In memoriam: VCU says goodbye to beloved arts professor Melanie Buffington

The associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Art Education passed away Sept. 16 at age 47 after battling brain cancer.

Melanie Buffington
Colleagues described Melanie Buffington as a prolific scholar and a wonderful friend. The VCU professor died Sept. 16 after battling brain cancer. (Courtesy VCU School of the Arts)

Mentor, collaborator, confidant, guidepost. Melanie Buffington was so much more to the people who knew her than her official title of associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Art Education at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.

Buffington, Ph.D., passed away Sept. 16 after battling brain cancer. She was 47.

“Every student or collaborator lucky enough to work with Melanie has been permanently shaped by her,” said Sara Wilson McKay, Ph.D., an associate professor of art education. “Her high, but compassionate, standards held students accountable and pushed them to reach their potential.” 

“Those she mentored or prepared to enter the teaching profession carry with them the importance and responsibility of the work of education, whether formal or informal,” Wilson McKay said. “The multiplier effect of this excellent teacher influencing other teachers has made a profound mark on our world.” 

Buffington came to VCU in 2006 as an assistant professor and graduate director in the Department of Art Education. When Wilson McKay joined the department a year later, she immediately bonded with Buffington over program improvements, tenure-track concerns and weekly writing meetings to keep their work on track. The two ultimately published a research book through the National Art Education Association aimed at art teachers who may be graduate students, helping them see the value of research in their practice. 

“While we were writing our book together, we also took on training for our first 10K,” Wilson McKay said. “Richmond is a running town, so we thought we'd give it a whirl. As novice runners, we shared our trials and tribulations and encouraged each other, and we made it to the finish line. I always think of her when I'm trying to do something I've never done before.”

Courtnie Wolfgang, Ph.D., an assistant professor and graduate program director in the School of the Arts, came to VCU in 2014 and had a similar relationship with Buffington. 

“Melanie was the very first person to reach out to me, to welcome me to VCU even before the semester started,” Wolfgang said. “We lived close to each other and she came by to show me around the neighborhood. Knowing her, it wasn't unusual for her — she was just that generous and kind. She loved to help people feel at home, to feel welcome.” 

What started as a generous gesture from a new colleague transformed into a lasting and close friendship.

“I feel so lucky to have had someone as intellectually curious as a colleague and also to have gained one of the best friendships I've ever had,” Wolfgang said. “When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 she was my cheerleader; she stepped in to help with my classes, she sat with me in my home and brought me delicious treats — she was a prolific baker. She always seemed to know what to say or do.”

Buffington's passion for putting research into practice is a legacy for VCUarts as well as the larger field of art education, Wilson McKay said. If Buffington faced a question about a program or policy at VCU, she would dig into the history and run surveys to get more information to make informed recommendations based on research. “Her students and colleagues were also influenced by this measured way of turning passion into action,” Wilson McKay said. “All her efforts embodied this commitment to significant impact and excellence.”

While we were writing our book together, we also took on training for our first 10K. Richmond is a running town, so we thought we'd give it a whirl. As novice runners, we shared our trials and tribulations and encouraged each other, and we made it to the finish line. I always think of her when I'm trying to do something I've never done before.

Buffington was not idle with her life. Those who knew her benefited from how she committed herself to being an academic, colleague and citizen. She worked tirelessly to keep education current and to bring attention to issues of equity and justice. 

A prolific scholar, with a strong focus on social justice and equity, Buffington combined research, teaching and service in projects around the city of Richmond with the Neighborhood Resource Center, the Richmond city jail and the Carver Promise mentoring program. She tirelessly advocated for justice at VCU and in the community, in particular around acknowledging and reckoning with Richmond's and VCU's history and the Confederacy. Her published research incorporates pedagogy, community, social justice and equity.

“Her work is as prolific as it is thoughtful,” Wolfgang said.

Yet she avoided the spotlight, said Ryan Patton, Ph.D., an associate professor and undergraduate program director in the Department of Art Education.

“She always did everything with rigor — her research and the different directions it took her, but also things like baking and knitting,” he said. “She shared her excitement with others about the things she was interested in but would shy away from attention for her hard work.” 

In her 2019 paper, “Confronting Hate: Ideas for Art Educators to Address Confederate Monuments,” Buffington wrote that it is “imperative for art teachers to directly address contemporary issues and involve students in understanding how their art may connect to larger societal issues. Studying the built environment — including monuments and other symbols of the Confederacy — is important because it helps students learn about their community and its history. Through the use of primary source materials, art educators can engage students in strong historical research practices that can assist them in understanding works of art and the arguments made to keep or remove them.”

Her scholarship asked such important questions about what those monuments were teaching, Wilson McKay said.

“She really taught me, and so many others, to question how many things in our status quo are manifestations of white middle-class values, and to question whose points of view and lived experiences are excluded if we never look for them,” Wilson McKay said.

Buffington was the recipient of many grants and awards. Last year, she received the Marantz Distinguished Alumni Award from The Ohio State University. She was named the 2015 National Higher Education Teacher of the Year by the National Art Education Association. That same year she received the Kathy Connors Teaching Award from the Women’s Caucus of the National Art Education Association and was recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities with the Landmarks of American History and Culture grant.

“I don't think words really capture Melanie Buffington,” Wolfgang said. “She was better than any word I can think of to describe her. VCU's light is a little bit dimmer without her. The world is a little bit dimmer.”

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