, professor of music and head of jazz studies and his wife, jazz vocalist Mardra Thomas are part of the cast of characters and performers in the immersive, online musical experience, “Into the Mist” developed by Evanston artist Steve Rashid.

Into the Mist is performed live every Friday in April, online beginning at 9 p.m. CDT, tickets are $18, and the creators say the show is best experienced on a computer rather than a mobile device or tablet.

In the live, immersive experience, Flappers, bootleg liquor, silent films and more await you in a maze of hallways and secret passageways featuring a cast of world-class performers.

At times those viewing the show will simply be watching, but at other times they may interact with a room’s inhabitants. T?he evening culminates with a performance by the band, Chicago Cellar Boys.