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Alumni Portrait: Samantha Modder '17 Th'18

May 16, 2023   |   by Betsy Vereckey

Engineer, Artist & Professor of Graphic Design

Samantha Modder '17 Th'18 is a graphic design professor at the University of Tampa and a multimedia artist and designer. This year, she participated in her first faculty art show with a piece printed of digitally manipulated ballpoint pen entitled, "Her Hair Like the Sun and Clouds." But Modder doesn't restrict herself to one medium. Currently, she's dabbling in designing clothes from her own prints, having taken an introduction to fashion design course where she learned to sew.

"Her Hair Like the Sun and Clouds." Digitally manipulated ballpoint pen, print on adhesive paper mounted on wall 96 x 84 in. (Photo via @scarfonehartley_gallery • Scarfone/Hartley Gallery at the University of Tampa.

"I think the fact that I started off as an engineer and now I'm an artist has made me feel like I can do whatever it is I'm interested in," she said. "What I like about clothing is that people can express themselves artistically and creatively through what they wear."

Modder was born in Nigeria but moved to Sri Lanka when she was around two years old. Her fondness for ballpoint pens is an homage to her childhood when access to art supplies was severely limited. "My school didn't have oil paints or ceramic studios or anything fancy like that. It was mostly drawing with a ballpoint pen or pastels."

In high school, she also loved math, which led her to think she might like engineering. During her senior year, she took physics, chemistry and advanced math courses, and had watched her brother go off to the US to study engineering. She thought she'd like to do the same.

Dartmouth was at the top of Modder's list when she applied to college in 2013. She felt torn between studying art and engineering and was thrilled to find a top school where she could double major in engineering and studio art, and receive financial aid to boot.

"At the time, I couldn't wrap my head around just being an art major," she said. "Coming from Sri Lanka, a developing nation, I didn't see myself going to the US to just study art. So, to see that I could have both at Dartmouth was exciting for me. It was a really good fit."

Sam Modder '17 Th'18

As an engineering student, Modder was inspired by lessons on design thinking from Professor John Collier '72 Th'75 '77, and did a summer internship with Professor Kofi Odame, where she had the opportunity to collaborate with students in Ghana. Modder said Odame encouraged her to follow her dream of becoming an artist. "He would come to art exhibitions that I had on campus and tell me he loved my work," she said. "It made me feel like I didn't have to stick to a traditional path."

Modder also served as a TA for an introduction to computer programming course taught by Petra Bonfert-Taylor, another of Modder's favorite professors. "She made me feel like I was smart enough to be in the engineering program," Modder said. "She was one of the most caring professors I ever had."

Another source of artistic inspiration for Modder is the experience of growing up surrounded by people who didn't look like her. "Growing up in Sri Lanka, I felt like I was like out of place," she says. "I present as Black, and a lot of people would look at me and my family and assume we were tourists or foreigners. That has been a lot of my experience, even at Dartmouth, thinking about what it means for me to take up space as a Black woman."

The women Modder portrays in her art absolutely take up space. Some of her pieces, such as "Wearer of All Socks," are approximately 12 feet tall.

"Wearer of All Socks." Digitally manipulated ballpoint pen drawing by Sam Modder (pictured). (Image courtesy of Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis)

As a student, Modder also had the opportunity to create a mural for Geisel School of Medicine that drew attention to health disparities in the Black community. It was 2020, during the Black Lives Matter movement, and a medical student group wanted to highlight Black leadership around these issues and offer support from the medical community.

"I think they wanted to show there were people at Dartmouth who were thinking about these issues and standing in solidarity with everything that was happening," she said. Modder decided to draw many of the people in the mural looking down, to have it appear "a bit more serious and reflective and somber."

"We ended up doing a big piece on a canvas that was mounted—a digital piece that could be moved," she said. "I wanted to be confrontational, but also have some empathy and some quiet moments."

Mural at Geisel School of Medicine by Sam Modder.

Modder also had some of her drawings displayed at Dartmouth's "Top of the Hop"—Hopkins Center for the Arts. These experiences, along with support from her professors, were instrumental in helping her gain confidence and navigate her career as an artist-engineer.

Before earning her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, Modder worked for Build Health International as an engineering and research associate, where she helped with graphic design. Having dual experience in art and engineering was a huge asset.

"They were interested in me because I had an art background, and they needed someone to do creative projects," she said of the experience, which sparked her interest in design and helped her cultivate her digital art skills.

Modder completed her MFA last year. Her thesis project was a series of narrative murals that she likes to think of as a "big epic tale" that you could look up and experience in a "monumental kind of way," not unlike the José Clemente Orozco murals in Dartmouth's Baker-Berry Library.

Her mother traveled from Sri Lanka to see her thesis work in person, a touching experience for Modder, moving on to the next phase in her life.

"She's always been my biggest supporter," Modder said. "She has all of my artwork up at home. For her to see it in person was really great. She got quite emotional, and then that made me quite emotional too."

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