News & Features, October 2017

Art is an international affair for visual arts instructor

Artist is not the kind of job that one typically associates with travel but that is certainly true for Virginia Tyler, who is a sculptor in addition to being an associate professor of visual arts at Saint Augustine’s University.

Prof. Tyler has been working with the craftsmen of Krofofrom, an Ashanti village in central Ghana, for the last 18 years and has travelled to that African country several times. The travel was part of a Fulbright Fellowship, a federally funded program that aims to enhance friendly relations and mutual understanding between citizens of the United States and other countries.

Her travel has been educational and influential, Prof. Tyler said.

“When I went to study in Ghana, I didn’t know how much the country was changing,” she said. “Modern life in Ghana can be as fast-paced as in America, and the commonalities between our cultures are so strong they became the focus of the collaborative art I made with local craftsmen. For my Fulbright fellowship, I proposed learning the traditional West African technique for casting metal that they invented a thousand years before; it was a precursor to the ceramic shell technique, the modern casting method I trained in that is the most sophisticated and reliable process used across the globe. Together, the Ghanaian artists and I updated this 10th Century process to reflect our 21st century African and American lives.”

Prof. Tyler has learned a lot about the culture and history of Ghana, and that knowledge has been the subject of her sculpture.

“The Ghanaian artists told me that the most sacred thing in their village was a tree they called ‘The God Tree’ or Nyame Duah,” she said. “The bark of the tree reduces fevers when they make a tea out of it, and since malaria is so prevalent there, almost every child has had his life saved by this tree. …They suggested we make a metal casting of a tree because casting in metal in Ghana was much cheaper than the U.S.”

The resulting work, Prof. Tyler explained, was done using their traditional lost wax casting process and took 140 wax sheets and 12 artists.

Prof. Tyler grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her undergraduate degree from Duke University and graduate degree from Temple University. She has taught at the University of Mississippi and North Carolina Central University. She found Saint Augustine’s when a friend from grad school told her about it.

She began working here in 1996.

“St. Aug students are the most interesting people I have ever taught,” Prof. Tyler said. “I love teaching here because the classes are small and I am able to teach individually.”

In fact, Prof. Tyler remembers many of the students she has taught and keeps up with them. She mentioned Parrish Richardson, who is a sculptor and a painter; Jemario Couch, a painter; Cianna Fisher, now a graphic designer; and Lee Griffin who is in graduate school but also works as a graphic designer.

There will be many more alumni for Prof. Tyler to keep track of if she has her way. “I would like to keep teaching until I’m 70 years old,” she said.

— Sterling Raynor