On her first day of school in pre-World War II Germany, Ruth Adler Schnee strolled into class in a bright yellow sweater her mother had knit. “The radiant sun is coming,” Schnee’s teacher exclaimed. “Ah, the radiant sun.”

The Radiant Sun

Oct. 24 at 2 p.m.
Helmut Stern Auditorium

Those bright colors of yellow and orange became a favorite of Schnee, a prominent modernist textile designer now in her late 80s. Her journey from Holocaust survivor to Detroit immigrant to important designer in the 1950s modernist movement is now the subject of “The Radiant Sun,” a narrative documentary by Terri Sarris. The film is co-produced by University of Maryland Associate Professor of Architecture Ronit Eisenbach.

Sarris, a full-time senior lecturer in the University’s Screen Arts & Cultures department, developed an absorbing interest in artists over the years. This is her second film documenting the work of an artist or designer, tracing the moments that encouraged him or her to pursue the arts. One of Sarris’s previous films, “Buzzards Steal Your Picnic,” which captures the process of Detroit composer Frank Pahl, won best Michigan film in the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 2008 and the Detroit International Documentary Festival in 2007.

“I’m really kind of fascinated by why people become artists and why they persevere against the challenges artists encounter,” said Sarris, who met Detroit-based Schnee through a mutual friend a few years ago.

Sarris is also interested in the design from the mid-century modernist period, exemplified now on TV’s “Mad Men.” She wasn’t familiar with Schnee’s designs before she began the documentary, but now can pick them out of a lineup.

“I find myself watching ‘Mad Men’ now and trying to see if they use any of her designs, because they are so identifiable,” Sarris said.

“The Radiant Sun” tells Schnee’s story by mixing archival images and footage with stories Schnee narrates of her own life. The result is a chronological narrative structure that lets Schnee and her work speak for themselves.

“I didn’t feel the need to interview other people to serve as expert testimony about how important she is, because I think you can see her importance from her design and what she lived through,” Sarris said, adding that she wanted the film to be an intimate story-telling session like the ones she found so engrossing as she befriended Schnee.

Schnee became an especially interesting subject to feature because she broke through — and was limited by — the expectations placed on women during the 1950s.

“I’ve always looked to women artists for inspiration, because as a woman artist, I feel I have a lot to learn from women who have been artists before me,” Sarris said.

And Sarris found Schnee’s challenges particularly compelling. If the struggle of raising three children while sustaining a creative practice and business isn’t enough, Schnee ultimately had to switch from her original interest in architecture to textile design because of the lack of job equality between men and women.

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Schnee interned in New York City with famous designer and architect Raymond Loewy, who designed the Coca-Cola bottle. But she realized that, as a Jewish woman, she would probably not be able to find a permanent job. She shifted interests to a realm where women were more accepted.

“This is not an uncommon story for women, to realize that they’ll be involved in design, but maybe not actually designing the buildings themselves,” Sarris said, adding that it is still sometimes an “uphill climb” for women to be taken seriously in fields like architecture.

Sarris’s interest in women artists is reflected in the film’s form as well as content.

“Think of this as a new form, of a woman making a film about another woman’s work … a conversation between women,” Sarris said.

Continuing that conversation off screen, Schnee and the documentary’s producers will discuss “The Radiant Sun” after the showing. University of Michigan Museum of Art will display a selection of Schnee’s textiles in cases near the auditorium.

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