Celebrating Dr. Karen Carroll, Dean of the Center For Art Education

As Dr. Karen Carroll — MICA’s “Art Mama” in residence — prepares to retire, her students and colleagues laud her singular brand of mentorship.

When you ask others about Dr. Karen Carroll, dean of the Center for Art Education and the Florence Gaskins Harper Chair for Art Education at MICA, the extraordinary impact she has had on students and colleagues at the College and beyond becomes clear by what they don’t say.

Carroll has held numerous leadership roles throughout her career, teaching at both high school and college levels, and she is widely published in the art education field. If she owns a trophy case, it is overflowing  —  Carroll was twice named National Art Educator of the Year by the National Art Education Association (NAEA), was named an NAEA Distinguished Fellow and received the NAEA National Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession, among many other honors. Quite simply, she is one of the leading art educators in the country.

Yet as Carroll prepares to step down from her roles at MICA, those who have worked closely with her over the years do not mention any of those accomplishments. Instead, when they reflect on her career, Carroll’s fellow art educators stress that it is her special kind of mentorship that sets her apart.

“She has always wanted what’s best for me as a person, not just as a professional teacher in the arts. She is like that with everyone,” explained Shyla Rao ’97, who worked with Carroll while a student in MICA’s Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program and, currently, as that same program’s director.

Rao goes on to say that when she says “everyone,” she does not simply mean other MICA alumni or faculty. Carroll, she explains, is always reaching beyond the College’s ‘bubble’ to the profession at large and to the city she calls home.

An example of that dedication to both the profession and to Baltimore can be found in Carroll’s work with the Baltimore Design School (BDS), a 6–12 charter school specializing in design education that Carroll has been involved with since its inception. She first worked on the school’s planning committee and currently serves on its board of trustees, and intends to continue providing support to the school even as her responsibilities at MICA decrease.

“The ideas behind BDS really resonated with me. I saw so much potential, and along with that, a real need for this kind of design-focused education within Baltimore,” Carroll explained, going on to note that the charter school is the fourth such specialized secondary educational institution she’s been closely involved with over her career.

Located in the historic Station North building where Thomas Painter once created the bottle cap, BDS uses a curriculum organized around project-based exploration in its three areas of focus: architecture, fashion and graphic design. Carroll points out that the model allows students  —  the majority of whom come from underserved areas of Baltimore  —  to discover new abilities and interests, which in turn propels them to become more actively engaged in their education.

She is effusive about their efforts and the positive impact BDS has had on students living in Baltimore City. “At BDS, we’re not only working to make design education more effective, we’re learning to make it more effective and meaningful to students who often live in poverty,” Carroll explained. “When you see that light bulb go off because a student finds a skill they’re really good at that, to me, is real art.”

Carroll also happily points out that the MICA community has been invested in the BDS from its beginning. Former President Fred Lazarus served as one of the founding board members, and additional support came from administration and the MAT program; alumni not only are on faculty at BDS, but MAT candidates have completed their teaching internships at the school.

One of those former MAT students and current BDS teachers, Megan Harris ’11, ’12 (Graphic Design BFA, MAT), is collaborating with Carroll on a study to help rewrite the middle school design curriculum. The pair conducted a group session with other teachers to discuss projects and brainstorm, and this spring, gave those teachers ideas to make the curriculum more consistent from classroom to classroom.

Harris lauds Carroll’s dedication, saying, “Karen spends a lot of thought on BDS, and you can see it in her every action. She will text me in the middle of the night, asking, ‘have you thought of this?’ She is so dedicated.” That dedication, Harris says, is fueling not only the curriculum at BDS, but is now being implemented elsewhere in the country.

And Carroll’s role as a mentor is just as evident at BDS as it is at MICA and across the country.

“MICA is close to BDS, and Karen’s office here at the College is next to mine,” Rao said. “I often see teachers from BDS visiting her. I know that, like she does with me, Karen is supporting them not just in their work at BDS, but in their personal professional and life goals.”

When Carroll joined MICA in 1987, she took over as chair of the art education department from Dr. Al Hurwitz ’41. Hurwitz, who developed MICA’s M.A.T. program — the first such of its kind in the United States — was considered one of the foremost art educators in the country at the time. Carroll worked with Hurwitz to coordinate a nationally recognized team of faculty, create innovative graduate level programs for art teachers and introduced ground-breaking research to the field. She also helped create an internationally renowned advisory board for MICA’s Center for Art Education.

Even though she will soon hand stewardship of art education programs at MICA over to a new leader, Carroll has no intention of leaving the College or her former students and colleagues behind. After taking a sabbatical when she steps down as dean, she said she’d like to “find a course or two” to teach at MICA, stay involved with research in the field and continue writing books, including a history of art education at the College.

Harris, for one, is sure that her mentor will continue to be actively engaged with art education professionals everywhere. As she explained, “Karen can best be summed up by what we affectionately call her at BDS: Art Mama. You see it at national conference, when young teachers flock around her. She asks, ‘How can I help you?’ She helps guide you through life, not just your job. It’s an incredible relationship, and it’s not one you find often in life. And I’m just one in hundreds she’s done this with.”