Alumni Spotlight: Cole M. Robbins, B.A. Art ’05

August 6, 2013
I AM UAA: Cole Robbins

I AM UAA: Cole Robbins

Hometown: Lansing, Michigan
Fun Fact: Has tattoos commemorating her cycling tour from California to Alaska

There’s no denying that Cole M. Robbins is an intriguing gal. Beyond her rad looks and keen sense of style, there is a woman empowered by relationships, challenged by art and fascinated by people, their connections and the decisions that shape them. This woman is fierce. She faces life’s questions with a carpe diem attitude, seizing every opportunity, never scared to bear herself out into the unknown.

And, she’s had one incredible journey.

Throughout her life, Cole has traversed difficult times and rough terrain—like biking through the Sierra Cascade mountains when she challenged herself to complete a bicycle tour from California to Alaska. Now she’s finding her life has come full circle in more ways than one.

From books to canvas—it’s all stories

She’s thriving as an adjunct art professor at UAA, also her alma mater, and currently grinding away creating pieces for an upcoming show in September. But her journey to professor and artist began a long time ago in Michigan where she spent her childhood, reading books, escaping into the woods and climbing trees across the cornfield nearby her home.

“I remember a photo of me taken in grade school with a caption below that read: ‘I want to be an artist when I grow up,” she said. “I never thought it would come to fruition.”

Cole shared her affinity for art with a passion for literature. She filled her time reading books and learning about a place where she would dream about visiting throughout her life—Alaska.

Weathering the unexpected

Despite her hopes to move further north, at 14, Cole’s parents uprooted her family in the opposite direction to a small town in North Carolina. “My father had a dream of building a home with acreage in the country,” she said. Instead, he did what he could to keep his and his daughters’ lives together when, a year after their move, Cole’s mother walked out the door and never returned.

Once Cole graduated high school, she travelled back to Michigan for a few months to live with her grandparents. Just days after her nineteenth birthday, Cole was ready to head out and let her spontaneity finally fly free. With the money she’d earned at her job in the local mall, she bought a roundtrip ticket to Anchorage, ready to make her childhood dream come true.

“I wanted to go to the place that I had obsessed about, talked about and read about since fourth grade. My grandpa helped me fill one of his old army bags with sweaters and jeans before leaving for the airport.”

Alaska or bust

She hugged her tearful grandparents, said goodbye and set out for her first adventure towing only a backpack, the address to a local hostel and $300 in her pocket. “I think my grandparents knew I wouldn’t be on that return flight home.”

And they were right. Within days she began searching for her new home, tearing down posters for people seeking roommates she found on UAA’s campus. She spent the morning after skipping her return flight, sketching out her future in Alaska.

Cole spent her summer as a waitress down on the Kenai Peninsula, later traveling to Prague, Czech Republic, on a whim and eventually returned to Cooper’s Landing with a tent (that she’d call home for a couple of months), a guitar and a stack of notebooks. When the summer came to an end, she decided it was time to enroll at UAA.

Finding her passion at UAA

She began her freshman year indecisive about her major, though being an avid writer and journal-keeper, she was on track toward a journalism and public communications degree after taking courses with Ron McGee and working at The Northern Light, UAA’s campus newspaper.

While skimming the advertisement section of the paper one afternoon, something caught her eye. “The Art Department was in search of nude models for the life-drawing classes. I didn’t expect my experience as a life-drawing model would open up another door,” she said.

Cole was invited to enroll in the Art Department’s Foundation Program Two-Dimensional Design course taught by Garry Mealor. “I honestly didn’t think art was an option in the ‘real world,’” said Cole. “I didn’t realize how communication can exist in ways beyond traditional means, beyond words.”

Cole instantly fell in love with being in the studio, though she admits drawing did not come easily.

“I significantly lacked technical ability, but I was determined and challenged to rework my pieces until expectations were met, those of my professors and my own. I work until I am exhausted and my emotions no longer consume me. Art in all of its many forms provides a release, whether it is through music, writing, painting, sculpture, drawing or dance; it is another tool we can use to tell a story. The difficulty for me is deciding which medium best conveys what I am trying to say.”

In pursuit of answers

In 2005, with her diploma in hand, Cole’s days in UAA’s art studio were behind her so this adventurer jumped at a new opportunity. This time instead of pursuing her future, she’d heard something that made her reflect on her past. Ready for a change, Cole went in search of her mother.

“Connections and conversations carry me, hold me, drive me and break me. After hearing the rumor she was in Northern California, I caught the next flight to San Francisco.”

She searched Craigslist for RideShares heading toward Oregon and soon found herself driving on I-5 with a guy named Yakov. He introduced Cole to his family, offered a place for her to stay for the night, and eventually took her to a town barely marked on a map. Early the next morning after a chance encounter with a gas station attendant who knew her mother, a phone call lead to directions to her mother’s home.

“It was a difficult reunion, though it was the beginning of a new relationship with my mom. And a week later I returned to the Bay Area determined to keep moving forward.”

Mapping her road home

Cole Robbins Thesis Presentation

Cole M. Robbins, thesis presentation

Driven by her passion for the arts, Cole acquired several jobs before deciding to attend the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) as a graduate student.

Her graduate work at SFAI in the dual-degree Masters of Fine Arts and Masters of History and Theory of Contemporary Art crossed boundaries between studio art and performance art where she physically traversed the lines between art and life. Her academic research and her partner gave her new perspectives and questions into the ideas surrounding “home.”

“My partner, a cartographer, introduced me to the beauty of traveling by route lines drawn on maps. This added another exciting dimension to recognizing a true sense of place and home,” she said.

Cycling from California to Alaska, Cole documented her interactions with strangers who had stories to share. She rode for a dual purpose: to support the Artist in Residence Program at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center of Oakland and to gather stories and information for her M.A. graduate thesis.

Conversations and connections played a key role in the planning and pursuit of the California to Alaska bicycle tour. Carl Hild, a friend and mentor living in Alaska, introduced Cole to Wally and Lois Willig of South Carolina via email. A few months later, after she’d sold her truck to fund her cycling adventure, Wally—whom she’d only talked to via email—would drive across the country to California to fully support her tour, carrying her gear in the “sag wagon” as she made her way up to Alaska.

Cole would soon learn how to navigate unfamiliar terrain by unfolding the pages of maps specific to the Sierra Cascade Bicycle Route from California to Washington. In the conversations about home between strangers and pedaling uneven terrain in pursuit of answers to life’s difficult questions, Cole began to recognize the art as the experience. She documented her journey, the people and places she discovered between Quincy, Calif., and Bellingham, Wash., in 2011.

Slow down!

Her 12-day, 481-mile cycling journey—which she hadn’t trained for—came to a screeching halt when she became severely ill in Washington. “I was so dehydrated I was later hospitalized. My heart wanted to keep going, but my body was telling me otherwise.”

The people Cole met on her long trek to Alaska fueled her endurance. “People kindly offered dinners, opened doors and shared their guest rooms, gave behind-the-scene tours and welcomed me into their lives without ever knowing if we would meet again.”

“I learned the importance of really slowing down and appreciating and questioning our surroundings and recognizing everyone has a story to tell. This trip became a reality because of the people who supported my idea scribbled in a sketchbook from the very beginning.”

“Help them draw their own routes”

Cole Robbins headshotThough she didn’treach her original goal of arriving in Alaska by bicycle, she did in fact make it to Alaska with a new goal—to converge again with the UAA Art Department in hopes of landing a job. “I knew I wanted to work and live in Alaska and UAA is such a great place to be. Teaching art is what I wanted to do,” she said.

She applied, returned to San Francisco and waited for an opportunity to move back to Alaska. In 2012, the chair of the department, Professor Mariano Gonzales, called offering her a job as an adjunct professor in the Foundation Program, where she once sat as a student years before.

“Things have come full circle from the time I was making color collages and beginning to learn the concepts of three-dimensional design eagerly asking questions and trying to find the answers,” Cole said.

Now on the receiving end of those fully engaging questions and ideas, she said she’s asking, encouraging and challenging her students to discover who they are, what questions trouble them and express them through art.

“The whole process of teaching is inspiring and engaging. We go back and forth in these discussions where we disagree and share ideas, thoughts and emotions. I try to help my students discover who they are, what they are trying to convey and help them draw their own routes, roads and paths to find the answers to the questions they struggle with most.”

So, what does the future look like for this artist?

“I hope to continue teaching at UAA in the Art Department; it feels like home.”

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