Melissa Merli: UI's Wise shows off her art chops

Melissa Merli: UI's Wise shows off her art chops

Phyllis Wise was raised by two scientists, immigrants from China, who taught her both verbally and non-verbally that she would become a biologist.

"I didn't come to realize until later the importance of the arts," she said.

One thing that led to that realization:

"I was fortunate to have an amazing art history teacher (Hedley Rhys at Swarthmore) who showed me the science of art, that paintings weren't just pretty," Wise said in a talk on May 2 to the Krannert Art Museum Council.

Another influence that came later: As Wise, now the University of Illinois chancellor, watched her daughter, Erica, grow up and become an accomplished cellist, she became deeply aware of the importance of the arts to her daughter, and to herself as a mother.

Erica Wise, now 37, lives in Barcelona, where she is a substitute cellist with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and looking for a quartet in which to play. Wise's other child, Andy, is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

Wise's talk was titled "The Intersection of Arts and Higher Education — Delivering on the Promise of a Comprehensive Land-Grant University."

But she took a personal turn halfway through, talking about her daughter — and the book "The Cello Suites" by Eric Siblin.

The Economist magazine named it a 2010 book of the year. It weaves together three narratives about Johann Sebastian Bach's missing manuscript of his cello suites from the 18th century and the historic discovery of them in late 19th century in Spain.

In his extensive research, Siblin went overseas, and he interviewed cellists and even went to cello lessons.

"I loved this book so much, in part because my daughter is a professional cellist," Wise said.

The mother told council members and guests, meeting for the group's spring luncheon at the Champaign Country Club, that she remembers hearing her daughter at age 9 play the first movement of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.

Wise recalled turning to her husband, also a scientist, and asking, "What genetics got into that?"

In the rest of her talk, she spoke of how crucial it is for the university to provide a learning experience that includes the arts, humanities and social sciences.

It was clear when the UI was founded in 1867 as a land-grant university that the arts were to be part of the learning experience, she said.

"I don't believe the other land-grant universities took the arts as seriously as we did," Wise said.

She also mentioned the "latest investment" in the arts at the university:

Former UI President Stanley Ikenberry and his wife, Judy, recently gave a $250,000 endowment toward the Ikenberry Commons and the Arts Fund to bring arts experiences to UI students outside the classroom.

The Ikenberry gift will support a partnership between University Housing and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, by bringing performing artists visiting Krannert to the Ikenberry Commons Residences, and bringing Ikenberry Commons residents to Krannert Center for performances.

Culture, Wise said, is what sets us humans apart from other species.

The arts, no matter what form, help build creative thinking and critical reasoning skills; those provide a foundation for careers and lifelong learning, she said.

And now students need those skills more than ever, she said, citing a study that shows that over their lifetimes they will work in three or four different professions — not jobs.

Wise also mentioned a new twist on STEM, the education movement that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

STEM carries the risk of over-emphasizing those disciplines and underplaying the arts, Wise said. Some educators are now pushing STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Wise pointed out that a stem without a flower is infertile.

She had begun her speech by saying she was a bit nervous. As a biologist, she doesn't get the chance to talk about the arts to "people so articulate and experienced in the arts" as those in the audience, she said.

Wise needn't have worried.

After her talk, a few of us stood around and chatted about how warm and personable she is. And one woman said we should be grateful to Wise because she did important research on the role of estrogen on brain functions in postmenopausal women.

Anyway, thanks, and full STEAM ahead!

The council

As I have often said, I plan to join the Krannert Art Museum Council after I retire. Its members are volunteers and fundraisers for the museum.

Their biggest event is the annual "Petals & Paintings" exhibition during Moms Weekend on campus. It pairs elaborate, creative floral arrangements with works in the museum; I always take my mother there.

"Over the 22 years that 'Petals & Paintings' has been going on, the council has raised over $400,000," council president Margaret Martin said in a mass email after the luncheon. "This money has enabled the museum to do a lot of things, including educational outreach into the community and art restoration.

"But don't get me wrong! We're not all about work! The council goes on trips to other museums around the Midwest, we have 'Art Conversations' where we learn firsthand about different aspects of art, and we hold receptions at the museum to get a first look at new exhibits."

At the luncheon, Martin said the council is embarking on a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary. Among the events planned is the fall luncheon on Oct. 3.

In case you're wondering, the dues to join Friends of the Museum and the Council are separate. Membership in the Council is $50 a year if paid before July 1.

Museum recognized

The Association of Art Museum Curators has given Krannert Art Museum a 2013 Award for Excellence for its permanent collection installation, "Encounters: The Arts of Africa," curated by Allyson Purpura.

The installation received a first prize in the category of exhibitions organized by museums with operating budgets of less than $4 million.

"The Encounters installation is inspired by the idea that African objects 'tell' multiple stories, not only about themselves but also about the broader social contexts and often fraught global histories through which they have journeyed," said Purpura, curator of African art at Krannert.

"Small thematic groupings and visitor-activated iPad videos of artist interviews, masquerade performances and narrative vignettes assist in the 'telling' of those stories and draw out resonances among the objects on view."

"Encounters: The Arts of Africa" opened in October 2012 as a renovated gallery space with innovative interpretive framework, new case work and designs. Historic artworks are displayed with works by African and African American studio-based artists, creating dialogues between "traditional" and "contemporary" art practices.

Funny, but the last time I was at the museum — before these awards were announced May 5 in Detroit — I looked at the "Encounters" exhibition space and thought to myself, "This is really well done."

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at