NYCOBA|NOMA HIGHLIGHT

DR. SHARON EGRETTA SUTTON, FAIA

Name: Sharon Egretta Sutton

 

Professor of Architecture and Urban Design

Featured Project: A Solo Art Exhibition, "City Life On and Off the Grid"

Location:

Ethnic Heritage Art Gallery 

Seattle Municipal Tower

700 Fifth Avenue

Seattle, WA 98104

Exhibition Dates: 14 January - 13 April 2014

Artist's Statement: 

My works on paper are investigations of the grid.  They explore the modularity that is ubiquitous in the cityscape.  Modular elements are efficient, easily stacked, multiplied, and substituted one for the other, but that can also be monotonous and graceless.  My works seek to achieve surprise and elegance.

My first works on paper were intaglio etchings, which I began making as an architecture student at Columbia University.  I drafted grids onto zinc plates much in the same way that I drafted building designs onto vellum.  Later when worries about the toxicity of the etching process increased, I began making collages rather than etchings.

My collages are composed of scraps of discarded items that are glued, drawn, and painted into a unified whole, reflecting the African American "make-do" traditions of jazz, quilting, soul food cooking, and other creative enterprises.  By themselves, the scraps have no power, but when combined as integrated forms, they take on significance, able to evoke a mood or call forth an association.

The driving force of my collages is the painstaking process of making them—of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary through a many-layered and precise craft.

The titles for my pieces narrate the abstract imagery.  For example, "Them Bones Were Tiptoed into Shades of Winter's Light" is about a journey through the landscape.  Alternatively, "This Place Did Not Need the Light of the Sun or the Moon; It was Lit by the Radiance of Experience" is about my African American ancestors who taught me to make a place for myself even though I was forbidden to do so by law and by custom.

I hold five academic degrees—in music, architecture, philosophy, and psychology—and have studied in art studios internationally (intaglio etching in Florence, Italy and New York City; papermaking in Barcelona, Spain; drawing in Mexico City; collagraph and photolithography in Seattle).

Yet my most life-changing schooling occurred during the Civil Rights and Women's Movements, when I exhibited my works on paper with other black and women artists, and also associated with the country’s handful of black and women architects.  The lessons learned from banding together with these soul mates to scale the walls of exclusion inspire the commitment to excellence that underpins my work.

 

Q&A

Early Beginnings 

Unlike most architects who discover architecture as a child or teenager, I discovered music when I began taking piano lessons in Cincinnati, Ohio at age five.  At age twelve, after being admitted to one of the country’s only public college preparatory schools, I decided to become a classical French horn player.  I had my first taste of beating the odds, when I was hired as a sixteen-year-old “colored girl” to play Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with the Dayton Symphony Orchestra—a piece that requires a huge chorus and orchestra, including eight French Horns.

The Manhattan School of Music provided the full scholarship that allowed me to move to New York City and study with the renowned composer, Gunther Schuller.  After earning a Bachelor of Music degree, I spent the summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival under the tutelage of Schuller and conductor Erick Leinsdorf.

I was hired for my first full-time job that fall by Sol Hurok, the impresario who arranged U.S. tours of Soviet performers during the Cold War.  Forbidden to travel with whites in the segregated South, I toured the northern United States and Canada for two years playing French horn in the mostly white male orchestras that accompanied the Bolshoi, Leningrad,  Moiseiyev, and Royal Ballet Companies.

Later in New York City, I performed in various symphony orchestras, at Radio City Music Hall, and on Broadway with such shows as “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”  At 24, I landed another job that would be my last in music, opening in the  original Broadway production of  “Man of La Mancha. ”  I performed on the original cast recording and played approximately 1,000 of the show’s 2,328 performances.

My awareness of architecture formed as I experienced New York’s old Metropolitan Opera House, San Francisco’s War Memorial, and Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, among other great halls.  It also formed as I experienced urban renewal, a racist planning policy that destroyed about 1,600 black neighborhoods, including my three childhood home places and the old Metropolitan Opera House.  Urban renewal’s devastation sparked my interest in preserving a sense of place.

While still working in the theater, I purchased a rooming house on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and redeveloped it as rent-controlled housing.  After spending two years at Parsons School of Design studying interior design, I was recruited to Columbia University’s School of Architecture following that institution’s 1968 student-led uprising—a story told in full in my book When Ivory Towers Were Black.

At Columbia, I studied with architects J. Max Bond, Jr. and Romaldo Giurgola, and  also with printmaker Robert Blackburn.  I earned a Master of Architecture degree at age 32, which included a year working as a printmaker and apprentice architect in Florence, Italy.  From 1969–1975, I worked for Bond Ryder, Mitchell Giurgola, Alex Kouzmanoff, and Studio di Architettura Forte.  In 1976, I received my license to practice architecture.

In my early career, I ran a private practice, held adjunct teaching appointments at Pratt Institute and Columbia University, and exhibited my fine art in solo and group shows around the country, while at the same time earning three additional advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology from the City University of New York.  With five degrees in hand along with practice and teaching experience, I began the third leg of my professional life in architecture education.

An Outsider Within

As an activist educator and scholar, I have dedicated my career to advancing a humanistic, justice-oriented approach to architecture, promoting inclusivity in the cultural composition of the city-making professions and in the populations they serve.  This orientation has placed me squarely outside the mainstream of architectural education and practice, especially since I have frequently been a “first.”

I was one of the first ten African American women to become licensed in the United States.  I was the first woman and the first African American to teach architecture at the University of Cincinnati.  I was the first woman to teach architecture at the University of Michigan and there became the first African American woman in the nation to be promoted to full professor of architecture.  I was the first African American to teach architecture at the University of Washington, vacating that position sixteen years later as the “only one” not just in architecture but in the entire college.

My outsider within status is heightened by my spanning of disciplinary boundaries.  In addition to professional students in architecture, I have taught professional students in urban planning, landscape architecture e, and interior design, and have supervised doctoral students in architecture, urban planning, social welfare, and education.  Though I primarily identify as an architect, I have a substantial reputation as an artist.  My abstract works on paper are in the Library of Congress and have been exhibited in and collected by galleries and museums, business enterprises, and colleges and universities.

Spanning boundaries at the margins of architecture has given me the distinct advantage of being able to critique the historical conditions that limit field’s social relevance—to promote an alternative praxis of architecture that puts aside personal ambition and focuses upon the pressing environmental needs of the nation and world.  As I wrote in Jack Travis’  book, African American Architects:

                    As a person who has experienced oppression in several different forms, I find that l have an overabundance of daredevil courage to defy

                conventional frameworks, to resist the seduction of personal success, to fight against being an educated fool who is unable to use the common

                sense my ancestors bequeathed to me, to challenge those who see affirmative action solely in terms of getting more African American women

                and men into a particular arena.  Even though, as an academic, l am immersed in the dominant voice's view of power, authority, success,

                fairness, justice, human ability, and so forth, I feel an urgency to establish an alternative world view, to question dominant values although they

                are, if not perfectly, sustaining me, to seek an alternative praxis of architecture with my African American sisters and brothers, even though our

                small group spans diverse interests, values, and needs—even though we may further compromise our already compromised position.

I have defiantly refused to participate in NOMA, not only because the fifteen African American men who posed for NYCOBA’s 1979 founding photo excluded me but also because NYCOBA/NOMA has not adopted a transformative approach to the status quo.

Most Outstanding Accomplishment

I am most proud of the cadre of activist academics and practitioners I have helped to cultivate.  My former students have become leaders not only in architecture but also in education, finance, law, planning, and social work.  As they have risen to prominence, many have resisted the seduction of success and maintained the social consciousness that my classes inspire.  In the words of one of my deans:

                   Artist, musician, designer, scholar, teacher, and incomparable architect: Dr. Sharon Sutton is the kind of rare citizen who insists on and creates

                  the consciousness of others.  She embodies a singular and transformative discourse on social justice, and her perseverance and grace give

                  heart to generations who aim to fully achieve our profession.

                 

                 Daniel S. Friedman, Dean & ACSA Distinguished Professor
                 University of Hawai’i at Manoa School of Architecture