This year’s College of Fine Arts 2020–2021 Distinguished Awards celebrate the work of three faculty members selected by a panel of senior faculty in the college. These awards are given annually in three different categories: Distinguished Research Award Winner, Distinguished Service Winner and Distinguished Teaching Award Winner.
Distinguished Research Winner: Nicole Awai
Assistant Professor Nicole Awai’s research focuses on the analysis and responses to the interconnectivity and fluidity of social interaction and materiality. Her making is informed by presence, transience, transformation and the elasticity of time. Born in Trinidad, she has viewed her American life and art through a Caribbean lens. In her career, she has long been focused on the totality of an affective Contemporary Caribbean Art and expression that cultivates new ideas that challenges the traditional conception of Caribbean Art. These fixed conceptions enable a lingering resistance to and accept the substantial, historical and significant contributions the work of that makers and thinkers in the Caribbean region and the Caribbean Diaspora have made to the art world and American society.
Awai's work has been included in the most relevant museum exhibitions on Contemporary Caribbean Art in the last two decades in the United States, and her artwork was included in three significant exhibitions that were part of The Getty Foundation Initiative Pacific Standard Time (2017–2018): Circles and Circuits I: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean at the California African American Museum, Circles and Circuits II: Contemporary Art of the Chinese Caribbean at the Chinese American Museum LA and Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago at the Latin American Art in Long Beach. The latter traveled to the Wallach Gallery at Columbia University in New York, The Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, the Portland Museum of Art and the Delaware Art Museum.
Awai is also a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculpture Grant and the Cole Brown Art Prize. In 2018, the New York Times commissioned Awai to create an artwork for the editorial Op-Art: Monuments for a New Era, which appeared in the Sunday Review on the anniversary of the violence at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her exhibition Nicole Awai: Sensation Code opened at Barbara Davis Gallery in Houston in spring 2021, and she will be participating in the Material for the Arts Residency in spring 2022.
Distinguished Service Winner: Astrid Runggaldier
Associate Professor of Instruction and Assistant Director of the Mesoamerica Center Astrid Runggaldier sees her service role in the university community as primarily focused on supporting the educational mission of our institution and the student-focused goals of the instructional track. Her service roles are people-centered and concentrate on what she can provide toward student opportunities through advising, mentoring of interns, expansion of access to experiential learning and international education and support of undergraduate researchers and junior scholars.
Her service commitments include undergraduate recruitment and admissions, the Museum Studies Bridging Disciplines Program in School of Undergraduate Studies, the management and curation of the Art and Art History Collection (AAHC) for curriculum development and internships, liaising with the Blanton Museum of Art, expanding undergraduate research opportunities on campus and abroad and developing new initiatives to make scholarly activities like the annual Mesoamerica Meetings conference more accessible and inclusive. These pursuits take place in the context of the collaborations and partnerships she built with colleagues and administrators across campus.
Runggaldier finds that her role as educator can impact student lives far beyond the content she delivers in her courses, especially because her area of expertise—non-Western visual cultures—draws students who have traditionally experienced challenging barriers in pursuing higher education. Her role as mentor has been most gratifying in her efforts to harness university resources in the service of student education opportunities to focus on diversity and access, in particular for first-generation students and students of color and Indigenous ancestry.
Distinguished Teaching Winner: Sara Simons
Assistant Professor of Instruction Sara Simons’ philosophy to teaching is to examine “what you teach no matter what you teach,” as a mentor once told her, and this idea of articulating a teaching ethos across subject matter continues to resonate with her. As an educator, her teaching at its core is about moving students forward, creating connections and encouraging students to challenge systems of oppression and injustice. She strives to do these three things in every class she teaches and to encourage the pre-service teachers with whom she works to do the same with their students. This past year pushed her to tackle these goals through digital learning and to dedicate herself to learning and implementing new forms of pedagogy.
Simons cherishes connecting with her students and facilitating their connection with one another. Her courses often begin with students sharing the stories of their names or creating life maps to illustrate their journeys as educators and as people. She believes that these foundational exercises are vital to creating a space where students can laugh, learn, try, succeed, fail and try again together.
Mandy Rojas (B.F.A, Theatre Studies, 2018), a former student of Simons’, nominated her for the Distinguished Teaching Award. Rojas describes Simons as “incredibly talented in and intentional about grounding theory into practice in her classes.” Her students were always fully engaged, not only with their brains, but also with their bodies and hearts and felt that Simons truly listened to what her students had to say and treated them with respect as pre-service teachers.