Press "Enter" to skip to content

Mills professors and their hidden artistic talents

Helen Walter

Helen Walter: Biology

Artist MO: Belly dance

Helen Walter has many duties to fit in her day at Mills College. She’s a professor of biology and the head of the Peer Tutoring Program.

But she does not let a hectic work schedule interfere with her art. She is a belly dancer who regularly performs in Bay Area festivals.

Walter started belly dancing in 2003 when an injury prevented her from going to the gym. She wanted to stay fit so she took a course and never turned back.

There are dozens of belly dance styles from all over the world. Websites like provide overviews of the differences.

Walter specializes in Raqs Sharqi, a traditional form of belly dance, and gypsy style, a form of belly dance that involves long flowing skirts and fans.

Junior Steffi Zarifis has attended several of Walter’s biology classes. She recently saw Walter dance in a video.

“[It] was the most awesome thing ever,” Zarifis said, bouncing in her seat.

Walter said that these dances are harder than people think. “It’s not just shaking your butt,” she said.

Belly dancing requires that the woman have straight posture and be able to isolate individual groups of muscles. Once she has mastered that, the dancer has to combine two or more isolations to form moves.

Walter said that this structure tones the body. It also inspires self-confidence. “You have to be confident because you’re baring your stomach in front of strangers,” she said.

And belly-baring does not mean the dancer has to be a size zero. “It’s belly dancing, not stick figure dancing,” Walter said.

Last winter, Walter taught about 20 Mills students basic moves during a one-time class.

Junior Lisa Kelly headed the Junior Lisa Kelly headed the intramural sports program that Walter taught her class under. Kelly said that she did not

see Walter dance but said that others gave her instruction a high rating.

In the future, Walter will continue to engage in what she

calls the “women’s party” and belly dance in two troupes: Dreams of Cleopatra and Troupe Tareefa.

Ajuan Mance: English

Artist MO: Acrylic Painter

Mills College English professor Ajuan Mance did not think she had what it took to be a serious painter. She freelanced in college, but focused on her literary career.

Mance taught a course in African American literature in 1999, and inspiration struck. “I taught black literature, but I wanted art to reflect the history of black people,” she said.

Now, Mance works on acrylic paintings, which she said are based on the stained-glass

window style of art. This means using colorful pieces that are fused together in a mosaic of shapes.

Her favorite topic is race, but her paintings tweak expectations: “I like to paint people of color, but in a color you wouldn’t expect.”

In her paintings, people are not depicted in fleshtones. Instead she uses colors like green and blue. And their features are exaggerated, especially noses, hair and lips. Mance says that she loves to paint these features because they are usually so racially coded.

Her art has been shown in exhibits and festivals all over the Bay Area, including doing a yearly spring show for “The Art of Living Black,” an organization of black artists.

Not all of her paintings are hanging in shows. Mance keeps some in her office.

Sophomore Madeleine Anderson saw Mance’s paintings when she visited her for an English assignment.

“They’re very good – very geometric. I was going to compliment her on them when I first saw them, but we got to talking about other stuff,” she said.

“I was even more impressed with her after I found out she did those paintings,” she added.

Art is such a major part of Mance’s life that she often brings it to work. “She’s always sketching during meetings,” said fellow English professor Tom Strychacz.

Some of Mance’s work is currently on display in the San Francisco Library. It will be available for viewing for one more month.

Tom Strychacz: English

Artist MO: Oil Painter

When Tom Strychacz’s wife gave him an oil painting set on a whim, she did not know that it would lead to over two decades of art.

Strychacz has taught English at Mills since the 1980s, but he’s also created around

40 paintings.

English professor Ajuan Mance described his work as “deceptively simple” and “nostalgic.” His landscapes of hills and old-fashioned houses are uncluttered by modern technologies and are filled with little details.

For Strychacz, painting is about finding the romance in everyday scenes. “I wanted to catch life at its best,” he said.

In one painting a bride and groom sit on their porch, enjoying the day. The house and yard are in the foreground, so the audience can see the rice trail leading to the couple as well as a “Just Married” trinket. A mini courtship unfolds on their fence post: “There are two ladybugs having their own romantic encounter,” Strychacz said.

He said that he likes to include little jokes like this in his works. In another painting, a girl sits on a hill that overlooks a countryside. Strychacz incorporated the painting name, Ceres, into the hedge maze that is in the distance.

Jennifer Gibbons, class of 2006, saw his paintings while she was housesitting for him.

“They’re gorgeous – like folk art,” she said. “They’re so simple, they’re powerful.”

Strychacz paints for his own pleasure, but this year, The Blue Heron, a gallery in Yountville, will showcase the Napa Valley countrysides he did for them.