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Susan Toplikar

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]

A - F


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  

Graham Auman

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  

Ben Callaway

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  

IMG_8377 - Marilyn Bara.jpg

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 

Anders Carpenter

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