KCAD Professor Dr. Suzanne Eberle Retires, Leaves Behind Legacy of Inspired Teaching and Lifelong Learning
Posted May 5, 2020
Everyone loves a good story. And Art History Professor Dr. Suzanne Eberle, who retired from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) in May, 2020, has spent her career telling them.
Dr. Suzanne Eberle
Dr. Eberle joined KCAD in 1979 as the college’s only full-time art history instructor. After multiple requests from students who were more interested in an academic course of study than a studio degree, she helped KCAD launch its Art History major in 1999.
“Originally, we offered only the AH Surveys and about four other art/design history classes,” she says. “But Kendall started growing, and with it the faculty, new majors, and new opportunities for art history classes. There were many more opportunities to develop classes--not the usual sequential ones like ancient art and classical art, but history of interior design, contemporary art, Native American art, the history of photography, and the history of fashion.” This free-form, all-embracing philosophy encouraged Eberle to take a creative approach to teaching at KCAD. And when KCAD began offering graduate programs, advanced art history classes, often centered on rotating aesthetic themes or particular artists, were introduced.
No matter what specific courses she taught each year, Eberle’s objective remained constant. “My goal in all of my teaching has been to inspire students to care about art and to see it as part of their daily life,” she explains. “To see that art contains stories. Whether it’s the individual story of an artist, the story of a community, a nation, or a particular group, that story is told so vividly through art and design.”
Dr. Eberle celebrating with two of KCAD's first Art History graduates alongside with fellow faculty Bob Sheardy (2nd from left) and Nancy Goodman (2nd from right) (image courtesy of Suzanne Eberle)
In her classes, Eberle encouraged students to look beyond the content and style, saying, “The context is what really gives art life. How does this piece reflect the geography, the political system, the social and philosophical values, the economics of the time in which it was created? I tried to frame the art in terms of not just what was created, but why the artist created this.”
Examining the stories behind the art helped students to understand that art is never created in a vacuum, she says. “People are responding to their own needs or community needs; artists are often perpetuating a value system, rebelling against that system, or envisioning a new and hopefully better path.”
(above and below): Dr. Eberle never failed to hold her classes rapt at attention with her skill in bringing art history to life
So, what do art and design present us with? To Eberle, it’s experiences that are human. “Even though they might have been created within different belief systems or social constructs, art and design still go back to this basic element of a shared humanity,” she says. “And the more we can pull out of our narcissistic bubbles and see that shared experience, the better.”
Setting the Stage for Learning
As Eberle got to know her students, she found that most of them had graduated from high school without much knowledge of art history, but they were ready to get excited about it when they got to college. “They’re really ready to go beyond just those dates and names. They want to know what’s behind it,” she says.
Like any good storyteller, she worked to feed that interest and excitement. “I’ve never relied on just pulling out the same notes and using them again and again,” she says. “Every class has a syllabus that remains rather constant, but the students were always new, and they were the guiding force in my classes. They determined where I went and how I got there.”
For Eberle, there’s always been a certain push and pull required to expand students’ understanding. As a teacher, she sees it as her responsibility to teach to where students are, and then bring them up to the level of expertise she’d like them to have.
“It’s not necessarily about feeling comfortable,” she says. “Professors need to get students out of their comfort zone, and so classes can’t be dull. I got enthusiastic about what I showed them, and I hope that that stoked their own excitement and interests so they could see the relevance and the value there. Once I can show students the pleasure of slowing down and thinking more deeply and broadly, it’s incredible. It’s not about “yes” or “no” or “true” or “false;” it’s about starting an engaging, deep conversation in the classroom that students can continue on their own.”
Opening the Door to Fashion
Eberle’s career wasn’t confined to traditional art history. “I’d been teaching History of Fashion since the early 1980s,” she said, “because I always felt that fashion had been unfairly excluded from art history.”
So in the early 2000s, she approached then-KCAD President Dr. Oliver Evans about establishing a fashion program. Because students had already been asking where they could get degrees in fashion and several KCAD grads were working in the industry, the college was confident that its students could succeed. Working with Drawing Professor Deb Rockman, Illustration Professor Molly Corriveau, and Mimi Ray, a KCAD alum with her own knitwear company, Eberle helped lay the groundwork for the new major.
Dr. Eberle, in her usual manner, going above and beyond to immerse her students in the topic at hand
“We wanted to make it broader than just fashion design,” she explains. “That’s why KCAD’s program is called Fashion Studies instead of design or merchandising. We wanted ours to give students a fuller experience and a New York connection, so that’s where the relationship with Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) came in.”
Expanding the Field through Research
Always curious, Eberle eagerly embraced the chance to build knowledge in her field. “Constant research and reading gets me excited; it deepens me,” she says. “Being a scholar is a way that you can add depth to any particular topic, whether it’s a survey that I taught dozens of times or a new investigation into, say, fashions worn during World War I,” she says.
For example, before teaching a seminar on the Renaissance, she took a sabbatical to Italy to visit the sites that the class would discuss. And on a visit to Japan in the early 1980s, she was exposed to a new fashion aesthetic created by “post-apocalyptic designers.” Though she wasn’t teaching a class on Japanese fashion, the experience changed her perceptions because she found it so “visually stunning.”
Dr. Eberle dons her graduation attire during a KCAD commencement ceremony
While some of what she learned went beyond what she needed for the classroom, she found that it fed her needs as a thinker, a reader, and a researcher. Beginning in the 1980s, Eberle became recognized as a scholar of fashion history, giving frequent talks at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and Muskegon Art Museum and later lecturing at the Fashion Institute of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the School of Visual Arts National Conferences on Liberal Arts & the Education of Artists in New York, and the Costume Society of America Regions III/IV Annual Symposia. For many years, she has also trained docents at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, taught in Aquinas College’s life-long learning program, and given multiple presentations at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park on subjects such as women sculptors, garden history, and floral symbolism in art.
Sharing what she has learned with people outside of academia is important to her. “Education is not only for paying students at a traditional college or university – learning never stops,” she says. “My teaching needed to be expanded into the local and regional community.
Continuing Her Legacy
To cap off her career at KCAD, Eberle established the Suzanne Pilat Eberle Endowed Scholarship for Arts in 2019. The award provides financial support for KCAD sophomores, juniors, or seniors majoring in Art History or Fashion Studies.
“I wanted to give back to Kendall and provide support for students in the programs I helped develop,” she says. While some of her colleagues had funded memorial scholarships to support the college after their deaths, “I wanted to be able to do it sooner,” she says. “Knowing that retirement was coming up, I wanted to continue making a difference in students’ lives, and I could do it in this way. Friends and alumni can help celebrate my teaching years at KCAD by donating to this scholarship fund.”
Dr. Eberle honoring fellow KCAD faculty member Ralph Allured at his retirement party
For the immediate future, Eberle says, “I’m doing what many of my retirement friends have advised me: don’t make plans for that first year. Allow it to evolve organically. If you stay open, more opportunities will open up, too. You have to be available for spontaneity to occur.”
As for the field of Art History, she sees more shifts on the horizon. “Art History has been broadening and needs to broaden even more,” she says. “Its focus has been Western Art history for most of its existence, and lately, it’s been becoming more global, so at KCAD, we’ve created more classes that pull from outside of Western/Euro/American-centric art; that’s going to become a stronger direction in the future.”
While Eberle finds this global approach exciting, it does introduce some new challenges to teaching. “We’re going to be facing the need to envelop all of these viewpoints and history, rather than separating them into different classes. With a holistic art history, there will be so much more material to teach, thus, there may not be a time for deeper, more specialized exploration.”
She also believes the field will need to do more work to fill educational gaps. “Many students are coming to college today with less background on which to build,” she explains. In the past, “We could usually assume there was a historical and cultural foundation for students, but that’s not the case anymore. Now we sometimes have to teach basic political and social history along with the history of art.”
Dr. Eberle celebrating at a KCAD function
Eberle also acknowledges the responsibility of those who teach history. “Everything in history is skewed by the victors, the writers of history,” she says. “There’s a danger to assume that where we are now is the penultimate. We don’t have absolute aesthetic truth today any more than we did 20 years ago--or 2000 years ago. History is this ever-changing, complex, exciting thing.”
However, she believes it’s a complexity worth embracing. “That’s what I hoped to give students through my teaching,” she says. “Life, history, art, and design--they’re not simple. You always have to ask why, and I don’t think we can ever say, ‘Now we have it right.’ That openness allows for growth, for failure, and for extraordinary creative invention.”
It’s an intricate, never-ending story, and despite her retirement from KCAD, one that Eberle is not done telling.
Dr. Suzanne Eberle earned a B.A. at the University of Detroit with a double major in Art History and English and a minor in History. She holds a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Art Historical and Literary relationships from the University of Detroit. She currently serves on the Board of Directors and on the Sculpture Advisory Committee at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, and has published and presented widely since 1983.