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Art professor retires to focus on his own art

Dan Selter entertained the audience at his  retirement luncheon with a rendition of “Hail, Transylvania!” on the ukulele and reflections on his years teaching.

Dan Selter retired in May after 35 years at Transylvania as an art professor.

Selter, a master ceramist, is known as an amicable professor who expected a lot out of his students but didn’t have to run a tight ship to get it.

“The phrase that comes up a lot is ‘laid back,’” Selter, who won a Bingham Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1997, said, laughing. “I, frankly, relied a lot on the idea that at the college level, and in teaching art, it is better to try and find something that will motivate the students from within, rather than some sort of drillmaster approach that causes them to follow the steps. I think it’s more successful that they get turned on to something and get involved and get excited by it.”

Holli Schulz, a senior from New Salisbury, Ind., was excited enough that she went from thinking about getting a minor in art to majoring in it after taking Selter’s class for the first time.

“He persuaded me to (major in art) more than anything,” she said. “I loved his classes, and I liked talking to him. He’s going to be missed.”

Selter, who is originally from Louisville, enrolled at the University of Louisville for his undergraduate degree but was drafted and spent three years in the U.S. Army before he could take his first class. He finally graduated and went on to Syracuse University, where he earned his M.F.A. in ceramics. From there he began looking for a teaching position to support his art.

“When I graduated, I had had my fill of art schools—everything was all about art for the entire time I was in school,” he said. “So I was looking for a smaller school, and I wanted to be part of a community of people with a variety of interests. I didn’t know anything about Transylvania at the time. It certainly ended up filling the bill in terms of being a place where my colleagues were in several other fields. It was really a fortuitous situation.”

He fulfilled his goal of dabbling in other disciplines while he was at Transy, teaching courses jointly with other professors. Two that stuck out were a class on the art and culture of Southeast Asia and a class on Native American Indian art, both with then-anthropology and sociology professor Cara Richards. Down the road he was able to take a trip to China with art history professor Wei Lin, and his Native American research involved taking road trips to the southwestern United States and Alaska to visit reservations.

“It’s certainly expanded my world,” he said. “I ended up teaching courses in things I never dreamed I’d be involved in. A life in academia is a life of continuous learning, and Transylvania has afforded those opportunities. At a larger institution, I think it would have been harder to do those things. Here it’s encouraged, and that’s been very exciting.”

He has also had a chance to do a lot of ceramics work on the side while teaching. He gained a reputation as a kind of humorist with his art, which was often lighthearted and fun. He was featured in several regional exhibits, and he cracked the national scene in 2000 when he was in a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y.

“I’m very proud of that one,” he said. “That show toured very selectively with a jury of ceramic all-stars.”

Gnomes
Dan Selter, 13 Bad Luck Gnomes, 2007 ceramic and mixed media installation

He received local publicity for an installment he created in 1992 at the Lexington Family Care Center, a home for underprivileged, pre-school-age children and their mothers. He got a grant from the city and from the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council to construct a 20-by-12-ft. mural of giant children’s books carved out of Styrofoam. The staff at the care center chose around 15 books they use with the children, and he designed the mural to incorporate those titles.

“I’m very proud of those, largely because I found in that situation a kind of art that was very purposeful,” he said. “It wasn’t something that was for a gallery, it wasn’t something to decorate, it wasn’t for sale—it enhanced the environment for these kids at the center, and it was a learning tool. They used it to teach those kids.”

He also created figurines depicting a few faculty members when they retired. It started with former dean Jack Bryden. Selter created a Jack-in-the-box using Bryden’s likeness. Most recently he did one for former history professor Joe Binford, who was an avid runner and taught Latin American history. He crafted Binford as a Vishnu wearing a track suit, holding in his many arms a sombrero and an academic hat, sitting on top of Old Morrison. One he did for Dave Haller, a former drama professor, ended up housing Haller’s ashes after he died.

Part of the reason Selter decided to retire at 63 is that he wants to be able to continue focusing on his art while his body allows him to.

“I want to be able to engage in art-making while I still have energy and health,” he said. “I got into art and ended up teaching because I wanted to make a living. I ended up loving teaching, but it was a decision. So I’d like to become involved in that a little more full time.”

View photos of the retirement luncheon on Flickr.

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