Sometimes alumni engagement is anything but linear.
That happens to be the case for neuropsychologist and artist Michele Robins, whose collection of work, titled "Dance and Architecture: Alternative Photographic Processes," will be on display in The Warren Family Gallery this winter.
After graduating in 1973 among the pioneers of coeducation, it was nearly 20 years before Michele Robins returned to Sheffield. She didn't make it back to campus until 10 years later, while helping move her sister from Boston to Chicago. What proved to be the “pivotal point” in her engagement with Berkshire, though, was the sudden and tragic loss of her classmate, Sing-Si Schwartz, in July 2005.
As Robins describes it, just about everyone from the Class of 1973, most not having seen each other since graduation, grew closer after Sing-Si's passing. They came together over the internet to share experiences, and many communicated on a daily basis during that time. She found that the absence of time did little to dissuade or diminish the strength and depth of the connections formed during her classmates' time at Berkshire.
Robins, who has a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr in clinical/developmental psychology, returned to Berkshire again in June 2018 to celebrate her 45th reunion. She is also a frequent guest at the annual holiday party in New York City and was on campus during Reunion 2019 to witness the dedication of the Bear Tribute Sculpture in honor of legendary teacher and coach Art Chase. The more she engages, the more she connects with former classmates and friends and with the School today.
"Dance and Architecture: Alternative Photographic Processes" will be on display in The Warren Family Gallery from January 13 through March 7, 2020, with an artist’s reception scheduled for Monday, March 2nd. You can see all of Robins' work and learn more about her career on her website.
Robins' journey as an alumna is winding and unique. As she reflected on her time since graduation, she shared that even in those stretches when she was not on campus, “her heart was always connected to Berkshire.”
Learn more about this curious thinker, lifelong learner, and talented artist in the Q & A below!
What drew you to the arts?
I was drawn to painting and drawing from the age of four when I realized that I could create quite an emotional stir in others when I produced an interesting image. To this day, I really enjoy visualizing an image in my mind and making it tangible so others can “see” an idea.
What do you hope viewers will take away from your work?
I hope that people see the value in studying the early history of photography and understanding what image creation was like before the digital era. I would like for others to see that real photography is actually a painstaking craft. I once overheard someone say (as I was pointing my cell phone toward a building), “step out of her way, she’s taking a picture.” However, I don’t see photography as taking a photo, but offering a point of view to open up a dialogue with others.
Before you snap that cell phone image, ask a question: What am I trying to convey? Then, share your outlook and invite others to interact with your creation. Some of my images are influenced by Greek mythology and some are laced with irony. If you ask me about a piece, I will gladly discuss the idea behind the image with you and ask you for your interpretation.
In what ways is your Berkshire experience present in your life today?
In many ways, I have embraced the Pro Vita Non Pro Schola Discimus motto to the extreme! Since I left Berkshire, I have been continuously enrolled in formal education between college and graduate school, for over 40 years. I also like to say that Berkshire “made me the man I am today!” Being surrounded by so many bright boys and inspiring teachers during my impressionable years definitely shaped a more daring and bold side to my otherwise more subdued and lady-like personality. While I can see that an all-female educational environment may promote confidence for girls, I firmly believe in the heuristic value of male role models for females. When I arrived at college my freshman year after my experience at Berkshire, I thought nothing of it to assert my newly minted leadership skills as I unpacked my bags and ran for congress at my new school.
As we recognize and celebrate 50 years of coeducation at Berkshire, how did it feel to be among the first female graduates of the school?
I felt like a pioneer and a warrior in an already established men’s world. When I first arrived as an awestruck boarding student in 1971, I was told by a faculty member that one day, yes, one day, I would be viewed as a “pioneer” and that in many years to come, I would hobble into a room filled with students at the edge of their seats waiting to hear about my earth-shattering experiences. I have to say that gaining more attention from the coveted role of being the only female in almost all of my classes, hearing a stampede of boys running behind me to open the door for me at Berkshire Hall, and seeing two boys run over to help me pick up my books in chemistry class was a dream come true and unmatched by any act of chivalry today.
At times, we exploited glitches in the system that showed us that conceiving a campus with females was still a work in progress. When we discovered that the dinner dress code was not updated for the new females, we decided to follow the rule book to the letter as we all marched in one evening with jackets and ties. In other ways, I felt like an intruder in a male world as we tried to push the barriers by edging our way into a closed-knit group. I joined the boys' track team because there wasn’t a girls' track team. (And only a male locker room by the way!) When my physics teacher offered to provide extra evening support with homework in Memorial Hall, I realized that I was the only person in the class who would not be able to benefit from that offer, as girls were not allowed to enter the boys’ dorm.
What advice would you give to today’s students?
Diversity promotes self-awareness. Take on a challenge for yourself—make it a point to meet people from other years at homecoming events and reunions. Break away from the comfort of your smaller circle of friends and go up and ask random graduates about their school experiences—you will learn valuable information that will be a gift to yourself.