Illustration Professor Sandy Ringlever Bids Farewell to KCAD After 52 Years
The year is 1963. Betty Friedan publishes the seminal modern feminist text “The Feminine Mystique;” Dr. Martin Luther King delivers his famed “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas; Beatlemania takes Britain by storm; and here in West Michigan, a young illustrator named Sandra Ringlever begins her teaching career at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD).
To say much has changed in the ensuing decades is an understatement. Yet amidst all the social upheaval, cultural transformation, and technological advancement, Ringlever’s commitment to KCAD never wavered. This fall marks the first time in 52 years that Ringlever will not return to campus for the start of a new academic year. After announcing her retirement this spring and assuming the title of Professor Emeritus, she’s ready to begin a new journey, but her influence on the college will continue to be felt well into the future.
“The years at KCAD and the experiences I’ve been a part of have had a major impact on my interactions with students, my teaching, and me as a person,” Ringlever says. “Becoming an effective teacher is a continuing life-long challenge, the dimensions of which often go unnoticed. But I never grew tired of getting to know individual students and working to encourage, inspire, and challenge them to become independent, conceptual thinkers and thoughtful producers of their art forms.”
When Ringlever joined KCAD, the college, then located northeast of downtown Grand Rapids on College Ave, offered only three majors: Furniture Design, Interior Design, and Advertising Design; had an enrollment of around 100 students; and employed fewer than 10 faculty members. She started out teaching foundation courses such as life drawing and color theory that every first year student at that time was required to take, and quickly found herself thriving in the college’s close-knit, supportive culture.
Ringlever teaching at KCAD in 1979
“The school was small and intimate. Everyone knew everyone, and we all helped each other out and cheered each other on,” Ringlever recalls. “It was an extremely positive, friendly and encouraging environment.”
A few years’ time brought the creation of a fourth degree program, Illustration, which would become Ringlever’s home for the remainder of her career. Expanded recruiting efforts in the early 1970s, which included Ringlever and her fellow faculty members hitting the road to connect with prospective students, spurred a dramatic increase in enrollment.
“Class sizes were growing, and often several classes were taught in one classroom at the same time by the same instructor,” Ringlever says. “I remember teaching four to six classes at the same time. At the beginning of one term, my life drawing class roster listed 47 students. On the first day of class, the students sat in concentric circles around the model stand all the way to the walls. There was no space for anyone to move around.”
As KCAD worked to accommodate the surge in growth, Ringlever and the other two full-time Illustration faculty members helped the program to become the largest in the college by the mid-70s. It wasn’t long before employers took notice of the fresh crop of talented illustrators coming out of Grand Rapids.
“Hallmark recruited from KCAD every spring, as did Disney and American Greetings,” Ringlever recalls.
(above and below) Ringlever at work in her studio in 1990
On three separate occasions, Ringlever was invited to attend a Hallmark Education Seminar along with other illustration professors from around the nation. At these events she would come to learn that the company employed a great number of KCAD Illustration alumni. Still more Illustration graduates would go on to become children’s book, textbook, and newspaper illustrators, while others found success in the graphic design, advertising, and publishing industries or started their own companies.
Ringlever has always believed that the most important thing a teacher can do to help students succeed is to take responsibility for their success.
“You have to be invested, to really care about and encourage your students,” she says. “Teaching is a process of instilling concepts and necessary skills for life-long learning, team participation, and working with individuals. Ultimately, the student will leave the protective environment of the school to enter their professional field, so it is important for them to be able to continue learning while working with others to manage and process the problems and issues that are faced in the real world.”
Outside of teaching at KCAD, Ringlever was an active freelance illustrator, often creating hand-drawn renderings of interior spaces for clients such as the Brookby Estate (above) and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel (below) (images courtesy of the artist)
Ringlever’s ability to prepare her students for the rigors of the working world grew from her own professional experience. Throughout her teaching career, she also operated her own company, Ringlever Design and Illustration, working with a wide variety of clients in education, consumer goods and services, retail, contract furnishing, architecture, and the non-profit sector.
“All of the work involved advertising, graphic design, visual identity/branding and illustration. I have always practiced what I teach and have brought my real-world experiences to the classroom,” Ringlever says. “Many of my former students successfully work in all of these areas as well.”
Ringlever also did freelance work for local department stores, creating hand-drawn illustrations of the latest fashions (image courtesy of the artist)
Staying in contact with former students has also been an important component of Ringlever’s approach to teaching, and when you’ve taught in the same place for decades, you amass a broad network of contacts and connections. She’d often invite Illustration alumni back to campus to share their own knowledge and experiences with current students.
“Inviting these star alumni to talk to students was a vital part of the teaching process,” she says. “In most cases the students achieve greater success when they know what to expect in the field professionally.”
Ringlever and a former student at a KCAD function in 1993
Though she’ll no longer be teaching, Ringlever isn’t planning to stop connecting with KCAD alumni any time soon. She is, however, hoping that retirement will afford her more opportunities to explore her own creativity.
“Teaching and doing the work professionally for clients has been a perfect balance, but of course, there was no time to pursue ‘wall art’ unless I was on sabbatical,” she says.
(above and below): Artwork by Sandra Ringlever (images courtesy of the artist)
No matter where life takes her next, Ringlever is confident that KCAD’s future is in good hands.
“The college has evolved over the years from a relatively simple to a highly complex organization,” she says. “I admire all of these programs and their faculty for being so caring of their students and taking responsibility for their development and success.”