Southeast Missouri State University

Professor Sarah Riley


During the summer months, Professor of Art Sarah Riley and a group of students regularly journey abroad to paint.

For a few years she led them to Paris. The past two years, she and Dr. Laura MacCaskey, have led the students to Venice, where they’ve set up with watercolors and painted people, buildings, water and boats ᾰ some abstract work, some architecture.

“We were painting the light,” Riley said. “Venice is an artist’s paradise because of the light, the way it reflects off the water.” 

She says she enjoys going to Italy for the calmer pace of life and because bringing students there reminds her of one summer she spent as a student in Rome, before she became a professor, when she was inspired by the art in a way that made her own art mature. Because of her guidance, some of her students are getting a similar experience, without having to deal with some of the uncertainty she faced.

“The program I was part of didn’t provide us with a place to stay,” Riley said. “I had a Frommer’s guide ᾰ Italy on a dollar a day. I think now it’d be something like $80 a day.”

Students who travel with Riley don’t have to worry about scrounging for rooms. She does meticulous planning beforehand. She and Dr. MacCaskey booked apartments and arranged special tours. A speaker of English and Italian with a functional knowledge of Spanish and French, Riley (and MacCaskey) even arranged group language study sessions so their pupils would be able to be more independent in the countries they visited. This emphasis on independence is present in her teaching philosophy as well. She believes in helping guide and direct students while allowing them the freedom to explore their own potential.   

“The important thing with artists is to expand their opportunities and expand their visual resources,” she said. “You want them to find their own vision.”

Riley talks excitedly about the art program at Southeast, about the talent and innovation she’s seeing from students, about upcoming expansions to the facilities and about being part of a faculty she admires. She likes the comfortable relationships and mutual respect shared by students and professors alike, and the energy of a thriving community of artists. A master of multiple media, Riley teaches design foundations, human figure drawing, print-making and watercolor at Southeast.

“She’s good about using the new technologies and computers,” said Jake Wells, a former student of Riley’s. “She’s not stuck in the past. She likes to incorporate the new stuff on hand. Plus, she does everything ᾰ print-making, photography ᾰ print-making on top of her photography ... with watercolor.”

Riley received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., and master of arts and master of fine arts degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She served as chair of the Southeast Department of Art from 1994 to 2000 and has participated in workshops in Snowmass, Colo., and Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Riley says that to teach art, it is necessary to create art. Currently, her work is represented by galleries in Kansas City and Cape Cod.