Syracuse University Magazine


James Haywood Rolling Jr.

Creative Leadership

To illustrate for students his vision for the role of art educators in contemporary society, Professor James Haywood Rolling Jr. G’91 sometimes draws on the unlikely symbol of Kung Fu Panda—an animated film about a panda who dreams of becoming a kung fu master. “Art education is about passing along the arts practices and the disciplines connected with that in a way that is a catalyst for others’ creativity,” says Rolling, chair of art education and a dual faculty member in the School of Education and College of Visual and Performing Arts. “So in talking to students, I often make the kung fu analogy in terms of the visual arts and design practices. The notion is you have folks who have mastered an art, in this case the martial arts, and they have to pass along the baton to those who will perpetuate these practices. And if the baton doesn’t get passed by them, it doesn’t get passed at all. No one else is going to do it.”

Rolling took up that baton with gusto in 2007, leaving a faculty position at Penn State University to return to his alma mater to lead SU’s art education program and enhance its national visibility and standing. “That struck me as a great challenge and a unique opportunity,” says Rolling, who earned an M.F.A. degree in studio arts research at Syracuse as a graduate fellow in the Department of African American Studies. His wife, Me’Shae Brooks-Rolling, is director of special events and conferences for SU’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. “I was also attracted by the concept of exploring what happens when arts-related scholarship is brought outside of the classroom,” he says. “What happens when we use it to activate other kinds of social spaces, bringing the arts into different venues that we might not have thought about? How do we rethink art education, basically, is what I came here with the intent to do.”

One important move toward making the program more visible was a literal one, relocating it from a small space on South Campus to a wing in the Comstock Art Facility. “This tripled our square footage and increased our capacity to serve students and the community,” Rolling says. He points to expansions to the Saturday Art Workshops for Young People, a more than 50-year-old tradition of community enrichment classes for ages 5 to 15 taught by art education students. The new facility allowed for an enrollment increase from 80 to nearly 200 kids a semester. Plans are also underway to offer summer workshops and, in partnership with the Talent Agency, a nonprofit arts organization founded by SU faculty, to open the program to high school students.

A visual artist who specializes in mixed media and portraiture, Rolling is also a prolific writer whose most recent book, Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us About Shaping Creative Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), argues for the importance of creativity and collaboration in the nation’s classrooms and workplaces. “I’m interested in how we change the societal paradigm that undervalues the arts and does not recognize how crucial they are to student learning and achievement, and to the collective achievement that grows civilization and develops humanity,” he says.

His professional contributions were recently recognized by the National Art Education Association, which named him the 2014 Art Educator of the Year for significant achievement in higher education. “That means a great deal to me,” he says. “It’s an acknowledgment of the work I’m doing in service to our profession. And it means we’re on track in terms of making Syracuse University visible, known, and valued in the field of art education.”    —Amy Speach

Photo by Steve Sartori