Alumna Spotlight: Caroline Armijo ‘04

MALS Alumnae Caroline Armijo discusses "Art and Play"

In a recent interview with MALS alumna Caroline Rutledge Armijo (’04), Caroline discusses the personal impact that she experienced through her MALS studies and the magic that occurs when the ideas you seek also find you.

Please tell us what brought you to MALS? What was attractive about the degree?

When I applied to the MALS program in 1998, I had a definite hypothesis that I wanted to prove: our childhood interests shape our careers.      

I believed that creativity and the arts helped guide us in that journey. The creative process is a safe place to explore our interests and learn our truths. The art shows you what you are seeking. I wanted to prove that was true through grad school. It aligned with my own journey.

I was in my twenties and easily able to move from job to job in the mid 90s. Yet, as with many young adults, my work did not reflect my interests.

The MALS Program was a natural fit for an unconventional journey. I loved the idea of creating your own degree. I really wanted to pursue a studio art degree, but I was not able to do that because I was working full-time. Dr. Waschka introduced us to a group of avant-garde artists.

I found studying these artists inspiring in shaping my research. Plus I was able to pull in some other topic areas taught under UNC’s School of Library Sciences through the inter-university exchange [Inter-Institutional Program].  

Now many years later, I believe the ideas you are seeking are also seeking you. I spoke about this in my graduation address to graduating MALS Class at the Spring commencement of this year. I was so honored to be invited to speak.

Tell us about your MALS concentration. What was your concentration title? What significance did your concentration hold for you?

My concentration title was “Cultural Institutions and Lifelong Learning.” I titled my final thesis “Art and Play,” which explores the work of six modern artists as an evolution of each artist’s childhood interests. I examined how cultural institutions and lifelong learning support the unfolding of our true selves and create a solid foundation from which to explore. The places around us – libraries, museums, parks – help define and support that work along with our activities. Connecting with the people in our lives is also critical to our formation. In a time when we are increasingly reliant on screens, it’s worth reexamining how to foster community through our cultural institutions and the people we pass each day. Our love of learning should not be limited to traditional educational settings, but for a lifetime. And the greatest gift is having the opportunity to pass on that wisdom to others.

What are you currently doing? We’d love to know about your professional, personal, or volunteer activities that you want to share.

I am the recipient of a National Creative Placemaking Fund grant to create art out of coal ash.

I have long advocated for the cleanup of coal ash in my home community of Stokes County, which houses Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Power Station. This grant allowed me to bring together all of the different parts of myself into one dream project. It provides me with funding to do a lot of amazing things – advocate for the clean-up of coal ash across North Carolina, work with scientists at NC A&T State University who are encapsulating coal ash, create public art, host public programming and collect oral histories. It is a lot of fun. It is also very challenging. Coal ash is a massive public health issue impacting our society. To enact change is a bit quixotic. But we all have to start somewhere to create a better future. I am grateful for ArtPlace America’s funding and introducing me to the notion of creative placemaking, which invites artists to the table of decision making processes. Creative Placemaking also inspires a lot of fun in communities, as well. When we are in flow, we are able to find creative solutions to our most pressing issues. I am part of the last class of NCPF grants funded. It is a tremendous, rewarding honor and feels like a stroke of luck. But it is also a lot of self-directed work, much like the MALS program at NC State.

How does your MALS degree or experience enhance your work/life?

I pursued my MALS degree with a love of learning. It was not in order to meet a requirement to get a specific job. I joked with Dr. Waschka that I finally created a job to match my degree in writing this grant. Because of my MALS training, I am comfortable reaching out to a broad range of professionals, many of whom are academics. It also requires juggling several subjects and ideas and articulating connections that others may not see. Bringing together a wide range of concepts creates unlikely alliances. The wide subject range also keeps the ball moving during this project, which requires a lot of time and patience. My focus widely shifts depending on what’s next for our coal ash advocacy. Sometimes that is celebrating the community and other times that is advocating for cleanup enforcement by the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

What is your favorite memory from your time in MALS? This can be a personal anecdote, a favorite lecture/class/topic? Anything you want.

It is hard to pin down my favorite MALS experience, because they were so varied.

  • I led an Elementary Education class in song as part of my lesson plan (and I am NOT a singer.)
  • We had a heated discussion describing the differences between a slave cabin and a poor, rural tenant farmer cabin in “Material Culture.”
  • I reread some favorite children’s literature in a UNC Library Science class.
  • I visited the zoo, museums, libraries, children’s museum, the arboretum and more in a Cultural Institutions class, also at UNC.

But I really loved learning about the playful, kinetic art of Jean Tinguely from Dr. Washcka. When I saw Tinguely’s retrospective in Charlotte last year, I cried. While that was a temporary exhibit at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, I encourage you all to visit Tinguely’s final piece Cascade in Charlotte’s Carillon Building, where it is permanently on display.

You can view Caroline’s funded project here:

You may view a video of Caroline’s proposal here:

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