Rita Bass at her graduation party
Rita F. Bass (BFA Sculpture '21)

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By Amy Karagiannakis

Alumni of the School of Art and Design are as diverse as the various art forms and programs the school offers. Rita Bass experienced this first-hand when she returned to the School of Art and Design as a sculpture major more than 50 years after beginning her degree at the University of Illinois in the late 60s. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 resulted in most university campuses, University of Illinois included, to shift to virtual, online educational platforms to allow students to continue with their college education while adhering to federal social distance mandates and safety recommendations. This was challenging for many professors and students, but for others, it brought about opportunities that may have before seemed unimaginable.

Rita Bass had long given up on going back to school to complete her sculpture degree at the School of Art and Design. In 1969, with 10 credits left and one year remaining to graduate, Rita made the difficult decision to leave the University of Illinois. She was married to her husband Hugh Bass later that year, moved to Topeka, Kansas, where he was stationed with the Air Force at the time, and has never regretted it. The couple eventually settled in Springfield, IL, and after a long career with Xerox, Hugh retired. The Basses bought a house in Punta Gorda, Florida to enjoy their winters in warmer weather and spend more time on their boat. It was here that Rita rediscovered her love of sculpting. Rita became more active with the Charlotte County Art Guild and started taking classes. From copper and silver metal working classes to an Apoxie sculpture class, Rita was enjoying expressing herself through art again. However, it was a stone sculpture class that truly reawakened the sculptor in her. The excitement and energy stone sculpting brought into her life made her think, “why did I wait so long?!”

Exhilarated by this newfound, or perhaps revisited, talent, Rita started looking into the possibility of returning to the University of Illinois to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture. Living over 80 miles away from campus, in Springfield, IL, for half of the year, commuting for in-person classes was not optimal. However, with the onset of virtual classes in the fall of 2020, returning to college didn’t seem like such a far-off, unattainable idea anymore. Zelda Gardner, the College of Fine and Applied Art’s senior assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs, worked with Rita to review her transcript and determine what was needed for her to complete her degree. After consulting with the School of Art and Design’s academic advisor, Rita was thrilled to discover that she only needed two courses to graduate, and both could be completed online, one in the fall semester and one in the spring. She was readmitted into the School of Art and Design and enrolled in the fall 2020 semester – 51 years after making that difficult decision to leave.

While Rita admits feeling slightly nervous at first about going back to school after so much time had passed, and to make things more complicated, virtually, she says everyone from the professors and students to the administrators made her feel so welcome. When asked how course work and instruction has changed over the last fifty years, she commented, “I learned about assemblage, everyday art, land art – art forms that I never knew existed before. It opened up a whole new world. Art, in my past experiences, was always taught as a medium-based activity, and now, you’re no longer confined to your skills working within a specific medium. Art is your vision of seeing and creating. And creating then becomes so much more open-ended, which was just so exciting. And I still think it’s exciting.” Rita graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture in May 2021. She continues to create stone sculptures, as well as assemblage and metal working pieces, and is currently working on a 6-to-8-foot piece for her yard in Springfield. Rita added, “I have changed what I do and have grown because of my university classes. I have more confidence in myself as an artist and am excited about helping other non-traditional students.” A continuous learner herself, Rita is looking forward to teaching a class in Florida introducing students to some of the new art forms she learned about during her more recent time at the School of Art and Design.

Rita Bass at her graduation party
Rita F. Bass (BFA Sculpture '21)
Rita Bass with her diploma
“I have grown in how I think about art and the philosophies behind it, as well as what I do, because of my university classes. I have more confidence in myself as an artist and am excited about helping other non-traditional students.”
Rita F. Bass (BFA Sculpture '21)

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Starting or returning to school as a non-traditional student can be both emotionally and financially challenging. Rita herself endured some financial obstacles during her time at the School of Art and Design last year, but thankfully she was able to overcome them. Now in a place where she feels like she can help others achieve their academic goals, Rita worked with the Office of Advancement to establish the Rita F. Bass Scholarship for Non-Traditional Students. This scholarship is available to students who either went directly into the work force out of high school and later decided to pursue a higher education degree, or students who started college and had to drop out before completing their degree program. The scholarship will be awarded in the amount of $2,000 per year to a student pursuing a degree in studio arts in the School of Art & Design at the undergraduate or graduate level and will be renewable to the recipient for up to 4 years if the student remains in good standing. “If I can go back after 50 years, and graduate, others who have been out of school for far less time can too.” Rita hopes this scholarship provides the support someone might need to take that next step.

Rita reflected on her last class project, an everyday art piece, “The assignment was to collect items from a place where you don’t normally spend time and make something.” Rita decided to go up to her attic, since she really didn’t go up there all too often. She found a coil of wire, a PVC pipe, shelf brackets, picture frames, an old anemometer from their boat, and other random objects. “I called the finished piece Diversity Intersections and Connections. Every item is different from each other, but they all intersect.” Rita equated this to her classes at the School of Art and Design and the individuals she had the opportunity to meet and interact with. Each student was different from each other with varying origins and backgrounds, but they all came together to learn and grow as artists.

The School of Art and Design at the College of Fine and Applied Arts is tremendously grateful to Rita for this thoughtful and impactful gift. The school is thrilled to begin offering this new scholarship starting this May 2022. Contact Brenda Nardi at bnardi@illinois.edu or 217-265-6966 for more information on eligibility. To learn more about supporting student scholarship opportunities like the Rita F. Bass Scholarship for Non-Traditional Students, you may also reach out to Brenda Nardi.

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