Jean Noble Parsons Center for the Study of Art and Science

by Ron Podell, Published March 26, 2010

Jean Parsons

Jean Noble Parsons Center for the Study of Art and Science

Before she left this world, Jean Noble Parsons had a vision for her property that tied science and art to nature. Eastern Michigan University will carry on that legacy.

Eastern Michigan University has received $2.2 million from the trust of renowned sculptor and potter Jean Noble Parsons (1929-2000). The estate gift is the largest of its kind in the history of EMU.

A press conference to note the occasion took place in a packed University Gallery Feb. 5.

"This is a historic moment for EMU," said Donald M. Loppnow, provost and executive vice president of EMU. "It is a true testament to the learning environment we have and the education our students receive. Jean Noble Parsons had no affiliation with EMU, yet we received this gift because of the quality and collaborative nature of our academic programming in art, biology and psychology, and the faculty who teach in those areas."

The trust includes $1.75 million in cash and $489,000 in property. The Parsons' trustees solicited proposals following her death to establish a center in her name.

The transfer of the trust is the culmination of seven years of hard work and planning to realize Ms. Parsons' vision.

"This really is a super Tuesday," said Tom Venner, head of the art department, making an analogy between EMU's good news and the fight for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations occurring that same day. "It's been a long trip, but a really good one."

The Parsons Governing Board, which includes EMU faculty from the departments of art, biology and psychology, as well as Continuing Education, worked with Ralph Munch, a senior trust officer with Huntington Bank in Traverse City, to bring Parsons' dream to fruition.

Munch, who handled the estate on Parsons' behalf, recalled the commitment and diligence with which EMU faculty pursued the property.

"They pursued me like a prom date," Munch said half-jokingly. "They convinced me they could really utilize the property in the fashion they said they could."

EMU will use the gift to establish the Jean Noble Parsons Center for the Study of Art and Science on 86 wooded acres near Traverse City and Interlochen. Programming for the center will maintain the natural state of the land and will be designed to foster interdisciplinary exchanges between artists and scientists.

Eastern Michigan's departments of art, biology and psychology currently offer numerous classes and workshops on the property through EMU's Continuing Education program.

"Jean understood the importance of nature and art, and their relationship to the human condition and quality of life," said Bob Neely, EMU's associate provost.

According to the trust, Parsons outlined five activities to be accomplished with the money:

  • establishment of a research center and wildlife sanctuary,
  • an integrated artistic and scientific program for graduate students,
  • use of the dwelling and property for intellectual discussion by researchers, professors and scientists,
  • nature walks for observation and identification of flora and fauna, and
  • public seminars on a range of artistic, environmental and spiritual topics.

Although the property is 86 acres, EMU will keep it pristine for wildlife, Venner said.

"It won't be a heavily-used site, but it will be a regularly-used site," Venner said.

Jean Noble Parson received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1958. She studied ceramics in Denmark and was mentored by renowned potter Richard Kjaerdgaard. As part of her scholarship year, Parsons visited factories, art schools, potteries and practicing masters in Denmark, England, Finland and Sweden. She returned to the United States and continued individual research at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

In 1962, Parsons became a charter faculty member of the Interlochen Arts Academy and chair of the Visual Arts Division. During her 38 years at Interlochen, she taught many talented students and had two who became Presidential Scholars in the Arts, a prestigious national honor recognizing her as an outstanding instructor by The White House.

"This gift will be felt by many generations of EMU students and faculty," said Board of Regents Chair Tom Sidlik. "It is a vision of what EMU is and can be in the future."

Ron Podell

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