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Flaten Art Lecture Series inspires artists

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This year’s annual Flaten Art Lectures kicked off on Feb. 16 with Sarah Millfelt’s lecture on her journey as a professional in the field of studio arts, specifically working with ceramics.

The Flaten Art Lecture Series started in 1981, using funds from the family of the late Professor Arnold Flaten, founder of the art department at St. Olaf College and through donations from alumni. The series has occurred annually since then, also serving as a requirement for the senior art major seminar.

Over the history of the lecture series, a wide range of artists have spoken but they all are chosen based on their abilities as both an artist and a speaker. The talks have proven beneficial to both students – for networking and learning opportunities – and the speakers, for publicity and speaking practice.

The speakers typically talk about their journeys, as Milfelt did. Despite the wide range of media that artists have come from, there is an even bigger range in their stories. Professor of Art Wendell Arneson said, “Every artist’s journey is different from the other, and there’s no one right way to [be successful], other than to be passionate about it.”

The Flaten Memorial Lecture Series provides insight into different career and life paths, while connecting students with professionals. Art students interested in the speakers’ specific fields can request to have their work critiqued as well. Additionally, the talks are free and open to the public, consistently bringing in curious community members. Their focus on life skills, such as making good connections and finding a vocation you are passionate about, are valuable lessons not only for art students, but for everybody.

Millfelt introduced herself as the director at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, a tourist, an avid gardener and baker and a typical middle child. She set the tone of the lecture as being a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. After some technical difficulties with her PowerPoint presentation, she said, “It’s all about humor – it’s being able to laugh at yourself.”

The presentation was titled: “How did I get here? The Sarah Millfelt Story.” She focused on her journey as an artist and administrator, including her relatable experience of changing her plans for a major in college from environmental engineering to journalism and finally, to a fine arts degree in ceramics and photography. Millfelt graduated from University of Wisconsin-River Falls after working as a manager at McDonald’s and as a photojournalist to pay for her own education. Millfelt defined her path as a discovery of her vocation through pursuing the things she loved.

Millfelt described the importance of traveling and spoke to the value of participating in a new routine and culture. Her first experience out of the country was during college, when she studied in Italy for a semester and fell in love with the country and the culture.

She also emphasized the importance of “keeping your soul fed,” which she did with photography and staying creative in her free time. She even started her own business as a wedding photographer to increase her creative talents and experiences.

At home, Millfelt landscapes and gardens for fun and describes her two sons, ages nine and 11, as a creative outlet for her as well. She lamented that having a professional career sometimes created challenges in staying creative. Overall, however, she appears to have struck a balance in her life of work, family and art.

A theme of Millfelt’s talk was the importance of networking and professionalism in building a career. She started at Northern Clay Center 16 years ago at an entry-level position, and she worked her way up the nonprofit corporate ladder through dedication and gaining experience.

Millfelt’s audience benefited from advice that she provided regarding success in the professional art field. This included: diversifying your portfolio, getting internships, networking effectively, being honest, identifying a mentor and developing interview skills. She also warned against the dangers of social media in damaging your image.

Finally, Millfelt highlighted the imperative role of peers and colleagues in success.

“You need to surround yourself with the right people… who understand what you do and why you do it,” she said.

While Millfelt provided plenty of advice for the audience of students, community members and faculty gathered in Dittman, she assured that there was no “one right path” to success. While illustrating her own story, she demonstrated that success is determined more by passion, genuineness and people skills than anything else.

The 2015 Arnold Flaten Memorial Lecture Series continues with lectures on every Monday night through March 23. Upcoming talks will feature installation, photography, new media and art history.

meeder@stolaf.edu