By Aaron Fishell
When the administration of Western Michigan University is in the midst of a labor dispute, there is a good chance it is counting on Sue Caulfield to use the right side of her brain.
But Caulfield, 54, who spends her days as the director of academic collective bargaining for the administration of Western Michigan University and reports directly to the Provost, said that she cannot exist solely in that space. That’s why, five years ago, she began print making and other artistic endeavors in order to allow the left side of her brain to flourish.
Caulfield’s collective bargaining job, which she began in 2007, has a great deal of structure to it and requires analytical skills. One key part of her job is coordinating and participating in workshops that review the tenure process. According to Caulfield, some of the most challenging areas of her work at WMU include finding common ground among disputing parties.
“I believe if my work can help to reduce discrimination or create bridges between different groups then yeah, that’s justice. That works for me,” Caulfield said.
Off campus, Caulfield spends her nights and weekends doing something quite different. She is a print maker with a studio in downtown Kalamazoo’s Parks Trade Center.
These two parts of her life might seem mutually exclusive, but for Caulfield, the two halves are not only compatible but synergistic. Caulfield said that when she is creating art, she sometimes comes across solutions that help her in her labor negotiations. The same is true when she is at work. She picks up images and gets ideas that inspire her artwork.
Caulfield predominantly uses fabric as a canvas and much of her work has inspirational quotes or sayings from the likes of poet Robert Frost or musician John Lennon. One of her pieces features words from poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Others have words that Caulfield, and her clients, find inspirational: Courage. Hope. Love.
The walls of Caulfield’s studio are filled with colorful and vibrant representations of her screen prints and other pieces of artwork. She uses an old bathtub to rinse out fabrics used in batiking, which is dyeing fabric using wax as a resist.
Other pieces Caulfield creates by using common items, such as washers and plants, and making an impression of them on fabric. When the sun burns an image of items onto fabric, it’s called heliography. At an April Art Hop, Caulfield displayed a collection in which she used this technique entitled, “Lasting Impressions from My Garden.”
“Even in the end of winter when the plants are not yet up I’ve got all these images of my plants from last summer,” Caulfield said.
In addition to her work at Western Michigan and in her art studio, Caulfield is also interested in art therapy. Before she started her current job as a labor negotiator, Caulfield was a professor at WMU and used an art therapy technique in some of her classes called the sand tray activity. A sand tray is basically a wooden box filled with sand; Caulfield spent a summer collecting toys and other knickknacks for it. The idea of the technique is to put some of these objects into the sand and create something that “speaks to you.” Caulfield said she has also used this technique in “Extended University Programs and a retreat for academic chairs, directors and deans.”
Gay Walker, a friend and colleague of Caulfield’s, described her art as oriented toward social justice rather than political. Walker, a professor at WMU’s College of Health and Human Services, said she first met Caulfield several years ago as part of a group of women seeking creative collaboration. They both attend the People’s Church of Kalamazoo, and have become close friends over the years. Walker said that she has seen Caulfield grow both as an artist and as a spiritual and philosophical person.
“She knows who she is, she knows what’s important,” Walker said. “She totally knows fairness and is very ethical and very moral and very strong in her beliefs.”
Caulfield met Dale Anderson, owner and operator of the chocolate shop Confections with Convictions, during a sabbatical she took from WMU from 1997-1998 to work on Project F.R.E.E, which stands for Facilitating, Resolving, Educating and Empowering. The project dealt with conflict resolution skills for youth. On the wall of the shop is a piece Anderson commissioned Caulfield to do that “sheds light on the convictions that are central to Dale’s work – convictions such as sustainability, quality, justice, fairness,” Caulfield explained.
Anderson thinks that Caulfield is forthright. “She is somebody who speaks her mind, but also has the ability to listen to other people.”