Towson fixture Jim Paulsen helps young artists find their voice

Professor will retire next month, after over 30 years of directing TU sculpture program

The Jim Paulsen Alumni Sculpture Exhibition, which ran from February 17 to March 31 in Towson University’s Center for the Arts Gallery, was striking on two counts.


Sculpture of flowers by Jim Paulsen, displayed at the Jim Paulsen Sculpture Exhibition.

First, there was the sheer variety of media, style and scale reflected in the assembled sculptures. There was a crepe paper installation cascading from the ceiling into a puddle on the ground. There was wood—one piece raw surfaced, coaxed into sensual curves, another a polished helix that riffed on geometric gradation.

There were intricate, shadowboxed assemblages, giant flowers, ruby slippers cheekily tucked under a fallen steeple. Steel, found objects, clay, composite roofing, even Muppet fleece (Muppet fleece!) were among the materials used by the contributing artists to channel their creative visions, in works that ranged from the literal to the abstract, the whimsical to the austere.

And then there were the photos.

Lining the perimeter of the gallery were framed photos of many of Paulsen’s former students posing with their works. The images, arranged chronologically by their subjects’ graduation years from the early ’70’s to the present, helped provide a visual framework for the extent of Paulsen’s influence. His students have gone on to establish themselves in both commercial and fine arts, in theatre, film and television design arenas, and as educators in their own rights.

Their careers and chosen media are incredibly diverse but they are all working artists, and they all trained under Paulsen.

That Paulsen chose to showcase the work of his alums, rather than mount a personal career retrospective, speaks to his passion for mentoring. To hear him tell it, though, Paulsen just wanted to celebrate. “If you have a party and you invite people who can cook, then you have a great party. So if you invite people who can cook great art, you have a great party. These are my friends. And they make solid art.”

Taking in the room during the exhibition’s crowded opening night reception, Paulsen mused, “It’s such an eclectic mix of work ...” That diversity is telling, communicating that within Towson’s program, helping artists develop their individual voices is a priority. It’s an observation Paulsen confirms with a chuckle. “You can’t say we push an agenda.”

Reflecting on his teaching style and mentoring approach, he explains that he always asks students to show him several ideas before beginning a new work. “If they show me one idea, then what’s going to happen is I’m going to have too much to say about that; they show me 10 ideas, I’m much more likely to be able to interpret what they are really all about, what is really inside them. And that’s what I want, what it’s really all about.

“Joe [Moss, one of Paulsen’s own mentors] used to say to me, ‘Jim, what you are just comes down your sleeve and rolls off your fingertips and you can’t do a darn thing about it.’ And that’s so true. You can tell somebody to do something, but who they are is going to come out in their work—if you see enough of their work.”

It’s clear in talking to Paulsen that he adores his students and thrills to their achievements. Sounding for all the world like a proud papa, he pointed out the people in the nearest photos. “This guy, he designs modular golf courses and golf greens. His most recent project is a modular football field. This guy employs 70 people—he does architectural facades on buildings 10, 12 stories high. Creativity takes different forms.”

Paulsen has directed Towson’s sculpture program for over 30 years, and is set to retire in August 2012. “It’s a job that I have loved all my life, I really have. And I always said I’m never going to retire. But you reach a point, after 47 years of teaching, when it’s enough. It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I’m not burned out, but I have other things I’d like to do.”

Paulsen’s work already appears throughout the U.S., as well as in China, Scotland, England and Germany, and he’s interested in other opportunities overseas. “On a grand scale, I’d like to do some residencies in other parts of the world. But on a more mundane level, I’d like to organize my bolts and screws—something that I don’t have time to do now. It’ll be nice, though everybody I talk to says in their retirement they’re busier than they were!”

“I will always be a teacher. I’ll go anywhere. And I’m cheap. I don’t require a lot of money. They’ve got to put me up. Feed me. Be nice to me … and then I’m happy and I’ll make them happy. And I’ll give them something that’s worth a lot more than they paid.”

This story, written by Miri Rotkovitz, originally appeared in the inaugural issue of COFAC Today.


Related links

College of Fine Arts and Communication

Department of Art + Design, Art History, Art Education

Sculpture Concentration





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