Falling, Rooting, Rising: Rachel Means ’08 Comes Into Her Own as an Artist

2021 Helen Cudahy Niblack '42 Arts Lecture Series

Rachel Means '08 was going to be a physician. After graduating from Foxcroft, she headed for Davidson and began to fulfill that childhood dream by taking a pre-med curriculum, even as she continued her art studies with an art scholarship. When she began to struggle on the pre-med side and encountered some clear signs that being a doctor was not the path for her, she resisted letting go of that long-held desire; she pressed on. And, despite art classes since childhood and obvious talent, Rachel admits it took a while to embrace herself as an artist. Finally, in her junior year, those realizations came to fruition after a study-abroad trip to Zambia. Rachel graduated with a major in Studio Art and began the process of embracing this new direction for her life — a process she advises is ongoing throughout one’s life.
Post-graduation was a time of uncertainty with a variety of jobs, some related — some not so much — to her freshly minted Studio Art degree, with an interest in medicine. Among them were teaching art, early childhood development teacher, student, Macy’s mattress specialist, volunteer, and art vendor. It was her job bringing the therapeutic benefits of the arts to people in Tampa General Hospital, though, that ultimately provided an epiphany of sorts for Rachel. While seated at the bedside of one of her hospitalized clients, she realized, “I was encouraging people to embrace their creative selves while I’ve yet to embrace that fully in myself.”

Recognizing this as a turning point in her journey and with the support of her family — critical throughout her life, but especially so during this time — Rachel turned toward her Christian faith and scripture, which helped her find joy and rediscover her calling. It is at this time that she dedicated herself to a career in art. 

As she became more intentional about this new path, she talked to other artists, asked questions about what it means to be an artist, sought advice, and settled on the next step of her journey: a graduate degree in art. Rachel went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) with a newfound sense of purpose, energy, and joy. She “dove right in” as she says, not only taking classes but coordinating the visiting artist program. She connected with peers and faculty, participated in art exhibitions, experimented with art installations, and took advantage of all that Philadelphia offered. By graduation, she was excited to share her work with her family and friends and set off toward new artistic horizons.

Her first stop after graduation was Austin, TX, where she was a studio assistant for Deborah Roberts, one of the visiting artists for the program she coordinated at PAFA. From there, she participated in group exhibitions, was the Artist-in-Residence in Carrizozo, NM, then, coming full circle, was a Visiting Artist herself at the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Belton, TX. Mixed media and installation were now her techniques of choice. Drawing became a way for Rachel to reflect on her mixed media pieces, ultimately becoming pieces themselves.

One of her recent installations titled, Stillness, What Lies Beneath, was a virtual exhibit and a  collaboration with several other artists, including a videographer and a musician. She says, “It was shared out of faith, passion, calling, support, collaboration, frustration, excitement, loss, pain, love, and just a lot of joy … I’m just so proud to see the way it came to completion.” Her most recent installation involved a trailer-sized cage, exposed to the elements 24-7. Titled Overgrown, she wanted to confront and get beyond the confines of the cage with wire and plants, mostly star jasmine. This project was on display for several months, so some days it felt like an obligation, and others, tending to the plants was a gentle tender experience that she didn’t expect. In the end, as the project was being taken down, artist friends took some of the plants for their studios, and so Overgrown lives on through them.

As her talk wound down, Rachel shared some important and wise advice: “Whatever journey you’re on, it really will take unexpected turns. I think with those unexpected turns, it’s important to still be intentional and then also be patient with ourselves.” She also advised us to appreciate the people who see things in us that we don’t see in ourselves yet, whether that’s family, friends, or faculty. She implored us to rest and not give up, and reminded us that our presence matters.

Inspired by a poem by Rupi Kaur entitled, “the sun and her flowers,” the final piece Rachel shared is called Falling, Rooting, Rising. She stressed that our journeys will include these three things, perhaps in a different order, perhaps with added elements, just as her journey has, encouraging each of us to embrace the process and enjoy how it all unfolds.

Established in 2007 by Austi Brown ’73 in memory of her mother, the Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series seeks to bring a variety of fine, literary, performing, and practical artists and designers to Foxcroft to share their work, the nature of the creative process, and the breadth of artistic pursuits with both students and the community. It has sponsored visits by a Broadway actor and director, a champion cowboy poet, hip-hop artists from Senegal and New York, musicians, storytellers, and more. 
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