Art School Brings Theory to Practice, Halfway Around the World

Mary Smudde (left) and Nicole Jenkins present memorial design ideas to the United Artists of Palau. Below: Stefanie Cheng snorkels in Jellyfish Lake. Photos are by Allison Knight, courtesy of Otis College of Art and Design.

By Miriam Chernick

When Ryan Robinson enrolled in Otis College of Art and Design’s class Palau Freedom Memorial: An International Experience, he knew virtually nothing about the Republic of Palau. Six months later, he says, “the experience changed my life.”

This spring, Otis’s Integrated Learning program, which demands of students a real-world project with a community or corporate partner, looked far beyond the college’s Los Angeles campus to Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines. Though Palau achieved sovereignty in 1994, it maintains strong ties to the United States through a “Compact of Free Association” under which Palauans are eligible to join the U.S. Armed Forces.  Otis’s Integrated Learning course tasked its students with designing a monument for the Palauans who have died serving in the U.S. military.

Originally the brainchild of Andrew Leeka, President of Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and honorary consul general of Palau, the idea caught on quickly with Otis Co-Provost Randall Lavender and Integrated Learning Director Richard Shelton.  They developed a course to span three years, with the first focusing on the memorial’s design.  Future Otis classes will be responsible for the final design and implementation, and all three classes culminate in a June trip to Palau.

Jeffrey Valance, a 1981 Otis alumnus and mentor to the Palau-memorial students, says his goal for this group was “to take into consideration materials, fabrication, the climate, culture, mythology, and history of Palau.” May Sun, the class instructor chosen for her expertise in memorial design, also wanted them to “learn about the field of public art through readings, site visits, and presentations.” Together with her co-instructor, Cindi Alvitre, an anthropologist, Sun divided the class of 17 juniors and seniors into four groups, then had them brainstorm ideas based on broad questions such as “What is the purpose of a monument?” and “What would the people of Palau want?” When the designs were complete, each group was required to prepare a written report, a PowerPoint presentation, and a 3-D model.

The designs incorporated different aspects of Palauan life and culture including agriculture, water, islands, and the sun. “My group focused on the Palauan carved wooden boards used to tell stories of creation and mythology,” says Robinson. “The boards surround a garden sanctuary where people can reflect on veterans and sacrifice.” Nicole Jenkins, a graduating senior, describes her design as “a large open garden area with hills that rise and fall like the waves in the ocean. Large sail-like structures offer shaded seating in a park that leads down to a pool of reflection.” Another design is a terraced grassland and the last a two-level structure that sits over the water with a hole through to the water showing cast figures in a traditional burial configuration.

“It was hard,” says student Stefanie Cheng, “coming up with something we thought would be meaningful and beautiful for the Palauans.”  Says Jenkins: “Not knowing the specific location of the memorial challenged us to design something that could work anywhere.” And Robinson’s group was eager to use local materials, but sourcing them from Los Angeles proved difficult.

Travelling to Palau made all the difference.

“Nothing compared to being there, listening to the Palauans,” says Jenkins.  “We made presentations to the president, the powerful Bilung (the queen matriarch), the Council of Chiefs, the artists’ society, and then to the public via Palauan TV.  Their feedback was so valuable.”

Shelton says, “I was impressed when I saw the groups rethinking their projects after each presentation, then integrating new information for the next round.”  For example, one group had planned for the centerpiece of their memorial to be a symbolic stone coin which did not universally appeal to their Palauan audience.  When a turtle shell, which symbolizes women, and an ax, symbolizing men, were suggested as alternatives, the students readily adapted their design.

According to Patrick Tellei, president of Palau Community College, which hosted the Otis group in its dorms, the Palauan people “were humbled by the students and faculty undertaking a project of this magnitude.”  He was “impressed by the way the students conducted themselves. They were very respectful ambassadors of the United States.”

The students were no less enchanted by their Palauan hosts.  “They treated us like family.  They welcomed us into their homes,” says Andy Hernandez.

“Being stopped on the street by people with genuine curiosity as to why we were there,” Jenkins says, “available to help in any way they could … open to sharing their life stories … was true to my beliefs about people in other places.”

The experience might also help the Otis students’ careers as artists.  Jenkins thinks that having “the chance to work with a team to come up with a proposal, present and pitch the idea to different audiences, get feedback and modify designs along the way, then hand it off to the next group to run with it … was truly priceless.”

“These students will never forget Palau,” Leeka says with satisfaction. “But they’ve also been set up for public service for the rest of their lives. They know they can make a difference.”

Hernandez agrees.  “A lot of the students at the school asked about the arts.  They don’t have arts education. So I asked myself—how can I help a place like this learn about art?” Jenkins also wants to return to Palau, maybe to teach about recycling.  “Whatever happens,” she says, “we’re now a part of their future.”

“Palau is pristine yet so full of life,” says Robinson. “It’s amazing.  This experience really opened my eyes as to what else is out there.”


Miriam Chernick is a journalist and author in Bethesda, Maryland. In April, she wrote for Arts & Academe about a Shakespeare production class at Harvey Mudd College.

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