NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Though she had never been to Kansas and knew next to nothing about Mennonites, when Gail Lutsch was looking for a college teaching job in art 28 years ago, she thought Bethel College looked promising.
“I was finishing my graduate work at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio,” she remembers. “At the College Art Association national meeting in San Francisco [that year], I saw a notice of a position at a small Christian college that emphasized peace and justice. I thought that sounded good,” even though when her friends heard she was applying at a Mennonite school, “they told me I’d go out there, marry a farmer and end up wearing long, black skirts.”
Bob Regier, Bethel College art department chair from 1965-92, says, “I remember interviewing Gail in Richmond, Ind., [just a short distance from Oxford] in the spring of 1981. I was on sabbatical and stopped in Richmond to meet Gail on my way to New York. She drove to Richmond in what I thought was a somewhat untrustworthy bright orange VW to meet me at a restaurant.
“Two degrees – an M.A. in art education and an M.F.A. in studio work – was a perfect fit for the position that needed to be filled,” he continues. “A very engaging interview in that restaurant led to the offer of a contract. Gail accepted the offer and joined us in the fall of 1981. So from that moment until my retirement [in 1992], we thrived as colleagues, interacting with each other and with our third colleague Paul Friesen. Those were exciting years.”
Friesen, who taught at Bethel from 1960-89, recalls, “Periodically, the three of us would pile into my little Toyota pickup and head out to attend an event or get something to eat. We found ourselves tightly squeezed, when we finally got the doors shut – and shifting [gears] with six legs filling up the small cab was something else. If Gail doesn’t remember those sardine excursions, bless her heart.”
Her first four years on the Bethel faculty, Lutsch lived in a small house just south of the Fine Arts Center now called Richert House, currently housing offices for retired faculty. As a single woman, she says, she wondered for a while if she’d really fit into this faculty society where virtually everyone was married and nearly everyone was Mennonite.
“At first, it seemed to be lacking in zaniness,” she admits. “I was used to a raucous group in graduate school. But I have made great friends. When I would go back to Ohio and people would ask me, ‘What’s it like?’, I’d say: ‘They like me and I like them.’ I never felt left out not being Mennonite. We always have all respected each other.”
In the early ’80s, the art department was in two different locations – two-dimensional (painting, drawing, printmaking and crafts, with Lutsch and Regier as the faculty) was in the Fine Arts Center, where communication arts now resides, while three-dimensional (ceramics and sculpture, Friesen’s areas) was in the basement of Memorial Hall. In 1992, the department moved to Franz Art Center, which up until then had housed the industrial arts department, and everyone was under one roof.
Lutsch’s other colleagues in the department have been Reinhild Janzen, Merrill Krabill and, currently, David Long. Over the years, she has taught Studio Fundamentals, Introduction to Visual Arts and Elementary and Secondary Art Methods, along with basic and advanced drawing, painting and printmaking, crafts (small metals, jewelry making, and fiber) and “Art History once, for Reinhild.”
In those early days, Lutsch says, with her office in the FAC, “I would help paint sets [for theater and opera productions] until the wee hours, then go out to Druber’s at 3 or 4 in the morning with Arlo and Kathryn Kasper. That feels like a long time ago – I couldn’t do that now.”
She also remembers one January, when she had a mini-sabbatical (meaning she wasn’t required to teach an interterm class), she pasted kraft paper over the large windows of her FAC studio in order to have some privacy for a personal printmaking project. “The rumor went around the lunch tables that I was doing nude drawing in there. The reality was much more mundane.”
In 1988, right before her first sabbatical, Lutsch married Professor of Biology Wayne Wiens (who grew up on a farm). “We were going to go to the Galapagos Islands for our honeymoon,” she says, “but it got to be too expensive. Instead, we went to Duluth, where I took a class in Japanese wood-block printing.”
For her second sabbatical, in 1996, she signed up for a workshop in nontoxic intaglio technique with Keith Howard. “It was in Peace River, Alberta,” she says. “I didn’t know that was in the middle of nowhere in northern Alberta, and also the location of a Mennonite community, which Wayne thought was hilarious.”
The aborted Galapagos trip may be on the horizon yet, since Lutsch is retiring early in order to be able to travel and take short-term volunteer assignments with her husband, who is retiring at age 72, after almost 50 years at Bethel.
“I will miss my friends and colleagues at lunch,” Lutsch says, “sharing ideas and opinions and being in the Bethel loop. I’ll miss my students.
“I’ll always be proud that although we offer a liberal arts degree, a bachelor of arts, rather than the bachelor of fine arts, we have strong students, with a lot of talent and a good work ethic, able to compete with B.F.A. grads who have a year more of studio work.”
In honor of Lutsch’s 28 years at Bethel, one of her former students, Rachel Epp Buller – who went on for a master’s degree and Ph.D. in art history and does adjunct teaching in Bethel’s art department – is organizing a show of work by other former students as well as colleagues, including Friesen and Regier. The show, which opens March 13 in the Fine Arts Center Gallery, with a reception from 3-5 p.m. that day outside the gallery, will include painting, prints, photography, ceramics and jewelry from former students living as close as Newton, Salina and Kansas City and as far away as Germany, Japan and Poland.
“Many of the works will be for sale,” Epp Buller says, “and the proceeds will start a fund for the art department in Gail’s honor.”
Nathan Abrahams, a 2003 art graduate now teaching in Boulder, Colo., says, “Gail was a great support to me in my years at Bethel. She definitely pushed me to develop my artistic voice, suggesting artists and movements that I found to be very influential.”
Kristin (Ediger) Goering, a 1992 graduate from Fairway, adds, “Gail introduced me to my love of printmaking while I was a senior in high school, and was very influential in my decision to attend Bethel. She continued to influence my art studies at Bethel through many classes, including figure drawing and painting. I enjoyed her not only as a professor but also as a mentor and friend. When I am currently working, I often refer to advice I received from Gail, and at times wish for more.”
Jenny (Krehbiel) Huang, a 1993 graduate, echoes Goering’s appreciation for Lutsch’s mentoring. “After receiving my Bethel degree in art with an emphasis in graphic design, I found work as an artifact illustrator with an archaeological firm in Tucson, Ariz., with their promise: ‘If you draw the artifacts, we’ll teach you how to dig holes.’ I eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in anthropology from Arizona State University and am now employed as an archaeologist/museum specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation in Boise, Idaho. Gail’s encouragement for me to pursue a senior thesis about prehistoric rock drawings set me on my current course. I can’t thank her enough.”
Christa (Taylor) Janzen, a 2006 graduate who teaches high school art in Elkhart, Ind., says, “Gail always pushed me to be better. She wouldn’t let me be lazy. I didn’t always like getting her advice, though it always turned out that she was right. She was always so accommodating, and I could tell she always cared about me and my learning instead of being concerned about what worked best for her. Gail taught me the right balance of serious work and humor that make for a productive art classroom. Now I use many of the projects, methods and pedagogy I learned and observed from her.”
“Gail arrived on campus with a fresh perspective that livened up the art department,” says Carolyn (Goertzen) Wedel, Salina, a 1983 graduate. “I took my one and only watercolor class from her during interterm of my senior year, and I have stayed with that medium ever since. It is hard to believe that Gail is retiring and that she has been teaching at Bethel for 28 years. She is leaving some big shoes to fill – probably about a size 10.”
“Honoring 28 Years” will be on display through April 9. Regular hours for the Bethel College Fine Arts Center Gallery are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 2-4 p.m. (the gallery is closed March 20-29 for Bethel’s spring break). There is no admission charge.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.