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Staff Spotlight: The creative and passionate storyteller, Micaela Sullivan-Fowler

Micaela Sullivan-Fowler

Micaela Sullivan-Fowler

Our staff spotlight this month is Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, Curator and History of Health Sciences Librarian and Head of Marketing and Communications at Ebling Library. Micaela’s passion and creativity are apparent in every aspect of her job—whether she is conducting student workshops, organizing art shows, or designing historical exhibits. Read on to learn more about Micaela and what she calls “the three S’s”: Stewardship, Shepherding, and Sharing.

News: Can you tell me a little about what your job entails?

MSF: Part of my work as a liaison librarian for the Department of Medical History and Bioethics is to teach resource workshops for students in classes like History of Gender and Medicine, History of Race and Medicine, and History of Infectious Diseases in the 19th Century. So thirty or forty undergraduates will traipse over to Ebling Library, and I do an hour to an hour and a half “Vanna White” style presentation, with search scenarios tailored to the particular class subject. Afterwards, the students are invited to do one-on-one sessions with me in order to help with their primary source history papers. It is a great opportunity for them to not only work with primary sources, but also to learn about the protocol and etiquette of corresponding with librarians. So I ask them to articulate the project they’re working on in an email to me and we set up appointments. They can even text me—I give them my cell phone number at the beginning of the class. Working one-on-one with the students is probably my favorite part of my job (besides all the other favorite parts of my job!). Before they arrive, I do a preliminary search on their topic so I’m prepared to go through the databases with them and help them find evidence, construct an argument, find content, talk about the narrative, and tell the story—which is basically what history is about. I usually spend about a half hour with each student; we always have a lot of fun, and the students seem to really enjoy it.

It helps that our databases are extraordinary—newspaper archives, JSTOR, wonderful mixes of primary and secondary material right online. So much of the professionalization of what I do and am capable of doing has changed a lot over the last five years due to developments on the Internet and in digital technology. What the web has done in terms of primary material is really extraordinary. People who have never really “glommed on” to history before end up getting interested because of something old that they found on the web.

As for the marketing and communications side of my job, I oversee the home page news items for Ebling Library, and contribute to the news items, along with other colleagues. We have a team of people who take photographs—myself, Amanda Lambert and Michael Venner. I also shepherd the social media aspect, so I’m one of the administrators for the Ebling Facebook site. I really enjoy doing social media; it is another way to be creative, while posting useful information for our patrons.

Creativity definitely ties in with another big part of my job, which is exhibit work. I mean, certainly I’m passionate about the students, but the chance to do exhibitions is pivotal to my professional output. The administration is supportive of what I do and the campus is very supportive of all our creative work. It is a remarkable library system in terms of allowing the staff to be creative, share resources, and share expertise. My main goal when designing exhibits is to highlight the items in Ebling’s collections, finding connections and creating thematic pathways within the subject. Our newest exhibition is Costly Progress: Medical Advances in the American Civil War which runs until April 6, 2014. Besides contemporary books from the Civil War era, some of the artifacts on display include surgical kits and tools used for battlefield amputations. This exhibition has allowed me the opportunity to explore and display some truly fascinating texts from the library.

Closeup of part of the exhibit for Radioactive. Micaela says: “Sometimes I get to know the subjects so well, they feel like family. So, for the Fallout exhibit, framed portraits of Roentgen, Becquerel and the Curies sat on top of the case.”

Closeup of part of the exhibit for Radioactive. Micaela says: “Sometimes I get to know the subjects so well, they feel like family. So, for the Fallout exhibit, framed portraits of Roentgen, Becquerel and the Curies sat on top of the case.”

In the past, I have often done exhibits which are envisioned in relationship to the Go Big Read books. The one I did for last year’s book, Radioactive by Lauren Redniss, got especially “glowing” reviews (pun intended). It was called Fallout: The Mixed Blessing of Radiation & the Public Health. The learning curve for that project was incredibly steep for me, but I just kept telling myself that if I could convey the subject enough for people to understand it and/or want to go on and learn more, I had done my job. I chose not to approach it in an ultra-academic or clinical way, but rather to represent the information from a public history standpoint, which involves taking a complicated or timely topic and making it approachable and engaging for a general audience (much like the History Channel).

News: You mentioned that you have many favorite parts of your job. Besides working with the students, what are your other favorites?

MSF: I guess I could use three words to overarchingly cover everything: stewardship, shepherding, and sharing. The three S’s! The work with the students is sharing the collections, which I’m the steward over. The reason I went into librarianship—and even history, because I’m a historian as well as a librarian—was to share. To have the collection that I have to share is extraordinary. It is a remarkable, world-class rare books and special collections. And so the stewardship of sharing the collection is really fulfilling to me. This includes making sure that the collection stays relevant; scanning, photographing, and sharing it in various digital and other technological ways. Having the ability to make it come to life for a nineteen-year-old, for instance, is really great. The stewardship aspect also goes into the exhibits I do, because they help me share the collections in ways that are not typical reference work.

I see myself as a storyteller. As a historian I like to tell stories and as a librarian I like to impart the ability to find the resources to tell your own stories. That whole notion of sharing and controlling resources has really resonated for me. So to be able to be a really good searcher and have sort of a sixth sense about how you find information based on the technology, is a huge part of my passion for this job. I love to share that knowledge.

One last thing that has been a huge source of joy for me is being involved with the Health Sciences Student Art Show, which is coming upon its eighth year. Around September, I invite students from Med, Nursing, Pharmacy, Vet Med, and Allied Health to contribute to an art show in April—any medium. We’ve had woodworking, glassblowing, watercolor, sketching, photography, oil painting, acrylic, fabric work, jewelry, you name it. We set up the library like a gallery, totaling to nearly 300 linear feet of space, which is really quite ambitious. We have a “gallery opening” with refreshments, and the students invite their families; it is a wonderful event that I am so proud of.

Closeup of "Hopalicious," painting by Veterinary Medicine Student, Krista Jo Carlson

Closeup of “Hopalicious,” painting by Veterinary Medicine Student, Krista Jo Carlson

These are Health Sciences people who will go on to be practitioners of some sort, and there are three revealing things that come out of it. First, if they never do anything creative again because they are busy physicians, nurses, and so on, they know that they have the ability to use the right side of their brain. I can’t tell you how many people have said what a stress reliever it is to do artwork—and I’m also an artist, so I know where they’re coming from. The second thing I have found is that through this experience, these future practitioners will be able to understand that their patients potentially have a creative life, that they’re not just the disease or condition in front of them, but that they also golf or play violin or embroider or whatever. The third thing that comes out of this event is that it, of course, supports the arts. The students have the opportunity to sell their pieces, and actually a pretty significant percentage of the things in my office are student work. A fourth bonus of the student art show is that many of the people who come to the reception or come through to see the art, had no idea that “so-and-so-med-student” had that artistic side to them. It shows that people are multi-faceted, multi-sided. It is a really remarkable event, and each year the students become increasingly accomplished.

We finally started doing a faculty and staff show, too, and we had the chair from Neurosurgery who gave photographs; we had the administrative assistant in Dermatology who brought her quilts. It adds a measure of humanity to their practice that you don’t necessarily know about otherwise.

Gallery wall from recent Health Sciences Staff & Faculty Art Show. Large painting by Lee Eckhardt, star sculpture by Ronna Trapanese, City painting by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, sculpture by Vicki McCaulley

Gallery wall from recent Health Sciences Staff & Faculty Art Show. Large painting by Lee Eckhardt, star sculpture by Ronna Trapanese, City painting by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, sculpture by Vicki McCaulley

News: What type of art do you do?

MSF: I do photography and oil painting. It started in 2006 when we had our first really big exhibition at Ebling, for the Guild of Natural History Scientific Illustrators. These are the very talented people who do highly detailed, technically accomplished illustrations for the Smithsonian, National Geographic, textbooks, and so on. They had their annual conference in Madison with juried art. So they literally mailed us their artwork from all over the country—around sixty exceptional pieces of art. The two coordinators who I had been working with to organize the exhibit are both artists, and at one point they had walked into my office and asked, “What do you do?” I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but I replied with, “I’m a librarian, I’m a historian, I’m—” “What medium do you use?” they asked. I said, “I don’t use a medium. I’ve always wanted to take an art class… I’ve always been told I’m creative and I do lots of kid-projects, papier-mâché and things, but…” And they said, “What’s stopping you? Look at your office. You obviously have the observation skills; you certainly do as a curator.” They encouraged me to take a class, stressing that art is about mechanics. Of course it’s nice to have a muse, it’s nice to feel you have a creative sensibility, but a lot of it is mechanics. A lot of it is learning how to use those pens, that paper, that glue; learning perspective; learning how to draw; learning that it’s done in squares. There’s a method to it. So it was the push from these illustrators that got me into it. I have now taken nine or ten classes, and I’ve been in three of the library staff art shows that fellow librarian Peggy Smith routinely organizes for the UW-Libraries community.

I finished my first oil commission recently—a very scary and awesome pursuit. I received the commission based on a piece I had done for the library staff art show. I had submitted a small oil painting of prairie grass and a colleague on campus saw it and asked if I would do a painting for his dining room. Its six- by two-foot canvas was much larger than anything I had previously done, so it was a bit intimidating. He also wasn’t sure what he wanted, though he did want his cats in it. It took a bit longer than anticipated, but I ended up doing a folk art-inspired plein air painting of my garden with his three cats and the physician sign that his Dad had when practicing medicine. It’s called Catopeia. We had an official unveiling at his house, and I must say, it was a dream come true for me; having my artwork hanging in someone else’s home is quite amazing.

Micaela and her oil painting, “Catopeia”

Micaela and her oil painting, “Catopeia”

Want more?

  • Visit Ebling Library until April 6th to see exhibit Costly Progress
  • Watch for news on the Health Sciences Student Art Show coming up this spring
  • “Like” Ebling Library on Facebook for fun photos and helpful updates

Know a librarian or library staff member with a cool skill or interest? They belong in the spotlight! Submit your suggestions to news@library.wisc.edu.  We’d love to learn more about you!

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