1952 - 2020
You cannot teach people anything. You can only help them discover it within themselves.
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642)
[introductory quote to Susan Toplikar’s teaching 2000 philosophy]
I was lucky to be in Susan’s first drawing class and she was my first teacher in Design School. Susan was one of the most influential teachers I had as an undergraduate at NCSU. She was the first to plant the seed of how to look at things and express what you see.
She taught to not judge but to embrace your individual expression of what you see.
(…improving the skill could come later.)
Over time, Susan became a good and important friend. Her gift of teaching and friendship changed my life in many ways and started something that has not stopped. Like many, I was lucky to receive her gift.
I think of her often and miss her.
Graham Auman, artist, former student, friend
Susan broke the ground for women on the College of Design faculty, dedicated herself to excellence in the classroom, and modeled a thoughtful and enthusiastic approach as an artist among designers. She quietly but firmly forged the way for those who followed. She was loved and valued by her students and colleagues alike.
Her integrity, quiet courage, and dignified self-confidence was inspiring for fellow female colleagues. I especially valued her contributions to the pedagogy of the design fundamentals program and her generous collegiality over many years. For over 30 years, she was a calm, even, and positive presence, the “eye of the storm” in the College of Design—teaching with depth and compassion, assisting and supporting students in their quests for excellence.
Susan Brandeis, professor
These were the best days, in studio, and out. Susan had a gift every teacher should have. Quiet resolve, encouragement, a watchful eye and a subdued smile when things went in the right direction. Helping us discard old ways and bad habits, encouraging continuous motion of charcoal on paper.
Thank you for your role in shaping our lives.
Jay Barnes, former student
Susan, as my first studio professor, introduced me to a way of thinking and observing that has served me ever since. Throughout many courses, through drawing, building, and even through botching and bungling, Susan taught me to really look at what I was doing rather than fixating on whatever I had planned on doing. She was at once gentle and serious, and she taught me about the serious business of playful curiosity. I will always be thankful for having a teacher such as her.
Ben Callaway, former student, designer
Susan brought a quiet dignity, dry and sometimes goofy humor, bright eyes and an amused half smile to every encounter and moment of life. She lived in a creative zone in all aspects of her being: on both the scales of the small and everyday and on the large, powerful, and profound. She knew how to love, laugh and especially, how to care. I think her ability to be tender and caring was her greatest attribute.
She was playful and so good to me and my daughter, and she made Mother’s Day brunch for us every year, for eighteen years. It was a ritual we always looked forward to, filled with laughter and delight. The love she shared with Mike was rich and gorgeous and her devotion to her family, friends, students, pets and her community will always be an inspiration. Susan had grace and chutzpah, she was The Real Deal. And she was a Love, a Real True Love.
Marilyn Bara, psychoanalyst, friend
Remembering Susan TOPLIKAR, my friend and colleague.
Susan was a first of many: She was one of the first persons I met when I came to NC in 1981.
One of my first meals in NC was a dinner shared with Susan; she drove us to Durham in a little convertible. I remember Susan offering me her apartment to use when looking for a place to live in NC. She was in NYC for the summer. It was through Susan I met my first “attention starved” cat, Pablo. Although I had planned a week to find a place, long story short: I found an apartment in one and a half days. Susan told me it took Pablo a while to adjust to her return.
At the School: Susan was one of the first women hired. Susan was the first to pair drawing with story. She taught a drawing/illustration studio teamed with an invited creative writer or storyteller. Susan was the first to introduce and teach animation in the school and department of Art + Design. I believe at her retirement, she donated the zoetrope she and Mike made to the college. It’s still here and used.
I remember Susan’s office filled with sunlight and a wall of postcards-- both collected and drawn-- with a frequent visit from her beloved chocolate lab Maggie. When I think of Susan, I think colors. We both loved color and teaching color. I remember colored pencil and pastel drawings her students would make, and the required sketchbooks.
I remember the quiet spirit of a disciplinarian—she meant what she said, even though spoken softly. Linda Dallas, at the time studying with Susan described a critique scenario: after being patiently forewarned of criteria, Susan quietly walked about the room … with students clinging to her ankles pleading for one more chance, mercy please. Susan, the gentle enforcer.
When I think of Susan, I think of nature; animal habitat studio projects, plant props for drawing class, her donated nature collection of hundreds of shells, bones, skulls, dried gourds, coral and turtle shells.
I remember the pleasure of teaching with Susan and how fantastic that was. We taught a color theory and painting studio. The outcome was the first student exhibition hosted by the Gregg museum.
With food, I remember: Susan, Kathleen and I, and how we would treat ourselves, by going to lunch at Blue Sky Bakery for egg salad sandwiches. We LOVED that! I remember faculty birthday cakes, Kathleen brought them because Susan loved cake so. We all loved cake at faculty meetings!
I remember Susan and her plants and garden, passions we both shared. Susan introduced me to one of my favorite plants a Daphne Carol Mackie…. sweet, structured and beautiful.
And that is how I remember my friend and colleague, Susan TOPLIKAR.
Chandra Cox, artist, colleague, and friend
My first, and many of my best, memories from my days in the School of Design and at NCSU were defined by my first semester Design Fundamentals studio, where I was lucky enough to have Susan as my professor. I can remember that semester more vividly than any other in my 6 years at NCSU. I had so much anxiety about everything related to leaving home to go to school, and the things I learned from Susan and the lifelong friendships I forged in that first studio were truly the philosophical and cultural foundation that defined the rest of my education and in some ways, my approach to life and creative problem solving.
Susan and her studio were an anchor for me in a turbulent year and her teaching style with its balance of sensitivity and rigor was the exact combination I needed to find my design voice and more importantly my process. She was such an empathetic soul, which you could sense immediately. But she also demanded the best from people, and that was also clear from the first day of her studio. Her inquiry-based approach to design process was a revelation for me and so many others with its implicit duality of thinking freely without judgement while also pushing to find answers, or more importantly, ask the right questions. Susan also taught me the value of constraints in the creative process, and how they can help construct a framework for inspiration and innovation by necessity to create meaningful work.
Susan’s depth of empathy was truly rounded out by her amazing laugh and sense of humor. The first time I made her laugh in one of our desk critiques, I knew I had found a kindred spirit that shared a number of creative and philosophical sensibilities, someone I could depend on for insightful perspective about my journey as a designer. One of my fondest memories from that first year of school was attending our end of semester studio party at Susan and Mike’s house. I laughed harder that night than I can remember in all my years in school, and solidified personal bonds to continue to this day.
A real revelation that night was seeing Susan’s home studio and the series of horse paintings she was working on at that time. The depth and sensitivity in the work was immediately apparent, and the iterative series and process on display was a true validation of all of the principles of design process that Susan had been teaching us that semester. It was also when I learned that Susan and I were both big Neil Young fans. She explained that The Year of the Horse album was a primary inspiration while working on this latest series of paintings, an album I had also unknowingly listened to endlessly in her studio that semester. Another revelation for me that night was seeing Susan with Mike together in their home. Their depth of love, respect, and delight in one another was clear to all in attendance. Seeing two partners compliment each other so completely in creativity and life was an inspiration which had a lasting impression on me, endearing evidence of what was possible in a romantic union and life partnership.
Susan was an amazingly gifted artist, educator, and mentor. She will be missed by so many, and I feel very lucky to have been touched by her deep and lasting legacy at NCSU.
Anders Carpenter, former student, architect and musician/song writer
I’m not a person who keeps things. After a while, objects in my life make their way to the circular file, thrown away with a sense of overwhelming relief. For me, the stuff that accumulates in life is a burden. Only the most precious items are kept.
I still have my sketchbooks from Susan Toplikar’s fundamentals class. I have my manipulations of cauliflower drawings, where I learned that art can be a wonderfully additive and infinite process. Up until a few years ago, I even had the surprisingly phallic clay sculpture I made based on those manipulated drawings. Sadly, it crumbled to dust, likely aided by my mother’s desire for fewer penises on the wall.
I may have these precious objects from my time with Susan, but what I remember most distinctly is her calm, patient demeanor as she stepped me through the intricacies of a concept. I was (and still am) quick to think I know everything, but Susan was undeterred by my hubris. Her incredible depth and generosity led me to so many discoveries. So many moments of joy.
I wish I had sent her this note years ago. Instead, I will print it out, cut it into strips, run it through a printer, and pickle it. Then I’ll draw it, and discover something new and precious once again. Thank you, Susan.
Melanie Conklin, former student
I remember Susan Toplikar as a kind, honest, and congenial colleague at the College of Design, where we both taught in the Department of Art + Design. She was soft spoken and possessed a low-key persona; however, behind that persona, was a smart, well-researched, and documented woman that spoke with assertiveness and conviction of whatever issue was being dealt with at hand. As an art educator she instilled in her students, among many other things, the importance of research and of being well read in art and design. As a matter of fact, Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of Brain, was a must read in all of her classes!
One of Susan's Sabbaticals, and of which I have vivid memory, was on her report to the faculty on the research trip she had just done to Europe with the purpose of visiting prehistoric caves to study and analyze the paintings found within. I had never seen Susan, in her presentation, be so excited and eager to share, with faculty and students, all that she had seen and experienced during that trip. Some time later we were all treated to a magnificent series of large-scale paintings of horses that Susan had done, and which sprung from her sabbatical research, and that beautifully captured the essence of a contemporary horse in the color palette and dim light of a prehistoric cave painting. Susan Toplikar's sublime artistic sensibility, as well as her art and design teachings, will be missed. May she rest in peace.
Lope Max Díaz, artist, professor, colleague
Susan Toplikar was not only a gifted artist and richly, warming and sharing teacher, but in my seminar at the Lucy Daniels Foundation she showed us all what a wonderful friend she could be. In that group, “Our Problems as the Roots of Our Power,” she again and again enriched other participants with both her art and her response to the feelings and art of others. I had hoped this inspiring friendship between us and her wonderful art partner and husband, Mike Cindric, would never end. So, it was both sad and hugely disappointing when her Parkinson’s took her away. However, because of both the art and the memories of the warm friendship of her and Mike connected to it, I am still feeling blessed by her. Thank you, Susan!
Lucy Daniels, writer and psychoanalyst, friend, colleague
My first introduction to Susan was by way of her future husband, Mike, who jumpstarted my interest in sculpture
as my professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was a maverick—taking it so seriously on one level and scoffing at it all
During this time in the early 1980s, there was a lot of talk about how sculpture wasn’t as important as painting. Painting was seen as more immediate and revealed more about the workings of the inner self. I looked for a way
of making sculpture that had that same immediacy. Like working with clay, saplings can be molded easily and as lines, can serve as accent marks on intended objects. Following Mike’s ceramic lead, I developed stickworks, which I imagined to be another kind of greenware. Through Mike’s classes I was also introduced to Robert Smithson and The Spiral Jetty (1970) which had an impact on the direction of my work.
Mike was always working, making sculpture with a workmen’s ethic— very strong, and always grinding away. I
spent as much time with Mike as I could. As I followed his career, I heard good things about Susan, that they were good as a couple. Mike had an intense personality, and Susan was calm and serene—they fit well together. I’ve found with married couples that they dovetail on some level, even if in their presentation it is difficult to understand their hidden parts.
In the spring of 1999, Susan and her colleague Kathleen Rieder were looking for an artist-in-residence for the Art and Design department at the College of Design. Mike recommended that I work with the students by making sculptures, introducing them to my stick-weaving style and my working process. I gave an artist talk and led the students in the gathering of saplings off the roadside, some near my residence in Chapel Hill!
I was also amazed, going into the studios and seeing how much work was expected of the students. I observed
the teachers as an interloper, and even with an illustrious career, I felt sheepish going back to a teaching situation. The quality of the people throwing themselves into teaching was impressive—in these moments, you don’t necessarily doubt your own abilities, but you might find yourself jealous of their capacity to inspire. I found myself asking: do I belong here, how do I participate, or do I just observe?
Susan was a role model. She had a quiet disposition was observant and thoughtful. I realize now, that my formative years could have profited mightily from taking a class where Mike and Susan taught as a team.
Patrick Dougherty, artist, colleague, as told to Greg Lindquist
I met Susan in 1983 when I moved into a studio space in a building on Johnson Street in Raleigh, where she also had a studio and was making wonderful drawings with handmade pastels from New York. She was quiet, but had a presence that commanded respect. I felt honored to get to know her, and Susan quickly became one of my most cherished friends. I loved our talks about our work and all kinds of other things; she had great stories. Susan and I ate lots of salads at the Rathskeller and at Irregardless in those days and took some great trips around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill to look at art, see dance, and just hang out. When I went to graduate school, Susan sent me a steady stream of postcards (often full of her drawings) and once put a stamp on a box of candy hearts and mailed it to me. These cards and packages helped keep me afloat.
Susan was also a role model to me as a teacher. When I moved to Savannah to teach at Savannah College of Art and Design, she had great suggestions and wonderful anecdotes form her own teaching to share. I loved her passion, ingenuity, and fantastic ideas for projects. She was really one of the most creative people I have ever known and one of the kindest.
Susan was not only my friend, but she also became a friend of my mom, Jeanne First. My mother loved her, and the feeling was mutual. They really took care of each other through all kinds of circumstances. For years during my visits to Raleigh, the three of us had a ritual of meeting for coffee at Cup A Joe, where Susan seemed to know everyone (well, close). My visits also included dinners with her, Mike, and my mom, and I will never forget those. I miss Susan’s smile, her generous spirit, and most of all, her irreplaceable friendship.
Deborah First, artist, friend
Susan was a colleague and friend. She always had an easy manner and loved to see the funny and positive side of life. She grew up in Kansas City, as I did, so we had a bond when we meet. In my first years, Susan would invite me over for dinner and I had the chance to chat with Mike an her over lovely informal dinners.
Susan was a great artist. She once went to the Lazcaux Caves where she saw the 37 thousand year old cave paintings. She was profoundly affected by that experience and produced some of the most elegant and beautiful large scale paintings of horses over the next years.
Finally, Susan started the illustration and animation courses that are so important to our curriculum today. I still use the zoetrope that she (and Mike) gave me in the animation class I teach.
I will miss her dearly.
Patrick Fitzgerald, artist, professor, colleague
I entered the NCSU School of Design in the Fall of 1990.
My mind was immediately blown on the first day of Design Fundamentals, including when the professor asked us to address her as “Susan.” Up until that point, school had been about reading, writing, calculating or remembering. My brain was so much happier working on projects, and though it was challenging, I loved being questioned by Susan about every line, form, or color—and to always connect my decisions with a central idea. 30 years later, I can still remember every project we did. We started with masks for each of our fingers, made a mask for a studio partner. We took 1x1 inch images from various sources and turned them into paintings, then sculptures. The smells of acrylic paint and hot glue, taped up fingers, the excitement of staying up later and later as the semester went on are still with me. And behind it all- a quiet, but confident Susan Toplikar giving us space to explore, but also the right guidance in making sure that we all understood what we were doing-- developed our own design process. I use that everyday in my life as an architect in Boston.
One of my most powerful memories of Susan was the final meeting in her office at the end of the studio. It felt so good to hear that she liked my work, and for her to reinforce the design discoveries I had made along the way. In the closing minutes of that meeting Susan gave me confidence, and in the most encouraging way, inspired me to commit to a life of design—way more than I think she knew. I can imagine that this happened for many other designers before and after me. We thank you, Susan.
Jason Forney, former student, architect
Susan was my professor for two studios and a drawing class. My favorite studio from my entire time in the College of Design was Susan's illustration studio. I remember feeling pretty lost and unsure that I was in the right place for college. My work (mostly photography) expressed my intense interest in people and relationships. When I was in a studio or class with Susan, I felt more grounded, safer. I felt I had room to explore, to mess up, to be curious. Susan had this brilliant way of teaching technique while also allowing for the mess of it all. In the illustration studio we learned bookbinding (where I made a sketch book I still cherish) and how to tell stories-- our own story and those of others. Susan had a quiet strength about her that I admired. I cared deeply about what she thought of my work and of me, but also felt that she had an unconditional positive regard for all of her students.
Her feedback was direct and compassionate. I still remember her helping me with my drawing technique in a figure drawing class. She noticed that I kept moving my pencil back and forth, hesitant to commit to a mark on the page. She chuckled as she expressed her desire to see my hand just move forward, boldly, without backtracking. I knew that Susan was not only seeing my struggling drawing skills, but also knew that it was a reflection of how I was in the world. Unsure, looking back, anxious. She spoke in the language of art, but spoke to something deeper within all of her students. She was an observer and seemed full of a quiet sense of wonder. I felt seen in her presence. I loved how Susan's assignments had us create from an emotional place, encouraging us to discover ourselves. She really wanted to know our stories.
Several years after graduating, I went on to get a degree in Social Work and now work as a therapist. When I share this with people, some seem confused about how I went from one to the other. I remember when I shared what I was doing with Susan. She gave her gentle smile and quiet affirmation. When I think about what informs my work as a therapist, I have to include the lessons and experiences from Susan. She nurtured my interest in people and in myself. She encouraged me to examine my feelings, my fears, and what may be holding me back. She helped me see that we can grow from pain, and we can be curious about our dreams. Susan was as much a counselor as she was teacher. I will always be grateful for having the opportunity to be taught by, to influenced by, and to have been seen by Susan Toplikar.
Allison Grubbs, former student, psychotherapist
I knew Susan primarily through her art, which enriched us all. When I saw her collages installed at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium I knew that she was a magical presence among us. Her collages had a sense of history that merged with the color and brilliance of her art. To me, they were transforming.
Susan, Mike, and I shared a studio building in Boylan Heights. I was always delighted to visit her studio to see what enthralling work she had in progress. Not only was I entering her private realm, it was like watching magic being made.
I’d like to recognize the contribution that Susan’s partner, Mike Cindric, made to her life. Mike supported Susan’s art. He was a caring and devoted friend. And he stands as an example of fidelity and love and that overcomes all.
Frank Harmon, colleague, architect
I feel very fortunate to have had Susan as a professor and mentor during my second year at the College of Design. Susan had an incredible way of connecting with her students, helping them identify their strengths, and pushing them to reach beyond the limits of what they thought drawing could be. I was enrolled in her drawing class and remember my lack of confidence and impatience for observational drawing early that semester. Throughout that three-month drawing class, Susan helped me find joy in drawing, observation in the natural world, and patience with my own way of making marks. She modeled grace, focus, strength, and discipline. In her own work, she had the ability to magnify quiet moments and make them sensorial through her astute sensitivity to light and materiality. She was an incredible artist, teacher, and mentor and will be missed by many. I am so grateful to have had time and space with her.
Harriet Hoover, former student, artist, professor
Susan was given a child-like sense of play and a huge heart for her students and friends.
She had a gift for practical jokes. Her friends would sometimes come home to find artistic constructions in their front yard exhibiting her playful sense of humor.
Susan's indelible smile says it all.
Chris Jones, former student
To simply say Susan shaped my understanding of design and how it intersects with art would be a tremendous understatement; her impact on my life runs deep and continues. When I transferred into the College of Design after three years of struggling for admission, her fundamentals studio opened my eyes to not only who I was, but also to my true potential.
Learning how to simply be and have the freedom to create was a theme running throughout her teaching style. She approached everything with such a deep calm and kindness. This did not mean she wouldn't surprise you. Imagine walking into studio expecting the usual, only to be instructed to lie on your back and just breathe. She spent half the class walking us through a guided meditation. We just listened to her gentle voice asking us to tense and relax the muscles of our body from our toes all the way up to our face. It was not until years later that I truly understood what she was teaching us that day: how important in the creative process it is, to be still and quiet the mind from time to time. There are not many things that you only learn once that stay with you your entire life; this lesson was one of them.
One could easily mistake stillness for diminutiveness, yet this was hardly the case with Susan. She taught me to think big. The week-long charette with her friend and the world-renowned sculptor, Patrick Dougherty, was beyond inspiring. He walked us through his creative process, from collecting saplings off of the interstate to the physical process of bending and shaping his materials. Susan organized and facilitated a multi-studio project that overtook the entire campus of the College of Design and beyond. It was a massive and incredibly risky undertaking to be sure. I not only learned how to collaborate, but how much more was possible when you work as a team. Her humble nature exemplified how you can let your ego go, but never lose yourself.
Her fundamentals studio was so inspirational that I jumped at the opportunity to study with her again, this time her illustration studio. Looking back now, I think I may have taken her acceptance of all things creative as a challenge to see how far I could test the boundaries and constraints of her design assignments. Nothing pushed that further than my final illustration project, where I decided to "illustrate" the collective unconscious. I can still remember how well she took the news that I was going to build a giant 8' x 8' x 8' camera obscura as part of an installation that took over the Brooks Hall rotunda. No one was more encouraging than her as I struggled to get the permits to build it or figure out how to construct the whole thing. There was not a mark on paper to be found in that installation (it was a drawing studio) but she never once made me question myself or creative instincts. After it was dismantled, she even stored it for me for years, in case I wanted to rebuild it one day. I like to think she was hoping I would. Susan taught me to take risks. She believed that learning comes from making and true teaching comes from experience. I believe she designed her lessons the way she lived her life, open to wonder and without expectations.
I feel so honored and grateful to have been her student and friend. We will miss you Susan.
Tim Kiernan, former student, designer
I first met Susan only as an alum, but our time at the College of Design coincided, and during that time I knew her to be a leading light at the school. Her influence radiated to me through my classmates and professors, and our paths certainly crossed many times. I was finally lucky to make the connection through Mike, after multiple collaborations while at Tonic Design. From there the three of us shared many full-hearted visits to Boulted and their Mountford Avenue studios, trading email updates and holiday cards in times between. The life that Susan and Mike built together and alongside one another is a constant inspiration for my own. Their work ethic, unassuming presence, tenacity, and long view, coupled with optimism, good humor, flexibility, and encouragement is the rarest of combinations. These are the qualities that I aim for, and only wish that I’d known Susan longer. I am grateful to be guided daily by Mike and Susan’s example, and take comfort in knowing that she was willing to share all of this with not just me but so many others.
Maggie Kirsch, colleague
Susan taught my Design Fundamentals II class in the spring of 1998. She was a wonderfully inspiring professor and created a curriculum to introduce us to each of the majors that the (then) School of Design had to offer. Among our projects were pinhole photography, handmade books, architectural models and designing and making a pair of handmade shoes for a “client” in our class. We also created a series of postcards, which we mailed her over spring break, capturing a scene each hour to explore how the variations in light and shadow affected the composition.
For Susan, the process was every bit as important as the finished product. We kept detailed journals of our research, what we learned through the design process and a self-critique of our finished project.
With the soul of an artist and a very multidisciplinary approach to teaching, Susan incorporated all forms of the arts as inspiration for our projects. For example, in preparation for designing shoes, she took the class to Kamphoefner to lie on the floor face-up in the darkened room and listen to just about every version of “Blue Suede Shoes” ever recorded. Over twenty years later and I still can’t hear that song without thinking of her!
Susan had very high expectations of her students, but was kind and encouraging to help us meet those expectations. Some of my favorite projects and memories are from that semester. She encouraged us to be playful and use the medium of our choice. Her passion for design and teaching was evident in everything she did.
Lori Langdon, former student, designer
Susan Toplikar made me see the world through a different lens. She pushed us as students but took great care in our development. Susan allowed me to be a teaching assistant for her fundamentals studio while I was finishing a fifth year. Her final project was amazing and the way she unfolded the parts was masterful. She had each student do a series of drawings from the perspective of an animal found in the SOD courtyard. Students spent time outside getting down on the animal’s level or looking up from the animal’s perspective. She assigned a series of drawings from the perspective of amplifying the view 10 times the distance with each new drawing.
The project culminated with a garment/vessel design that forced the individual to experience the world from the perspective of the animal and transcended the participant into a sensory experience. I remember one guy wrapped his garment around a skateboard that forced you to move along the ground in a horizontal fashion. The inside of the garment was filled with plastic pockets of air that gave you the sensation of the animal’s skin. It was extremely creative and fun to watch in motion. I’ll never forget the care she took with every idea and every student.
Susan’s studio and home reflected her love of nature and her passion for drawing. I always remember her with charcoal on her clothes or a smudge on her face. I was so fortunate to spend so much time with her as an undergrad.
Laura Levinson, former student
The roots of Susan’s influence are embedded so deeply in my being that it’s often difficult to recognize. There are many aspects of Susan—from her kind, thoughtful, and generous person, tastes in art and design, pantheon of her favorite artists and writers, to her way of thinking about process and problem-solving—I have made my own over the years that discussing each would be only done justice in multiple volumes. From the day I was a terrified 18 year-old in her Design Fundamentals 101 studio (my very first class in college), to an artist in my mid-30s making a Kunderan return to install an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Susan has had an indispensable role in my life—offering support, advice, always the necessary confidence in her characteristic phrase, “Keep going,” and so much more. Without her, I would have probably dropped out of college, and had a much more troubled and less creatively fulfilling life. She will always be with me, especially I feel her presence in the solitude of my studio when I am painting.
While there is neither space nor time to express everything here, there are several things most crucial that I can’t not talk about. First, the gifts of the painting studio in 2001 co-taught with Chandra Cox, which began days after my father passed away from a 10-year struggle with terminal cancer, a journey of which Susan had accompanied me for at least four of those years through independent studies exploring art therapy with my father, regular conversations in her postcard-patchworked office, and attending his funeral in Wilmington with her husband Mike alongside a handful of my peers and family. During the studio, I was wonderfully given the space to process and visually express my grief through the rigor of color desaturation scales. Semantically, I explored the cultural pathology of death in research of the Holocaust that began when I visited Germany when I was nine. To this very day, the relationships of complimentary color and cultural research is the core of my studio practice, and the way in which I teach art and art history to my own students. In the past months since Susan’s passing, I revisited in my current studio color scales assigned by Susan and Chandra while reflecting on their roles in my life.
Secondly, Susan taught me how to teach. I suspect that Susan knew, like my father and mother before me, I was destined to teach. When I had finished my Art + Design requirements and was focusing on my English degree, she invited me to be a teaching assistant for her basic drawing class. I recall spending a day in her dining room, listening to Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” and “Graceland” while learning how to use graphic design software. Susan patiently helped me tweak handouts introducing three techniques of drawing, instructions which I still use. Even when I was in grad school for studio art in painting and art history at Pratt Institute in NYC, and had expressed my disinterest in teaching, Susan with great care mailed me handouts of her most current studio projects. I have the most upmost respect for her to have re-developed each class every semester. Anyone who teaches knows developing a class takes weeks and even months, and now as a professor at Pratt Institute and Rhode Island School of Design, I can appreciate and still find the feat in her commitment to each class—and subsequently to the benefit and great fortune of her students—unbelievably generous. And, as art historian Anna Chave has said and Susan clearly knew, the syllabus is without doubt an art form in itself.
During my sophomore year, Susan introduced me to the writer and psychoanalyst Lucy Daniels: When Susan had a cold and couldn’t attend a DW Winnicott, psychoanalysis, and creativity conference in 1999 that Lucy’s foundation had organized, Susan sent me in her stead. Lucy became a lifetime friend and supporter, and I’m forever grateful that she introduced me to my first therapist in NC, and my current therapist in NYC. Most importantly, Susan, who clearly learned how to listen without judgment from her own experience with therapy, gave me the gift of being heard, which many times saved me from the worst of my own anxiety, self-criticism, and destructive impulses.
Knowing Susan and Mike as a couple opened the possibility of a healthy, productive, collaborative, and loving relationship (during college my peers and I idealized, were curious about, and in awe of their life together in creative pursuits), and I recently realized that she gave me the blueprint for how to determine if someone is right for a relationship: When Susan met Mike, she said he had to pass certain “tests” before she knew she could be with him. When that happens successfully, the stars will align. Together, two people are in the same place and moment and, if they are lucky, together for life. I am forever grateful and privileged to have experienced and observed both from near and afar Mike and Susan’s rich, loving, and ever generous relationship, and deeply saddened as I wish that Susan could have met the woman who passed my tests.
Greg Lindquist, artist, writer, and professor, former student and friend
Susan Toplikar became an influential person in Greg’s life from the very beginning of his NCSU’s School of Design experience. It wasn’t long afterwards during a campus visit that I met her and realized how important a support system she was in my son’s life both professionally and personally.
I soon began to consider her his ‘campus mom’ which I always affectionately told her each time I saw her. Her husband Mike Cindric soon joined the circle of unconditional support for Greg as they both offered their friendship and gave generously of their time. A professional relationship which started in the fall of 1997 evolved to include a special supportive friendship which continued until Susan’s passing; it still remains between Greg and Mike.
Although Greg left Raleigh sixteen years ago for NYC and I had the prior year to move to AZ, I was happy to reconnect with Susan and Mike in April 2016 at Greg’s NC Museum of Art exhibit. Later that weekend we all were able to spend time in their home enjoying their hospitality; I remember Susan’s wonderful chocolate brownies and other chocolate bars.
Susan was a kind, gentle and caring person who guided her students and will be remembered always by them as well as all the others whose lives she touched. I will always be grateful for her generosity to Greg and me.
Donna Lindquist, mother of Greg
Susan quietly changed the world by touching the lives of the students she taught. She expanded our reach into the unlimited capacity of our creativity. She taught us to dig deep into ourselves, our life experiences and the memories that have shaped us, and to be curious about that in other people. She helped us unleash our true selves for bettering the world and our community. She taught Good Design and was a Good Person.
I entered college out of high school, still a kid and overwhelmed by my sudden freedom. Susan became a teacher that I trusted, admired and connected with, and she saw through any bullshit I tried to turn in.
I had Susan as a mentor, advisor and professor from 1998 - 2005. The lessons she delivered to me were the bedrock of my college career and have been the most valuable lessons of my adult life.
I would hang out in Susan’s office and chat about my life during our advising sessions. She was like my mom-away-from-home, and I found comfort in her guidance and the pinned art and illustrations that adorned her office.
She was the person I needed in my life, a sherpa guiding me over the threshold to adulthood and telling me, "You can do this, you can solve this problem but you need to put the work in. Here, take this stack of post-it notes and write out 200 more alternatives for a solution to this problem and show them to me tomorrow. No that isn't an alternative, that is a variation".
Susan would make sure that you learned the design process in her studio, and she took the “Research Phase” serious. In Design Fundamentals, you might have experienced sitting and listening to every known version of “Blue Suede Shoes” in preparation for a shoe designing project (which in my memory took about 4 hours). The brilliance was this song would be stuck in your head for the next three weeks, and you couldn’t “not” think about your project. It made for an immersive design experience.
When my Exhibit Design Studio classmates and I embarked on redesigning exhibits for Playspace (the small Raleigh children’s museum that later grew into Marbles), she had us go to Playspace and watch children play with the exhibits. You might imagine this makes you seem a little creepy. Susan didn’t care if something made you uncomfortable, this was an essential step of Good Design.
Once I remember our class practicing a mindfulness exercise to help us remember what it was like to be a child. In a dark Kamphoefner Hall we listened as she guided us to a favorite childhood memory, asking questions about the details we saw and the feelings we remembered feeling. Upon coming out of our meditation, we were instructed to illustrate the memory. Mine hangs over the toy box that used to be mine (but is now my childrens’).
These early steps of the design process led me and my classmates to maintain our connections with the way children play and come up with some of the best and simplest design solutions that are still a major part of the Around Town exhibits at Marbles Kids Museum.
I’ve come to realize that teaching is an art, and those who do it well bring curiosity, passion and creativity to their lessons. Susan was a very clever and creative instructor, and she orchestrated her lessons and assignments into finely designed classes.
She taught me inside the classroom and outside as well, and in her authenticity and rarity, she redefined what I imagined an artist to be: gentle and empathetic, curious and playful, abundantly kind, quietly confident and
She taught me not to settle, not in life, love or design. Her loving partnership with Mike Cindric was inspiring and had a heartbeat of its very own. As a young person, exposure to such a healthy relationship helped me know as well what I wanted for myself in love and life: I would settle for no less than a soulmate who would respect, support and love me for me.
She taught me to hold onto play and curiosity, and let that inform my design process. What she didn’t tell me,
but what I have learned over time, is that happiness and life satisfaction can be derived through maintaining
Her legacy is in the lives she taught, and the students who reached their destinations because Susan was on
Teachers change the world. Susan changed our worlds.
Marianne Maschal, former student, designer
When I arrived to teach at what was then the School of Design in 1979, Susan Toplikar was already one of the few female faculty. Susan befriended me and a lifelong friendship ensued. Over the years, we exchanged and mulled over teaching ideas and experiences. The two of us took many trips to NYC together to explore and feed our teaching and personal perspectives. Teaching definitely was Susan’s focus. She gave students unique educational experiences and like herself she expected seriousness and a sense of play. She also was active in making her own art—prolific in quality and quantity, beautiful work. Over my course of 10 years at School of Design, I would inherit some of the same students. Always, these students were inspired and touched by Susan’s teaching.
She encouraged questioning—approaching things from different angles and set the stage for a student’s personal creativity and confidence to surface. I left the School of Design to teach
elsewhere and even though on the other side of the country, Susan and I remained in close touch.
As with her students, she had a big positive influence on my teaching as well as my life of which I am forever grateful.
P. Lyn Middleton, colleague and artist
Susan was such an inspiration. There was a group of us that had her for fundamentals in 1997 and still talk about her studio class to this day. It was a magical time for me. She gave me a new perspective on what the future could be and a studio family. Her class was challenging, but she had a vision for us. She knew that we would be better designers (and people) if we had a community that could push us to succeed and catch us when we fell. She took the time to point out where our process was working, but also called out the cut corners that we inevitably tried as freshmen. I loved her class. That first semester fundamentals class gave me a process to work through my ideas and a community of support that I never had before.
Ali Maiorano, former student, designer
Professor Emeritus Susan Toplikar passed away Monday. She was my first studio instructor at the School of Design and one of those teachers that make an impact. Because it was the title of every childhood lecture I got from my dad, I despised the question “Why?” After only a couple of days in Susan’s Design Fundamentals studio, I was horrified to realize “Why?” was the main tool in a designer’s toolbox. I will never forget the moment during our first critique — after Susan’s 3rd or 4th “Yes, but why?” inquiry — of being stunned that I was going to have to think and communicate without getting overly defensive and shutting down. In that same moment, Susan’s face showed me it was not a toxic question, that I could handle it and that it would be ok. I don’t know how her other students felt, but for me she was the perfect guide for my introduction to design and helped change my life. I continue to give thanks.
Craig McDuffie, former student, designer,
To this day, I can still feel Susan’s gentle, curious, and loving presence by my side just like when she would sit with me at my studio desk in design school all those years ago.
Like many others, Susan had a significant impact on me as an artist, designer, and as a human being.
She opened my mind to the process of inquiry and discovery, in art and my self. She taught me the importance of storytelling, unbound ideation, and collaboration. In Fundamentals Studio, she allowed me the space to get messy, to work out ideas, to let my creativity flow as it needed.
Susan’s impact on my life goes well beyond art and design. She was a living model of compassion and kindness and could easily transmit these qualities to anyone in her presence. A few examples I would like to offer in remembrance:
Following the September 11th attacks my senior year, I was struggling with anxiety, overwhelm, and frequent heart palpitations. Susan took time to listen to my fears and anxieties and taught me simple contemplative techniques to regulate my heart and mind that I still practice to this day. I did not even have Susan as a teacher that semester, yet she made time for me each week that semester to check-in, a safe harbor in stormy seas.
One day during my junior year, Susan happened to be walking past my studio just as I discovered a semester-long project I had been working on for another class had been mistakenly thrown away by a cleaning crew - the day before critique. I was upset, panicked, and angry. Susan took me aside, challenged me to take an objective view and cultivate compassion for the cleaners who were just doing their job. Her calm demeanor and perspective instantly calmed me down, providing me mental space to think of a solution for critique and understanding towards the cleaners. In this brief 5-minute interaction, Susan taught me about meeting difficult situations with empathy and compassion, cornerstones in the foundation of my personal ethics.
One of the most life-changing experiences I had in design school was a course that Susan co-facilitated with psychologist Lucy Daniels, “Our Problems as the Root of our Creative Power.” In this safe container she co-created, and through many heart-to-hearts that semester with Susan, I was able explore parts of myself that had not been given space or a voice before. It was the first time in my life I could speak openly about my sexual orientation and childhood trauma, using art and the creative process as a means to heal, explore and express myself. I felt liberated and Susan was there holding the door open for me.
Susan challenged me. Counseled me. Encouraged me. She never gave me the answers. Instead, only more questions and a kind smile. She taught me how to find inspiration in my humanity.
And to find meaning in the process, regardless of result.
Between the dichotomy of sadness on her passing and gratitude for her eternal presence, a feeling of humility arises. I am humbled to have the privilege and honor of being shaped by Susan and the joy of knowing she touched so many others.
Deepest bows to my teacher. Feeling your gentle presence by my side, always.
Teague O’Malley, former student, designer
Susan was many things: quiet, unassuming, kind, gentle, yet fiercely determined to demand and encourage each and every student to bring their best to class and their artwork. I will remember her as a gentle, gifted, and kind individual who challenged me and helped form my artistic growth. She will be greatly missed. I feel lucky to have been one of her students, and will remember her insight, encouragement, and creative spirit.
Lily Koto Olive, former student, artist
In Susan’s courses, the varied pursuits of drawing, painting, book binding, typography, photography, and narration were united.
In a sense, her studios synthesized much of what was taught at the School of Design during the time of her tenure into a cohesive practice.
I am forever grateful.
Ian Quate, former student
Susan Toplikar was a giant at the School of Design:
a quiet, playful, brave, and inspiring educator
I did not have Susan for design fundamentals studio, but my roommate did. I was in awe of how she invited her students to explore.
She created a rich and supportive environment that nurtured students to be daring, relentless,
playful—to exist at the edges of what any of us knew as freshmen.
Thank you Susan for your example.
Sara Glee Queen, former student, colleague, architect
At first I had trouble figuring out Susan. She was quiet and somehow would reflect most of my questions right back, like I already knew the answer. It was the tough love that we all needed—to learn how to tap into who we were, get the courage to take risks, and discover that our best resources were each other. By the end of that semester our studio was a tight knit family, we had grown in strides, and we felt the warmth and gentleness in her teaching. Around Thanksgiving Susan and Mike opened up their home to us for a family meal, confirming that they were truly supporting our creative paths forward. Even though each project that semester was an inward look at ourselves and our own personal growth—it cannot be measured without considering all of the individuals on the journey together.
Pulled from my final self evaluation: “The element of competition is eliminated and we did everything we could to help each other work to our best abilities, finish by deadline, and keep each other motivated. Not only did we help each other with schoolwork, but we were a team inside and outside of the projects.”
Personally, Susan opened my eyes to creative problem solving and how it opens the door to all of the possibilities. Our class took a field trip to Design Dimension in 2007 and it clicked. I had never seen “behind the scenes” of a design studio that built museum experiences— literally from start to finish. These designers were having fun! That is what I set out to do for the next four years. Fast forward to 2012, I started working as a junior designer with Mike Cindric at Design Dimension. Now in 2020, I am still here, as a designer and owner.
Susan and Mike have been a steady support system for me ever since. I wouldn’t be here without them as teachers, mentors, friends, family... they have both pushed and encouraged me to continue my path as a designer and reminded me always to never stop living the life of design. I am forever grateful.
Betsy Peters Rascoe, former student, friend, designer, Design Dimension Inc.
Susan was one of my first teachers at College of Design and immediately became a major influence on my artistic and academic direction. Through her teaching and advising she inspired me to initially pursue illustration as a creative direction. Since that time, the element of visual narrative has remained a constant in my own work. It was through an assignment for Susan’s Drawing 1 class that I encountered the work of my first artistic influence, John Biggers. While I lived in NC after graduation, she would still oblige my requests for critique and feedback. She was a generous teacher and artist. It was a privilege to be her student.
Andrew Rieder, former student, artist