A Lifelong Learner

Robert Sirko, MFA

Associate Professor of Art, Emeritus

Robert Sirko knows that lifelong learning is a key part of a graphic designer’s success.

Emeritus Professor Sirko is involved with several areas of art making, including animation, graphic design, and painting. He notes that the digital artists have to continue learning new technologies and software programs, where development happens at a pace far quicker than the materials-based arts.

“The last big innovation in painting technology happened more than 150 years ago when they first put pigment in a tube,” he jokes. “In graphic design, the speed of change is at least 10 times that.”

Emeritus Professor Sirko has been key in helping Valpo adapt to that change — he was the first professor to introduce computers into Valpo’s art curriculum, almost two decades ago. Today, Emeritus Professor Sirko’s students often submit their portfolios digitally, and their art show at the end of the year now uses a projector to show works that aren’t meant to be framed on a wall.

To continue expanding his horizons, Emeritus Professor Sirko spent his recent sabbatical focused on two projects — a new course for digital design students and an art exhibit open to the broader Valparaiso and Chicagoland communities.

“The terrific thing about being an academic at Valpo is that I can pursue new things,” he says. “Here I have the liberty to pursue things I feel are important and of interest.”

Emeritus Professor Sirko focused much of his attention on a new course in digital animation, which builds on his long-held interest in claymation and multimedia. The course plays a key role in the department’s digital design major and is intended to give students an introductory experience that can qualify them for further study.

To prepare for the course, Emeritus Professor Sirko had to learn to use Maya, a software package that is the industry standard for high-end animation. Though Maya comes with a steep learning curve, Emeritus Professor Sirko says that it also opens up entirely new ways of making art.

“I personally believe that the more and varied experiences a student has in art, particularly within the undergraduate level, the better the chance that they will find their own voice,” he says. “Besides that, how fun would it be to create, animate, and write for your own character?”

Emeritus Professor Sirko also wants students to experience variety in the art they observe at Valpo, both in his classroom and in the art galleries on campus.

“I endeavor to broaden their perspective, to get them to think on a more multicultural level,” he says. “I could create my program showing only work from a commercialized western environment, but that doesn’t help expand their frame of reference.”

Emeritus Professor Sirko also used his sabbatical time to co-curate a show for the Brauer Museum, “Inner Visions: Sacred Plants, Art and Spirituality,” along with the internationally renowned anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna.

“Inner Visions” highlights the work of Pablo Amaringo, the late Peruvian artist and shaman whose influence on South and Central American artists is often compared to the influence of Picasso and Kandinsky on Western modern art. Amaringo’s colorful paintings depict the visions he experienced while practicing as a shaman and using plants sacred to the indigenous cultures of South America, known as entheogens.

Emeritus Professor Sirko says that Amaringo’s visions are not just stunningly beautiful but spiritually consequential as well. (“Entheogen” means “generating the divine within.”)

The exhibit invites viewers to a broader understanding of the context of the work, including shamanic tradition, the deforestation of the Amazon, indigenous rights, and medicinal plants. Emeritus Professor Sirko says that institutions of higher education like Valpo should foster such conversations and that this art offers a way in.

“Pursuing the study of art is a way to discover so many other things — in this case, religion, medicine, and politics,” Emeritus Professor Sirko says. “Art isn’t just something that hangs on the wall. It is a motivating force in life.”

It is this motivation that keeps Emeritus Professor Sirko teaching and inspires his continued learning. He wants to expose his students to innovative art and to give them access to the tools and insight to make artistic contributions of their own.