Friday Profile: Thurnau Professor Sadashi Inuzuka

When Thurnau Professor of Art Sadashi Inuzuka visited a colleague’s performance studies class to give a guest lecture, he began by handing each student a chunk of clay to work while he talked. The gift of clay invited students to engage their bodies in the process of thinking about land and their physical connection to it—an invitation they delightedly accepted as they kneaded the lumps into small forms that Inuzuka later fired and returned to them. Inuzuka is internationally renowned as an artist whose sculptures powerfully explore the relationships between humans and the natural world. But he is equally renowned among U-M colleagues and students as a remarkable teacher who can guide students, through such simple acts as handing them clay, to deeply embodied insights about the transformative social power of art.

The sheer breadth of Inuzuka’s teaching speaks to his flexibility as a teacher. But whether through his innovative drawing workshops for first-year medical students (designed to develop skills of observation as well as a comfort with loss of control), or his interdisciplinary course on environmental concerns in the Great Lakes region, Professor Inuzuka’s teaching consistently reflects two core pedagogical principles: 

  • The artistic process creates community and provides tools for social engagement.
  • Learning happens best when students are given the space to find their own methods, forms, and answers.
Inuzuka’s enactment of these ideas is perhaps best illustrated by the innovative ways he has connected the School of Art & Design to Southeast Michigan’s low-vision community. Through his “Many Ways of Seeing” courses and workshops, created in partnership with the Greater Detroit Agency for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Detroit Public Schools, and community groups, Professor Inuzuka has given students what many describe as a life-altering experience of collaboration with blind and visually-impaired children and adults.
As a visually-impaired artist himself who exists, as he has described it, “in the spaces between definitions,” Professor Inuzuka has long used his teaching to expand access to the experience of art and allow his students to experience through practice how art can connect communities and improve people’s lives.
 
In describing their life-changing experiences with the “Many Ways of Seeing” program, those students emphasize how much they learned from Inuzuka’s masterful way of stepping back to let others find their own answers. As one explains his influence,
“At the start of every class, Sadashi would remind us to be guides, not artists. It was then that I learned one of the most important lessons in my life as an educator—that I am not the one with all the answers. Sadashi understands better than most that a students’ idea must be their own.”
 
Professor Inuzuka facilitates community connections not just in our region but internationally. He has for several years taken U-M students to Japan, most recently for his course “Rethinking the Power of Art: Art Education For Social Change in Japan,” a remarkable example of the kind of opportunities he creates for students to see how art can connect them to the broader world. A creative work of cultural immersion in which students visit schools and museums, talk with local artists and people institutionalized with disabilities, and participate in ceramics workshops and collaborate with school children, the course gives students a rich first-hand experience of art’s ability to build bridges between communities and improve people’s lives, especially in the wake of economic decline and cuts to social programs.
 
In short, Professor Inuzuka’s teaching demonstrates the power of learning through touch—whether that means seeing with one’s hands or making contact with another community or culture that might have once seemed alien. Thanks to his balancing of rigorous standards with warm encouragement, of pedagogical of open-mindedness with a laser-sharp focus on demonstrating the social potential of art, Inuzuka's students carry into the world an energizing sense of their own potential for engagement and innovation.
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