By design: Tri-Cities is perfect fit for aspiring artist’s plan
While looking for a place to continue her education two years ago, Esther Flatau wondered if WSU Tri-Cities was her best option.
“I wanted to do design, but I wasn’t sure this would be the right place for me,” said Flatau, citing the University’s major programs in sciences and technical studies.
Last month, the 23-year-old from Basin City, Wash., made it clear the campus was a good fit when she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in digital technology and culture (DTC) and led the College of Arts and Sciences at Tri-Cities’s graduating class into the Toyota Center for commencement.
Her experience shows how a university typically associated with technical and scientific studies can serve students interested in the humanities, said her professors and colleagues.
For Flatau, WSU offered what she needed. “I saw potential in the program and I found success in it,” she said.
Examples of her art and photographs fill Flatau’s design portfolio. It includes photos she took for the campus website. It also contains graphic designs for the University’s Career Development Center and other campaigns, along with work from two internships and preliminary designs for a Columbia River dock project now in the works for the Tri-Cities campus.
“Quite simply, she strives to excel in everything that she does,” said Doug Gast, associate professor of fine arts and director of the DTC program on the Tri-Cities campus.
To be an artist
Flatau grew up in Basin City, where her family has a small fruit farm covering two acres that produces cherries, peaches, nectarines, apples, and pluots. She attended a private Christian school for most of her education before being home-schooled during her senior year of high school, earning her diploma in 2009.
Throughout her life, Flatau was drawn to art and design, she said. She painted and drew and also pursued design and music theory during her year of home-schooling.
“I’d always had that idea—to be an artist,” she said.
After studying music briefly at Columbia Basin College, she switched to general studies and graduated with her associate’s degree in 2011.
“I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree, but didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do,” Flatau said.
She wasn’t aware that WSU Tri-Cities had a program focused on design until she heard about it through a friend. Even then she was hesitant to apply, wondering if it would truly offer her what she wanted. She soon found that WSU Tri-Cities was affordable and would allow her to continue living with her family in Basin City, so she started classes in fall 2012.
The digital technology and culture program has been at WSU Tri-Cities since 2003 and enrolls about 50 students. It focuses largely on communication skills and strategies, and offers fine arts instruction and other interdisciplinary work.
While the coursework was tied into the arts, Flatau said she appreciated all the different perspectives the program introduced, from developing writing skills to working with engineers. Her family, always supportive, even showed up in her coursework, becoming the subjects of a video examining the connection between art and creativity.
Flatau also was introduced to social practice art, which depends upon engagement with people. It inspired her to propose a river dock on campus so students could better connect with the waterfront, a vital aspect of the region.
“I wanted to have something tangible,” she said.
Flatau’s professors encouraged her to develop the idea and to apply for a grant. She received more than $1,000 to do preliminary designs. The University reportedly is reviewing the idea.
“Having students like Esther raises the bar for the rest of our students substantially,” Gast said. “We are all very proud of having her serve as an example of what our students can accomplish.”
Beyond the classroom
Flatau didn’t stay busy only in the classroom. She was hired as an office assistant for the then-relatively new Career Development Center, which helps students secure internships and jobs. It wasn’t long after getting hired that her supervisors saw her potential for design and how it could raise awareness of the center’s offerings.
“Her design work was key in creating awareness for (the center),” said LoAnn Ayers, who was the center’s director and now directs the University’s strategic partnerships unit. “It really drives our message.”
University officials were so confident in Flatau’s work that they gave her the reins to design promotional materials for campus initiatives. She also worked with a veteran designer on the campaign for WSU Tri-Cities’ Startup Weekend, an event aimed at turning ideas into business enterprises.
All that experience also landed her an internship with Tri-City designer Erin Anacker, whose podcast Behind the Fold involves conversations with female designers. Anacker also works to connect female designers with clients.
Understanding her potential
Flatau isn’t 100 percent certain of her next steps after graduation.
She’d love to earn a master’s degree in fine arts, she said. This summer, she plans to work in freelance design and help her family sell fruit and flowers at farmers markets. But she credits WSU Tri-Cities for setting her up to work in a field she loves.
“There are so many people at this campus who have encouraged me along the way,” she said. “These key people recognized and then helped further my strengths and abilities, until I finally now have an understanding of my own potential.”