The Arts > Art
Building an art dynasty on open enrollment and dedication
Attention, artists: Not only do they want you, the Alamo Community Colleges need you. The economy’s grim, state funding is down, and so is enrollment. But the ACCD art departments offer you newly expanded facilities, incredibly diverse students and faculty to bounce your ideas off of, and a rich legacy of excellence in the arts. A call to arms: Even if you only care a little bit about SA’s overflowing visual-arts scene, you should care about the ACCD programs.
In the hive mind of traditional academia, community colleges typically rank below more conventional university arts programs; but in San Antonio they constitute a formidable art institution. San Antonio College in particular stands less as an intellectual backwater than a South Texas variation of the Art Students League, the New York City art school (ca. 1875) which trained generations of artists, from William Merritt Chase to Thomas Hart Benton to Helen Frankenthaler to Cy Twombly.
And other ACCD programs are fast catching up, offering stellar faculty and, most crucial of all, a deep sense of mission. On MLK Boulevard and San Pedro, in the Visual Arts and Technology Center, and in the soon-to-open, as-yet unnamed new arts building on the Palo Alto campus, creative ground is busting wide open.
Kelly O’Connor has an upcoming show at Joan Grona Gallery, and a job as registrar of collections at the Linda Pace Foundation. The 20-something O’Connor’s evocative, complex collages, as well as her art-historical knowledge, began forming in classes at San Antonio College. And yet, she’s well aware of the underrated status of her first alma mater. After SAC, she transferred to UT Austin, where she was “really surprised at how prepared I was — it seemed like [the other students] were more passive about talking about their art in critique, or hadn’t even decided what they were doing yet, really. SAC made me work extremely hard, not only on making things, but defending them.”
O’Connor relates a telling anecdote: One of her more high-falutin’ art professors at UT gushed to the class about an upcoming alumni show, one of whose participants was bona-fide art star Erik Parker, who by then had moved to New York City, garnered critical acclaim, and shown in Europe and Japan.
“He went to my community college in San Antonio!” O’Connor said.
The professor, visibly affronted, sniffed, “Erik Parker did not go to community college.” O’Connor, retelling the story, spits out “community college” icily, like a couple of dirty words.
The hell he didn’t. “If it weren’t for those people at SAC,” Erik Parker chuckles over the phone from NYC, “I’d probably be in jail!”
Like O’Connor, Parker took art classes at SAC, then transferred to UT Austin. He went on to graduate school at the State University of New York at Purchase before settling in the art mecca of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But back in 1988 or so, after he dropped out of Judson High School in the 10th grade and got into “drunken shenanigans, luckily nothing too serious,” a probation officer recommended enrollment at SAC (after his GED) as a way to shorten his state-ordered debt to society.
“I came from no money, none, and SAC was the first place I felt was different from, you know, a football-centered culture,” Parker recalls. He wandered in reluctantly. “There’s no way art would’ve ever occurred to me as a career. I mean, I drew as a kid, but I wasn’t focused, and I wasn’t academic at all,” Parker, now 40, laughs. “But there was so much to do [at SAC], and so many people working hard at stuff they cared about, students and teachers, purely out of dedication … I met people like Spider Mike and other punk-rock kids, but who were doing these huge paintings. It blew my mind.
“All I know is, if I have any kind of estate when I die, SAC’s getting some money.”
It reveals a lot about the SAC legacy that Eduardo Rodriguez, a contemporary painter whose Suddenly Normal show at Joan Grona comes down January 30, was both a classmate of Parker’s at SAC, and later, after earning a BFA and MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago, became a SAC instructor. He joined the storied ranks of Tom Willome and Mark Pritchett in the art mission founded largely by the great Mel Casas back in the ‘60s.
“I definitely took into account that SAC is open to everybody,” Rodriguez says. “To me, that’s a real point of pride as a teacher. You don’t get [into the SAC program] because of money or connections or whatever. Anybody can come in, but once you’re here, you’ve got to work, and if you work, the opportunities are huge. They were for me.”
O’Connor took “the majority of my painting courses with Ed.” And artist, Unit B gallerist, and Artpace archivist Kimberly Aubuchon credits Rodriguez with helping her transfer from SAC to his alma mater, the Art Institute of Chicago, and relates that Rodriguez sponsored student trips to see art in Houston and Dallas, where, while driving a rented van, he warned, “absolutely no alcohol!”
Artist John Mata, whose multimedia show Sala Diaz Is Open rules Sala Diaz until February 22, credits Rodriguez with “getting my head on straight” about an art career. “He took me aside one day, after I’d gotten a fair bit of attention in shows and things, and I was loving the social aspects of doing art, including partying,” he admits. “But Ed said ‘Man, you’ve got promise, and people are rooting for you, but you gotta quit treating art as a game. You gotta work harder and start taking this shit seriously.’”
“Seriousness” is a watchword that pops up repeatedly in conversations with SAC alums. Academic rigor as it applies to art is likely impossible to define, but here’s the refining process SAC has seemed to employ, with great success, according to various alums: An idea is brought into the physical world through mechanical skill-building (which is itself equal parts tedium and mind-expansion), then the resulting manifested idea is tested through a firestorm of critique.
“[You learn] to talk about art, yours or somebody else’s, from a critical perspective, to kind of get away from the idea that it’s just self-expression, and [instead] really treating the whole process, including looking at art, as a discipline,” Aubuchon says.
This discipline forms the basis of what I’ll call the SAC School. SAC’s system of industry, challenge, and self-defense was originated, I’m told over and over again, by the playful intellect and pioneering spirit of Mel Casas, who came to SAC in 1961 and held sway until the early ’90s. A native of El Paso, Melesio Casas earned a BA in arts from Texas Western College in 1956 and an MFA from the University of the Americas in Mexico City. A noted painter as well as teacher (often included in surveys of “Chicano” painting”, a designation about which he felt both a political connection and a playful ambivalence), Casas was ever mindful of SAC as an open institution with real social responsibility. By 1961, he’d taken a job teaching, then began to build a faculty and department that continues to this day.
In a 1996 audio interview with the Smithsonian Institution, Casas maintained that “… at the time … there was no UTSA, so basically everybody in San Antonio went to San Antonio College. So I got a very good cross section of the city in my classes ... I think that got all these people to react and interact together, and I got some wonderful students. … But I had a very demanding job. I was the chairperson of the department, and I was very ambitious and trying to do things for the department, so I was on call all the time, day and night, and it was very stressful. But I enjoyed teaching, because I still taught besides my administrative duties. And I found out that I really liked teaching. I liked dealing with minds and playing with them, especially when I put up charts and start working with words and playing with them.”
Tom Willome took over the chairmanship of the department from Casas in the late ’80s.
“It took 30 years for [Casas] to build the [SAC art] department. It was not an easy process … it really takes a generational movement and incredible commitment. Keep in mind that when Mel started at SAC there was no Blue Star, no Artpace; he had to more or less build SAC, both as a school and as a gallery, from the ground up,” says Willome, whose paintings have shown at Blue Star, the Arte Moderno in New York City, and the McNay. He has been teaching at SAC since the mid-’70s, and is name-dropped by every single SAC alum I interviewed.
“I think ‘talent’ is a term that gets tossed around, and is usually associated with a childhood phenomenon — you know, ‘I’ve been drawing since I was 5.’ I place less value on this idea than on a larger, more important notion of curiosity. I think if you’ve got curiosity, and are open to ideas, techniques, ways of seeing the world — it’s just a more useful term,” Willome says. A 15-minute phone conversation, and Willome’s schooled me.
If Willome’s inherited Casas’s sense of responsibility, the redoubtable Mark Pritchett, a notoriously demanding instructor whose name still inspires headshaking in former students years later, may best represent Casas’s notion of “playing with minds.”
“You got everything with Pritchett,” says Beto Gonzales, a multimedia artist (and Current contributor) who took studio classes at SAC after graduating from UT with a degree in philosophy and art history, and whose Tru Hustla show is up at Fl!ght ’til the end of February. “You got real instruction, a total crash course in the critique process, you got your ego trampled a little bit. Plus you got a show, a performance from him.”
Mata remembers Pritchett halting a class lecture in order to “toss his keys at somebody, out of nowhere. When everybody just sat there, not knowing what to do, he said, ‘C’mon! Throw them back!’”
“I cried, yelled, got pissed off, and finally learned how to fight for my grades. Mr. Pritchett really made you earn your grades, and I’m still grateful for that,” says O’Connor.
“I remember freaking out whenever I had an assignment due for Mr. Pritchett, because I wanted his respect, and I wanted him to see that I was seeing things differently … ” Aubuchon recalls. “But then [when] he chose one wooden sculpture I made for a student show … that was one of the first times I thought, ‘Maybe I can really do this.’”
One source characterized Willome and Pritchett as the “dichotomy of Daddy,” with Willome as “support and love” and Pritchett as “authority and enforcement.” This plays neatly into my conception of the SAC Mafia as a sort of familial, multigenerational dynamic, with Casas as the paterfamilias of a dynasty, whose legacy was passed on through Willome and Pritchett, who in turn begat Rodriguez and Parker, and Aubuchon, Gonzales, O’Connor, and Mata.
Other SAC offspring, it should be noted, include Andy Benavides, artist and founder of the growing gallery complex at 1906 South Flores that includes Fl!ght and Lone Star Studios, as well as art-educational bonanza the S.M.A.R.T fair; Cruz Ortiz, printmaker, activist, art teacher at Robert E. Lee High School, and originator of the Dignowity Hill Pushcart Derby; and Tom Willome’s own son Jason Willome, now an exhibiting artist and art professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
The Young Turk art departments of ACCD may be slightly less venerable than SAC’s, but they are no less crucial to the promise and culture of San Antonio, and each has its own focus, challenges, and points of creative light.
Regis Shephard has taught at the historically black St. Philip’s College (whose first graduating class, he tells me, included several former slaves) for 14 years, and has chaired the department for four. He came to town after graduating Texas Tech in order to complete an MFA at UTSA (itself a major academic player on the SA landscape, particularly as a producer of ACCD teachers), and in the process managed to garner a Minority Teaching Fellowship at St. Philip’s.
“I must’ve been, what, 22, 23 years old? At first, I used to mess with the classes a little, sit down like I was another student, then suddenly get up and hand out the syllabus.” He laughs, “Yeah, I can’t get away with that so much anymore.”
Shephard grew up on a farm outside Seminole, was a star high-school student, then got, as Beto Gonzales would say, “his ego trampled a little bit” by encountering equally talented students in a university setting. “It was humbling to have to work that hard, but it was either succeed at school, or go back to the farm. And if you don’t love farm work, or even if you do, that’s a hard life.”
His 14-year tenure at St. Philip’s gives Shephard a unique perspective on the college and its community. “We’re struggling with state funding cutbacks, we’re dealing with a student population [who have] tremendous economic and family challenges … and we’re dealing with the consequences of the [Bush Administration’s] ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy, which has been devastating.”
Shephard, who went to the National Democratic Convention as an Obama delegate, is outspokenly worried about the state of public education at the high-school level, a result of the teach-to-the-test philosophy of the Texas (and elsewhere) Public School mandate.
“I’m getting more and more students who have talent, but who are really lacking in creativity. They can pick up the technical skills in drawing class, for example,” but once given an assignment to put those skills to the service of an idea, they’re flummoxed. “They say, ‘What do I draw?’ ‘Draw anything,’ I tell them. These same students always want to know what they’ll be tested on. ‘Chapter 14,’ I’ll say. ‘What part of Chapter 14?’ ‘All of it!’” Shephard shakes his head. “It’s like they can take in and retain information, technique, whatever, but they’re not willing to actually do the abstract work of formulating independent thought.”
Shephard has a considerable career as an exhibiting artist, having shown works — primarily his volcanic, wry, politically-charged, genre-breaking drawings — at such venues as San Antonio’s Blue Star, UTSA Satellite Space, the Carver Community Center, and the McNay museum, as well as the Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, the Lab at the Roger Smith Hotel and the Agora Gallery in SoHo, in New York City. While his teaching and administrative duties do cut into his time, he allows, he’s been working on a new series based on the always fecund theme of comic-book superheroes.
When I ask him how he thinks his work would be different had he not been teaching all these years, Shephard answers, “You know, it’s interesting … I’ll often start drawing with the intention of concentrating on the figure, or purely on elements of composition, but it always has a strong political side. You can’t teach these students without being aware of [the politics inherent]. … Also, I’m more aware of history — If I hadn’t been teaching art history, I might’ve been aware of maybe the last 30 or 40 years. But instead, I’m aware of all of art history, right back to the Greeks. Who knows what my work would be like without teaching.”
It’s hard and frustrating to forge, à la Mel Casas in the ’60s, an art department out of rocky soil. “Regis is really and truly a man on a mission,” says his St. Philip’s colleague and fellow artist Nate Cassie.
Palo Alto College is poised to become San Antonio’s next great art department. With a brand-new arts building near completion, and a lead instructor, Alba de Leon, who’s ambitious and focussed, it’s only a matter of time before PAC turns out exceptional students on the order of SAC’s extraordinary numbers.
“Having working artists in our faculty allows Palo Alto to act as a workshop, not only of making art, but gives them some mentorship into the gallery system,” de Leon tells me. “Both our full-time instructors and our adjuncts have real art careers of their own, and I really believe this does act as a resource for our students.” She adds, “Not that I think everyone taking art classes at Palo Alto will go on to pursue art as a career … I think art classes are great for anyone, and getting more creativity into the educational experience is so important … When counselling students, it used to be the norm to encourage them to take required courses or fundamentals first, and to leave the creative classes towards the end … exactly like a kind of educational dessert.” She laughs. “But that isn’t the thinking anymore. Incorporating creativity makes education more of a whole experience.”
The working artists deLeon has gathered at Palo Alto make for a blockbuster faculty — most of whom, like Shephard, boast MFAs from UTSA.
“I’m honored to work with these colleagues. Also, they’re a whole lot of fun,” says Assistant Professor Cakky Brawley.
Brawley, a sculptor and ceramicist whose recent instructor credits include large-scale public-art collaborations with visiting artists, is referring to some local-scene heavy hitters: Karen Mahaffy, multimedia and video artist currently on a Fulbright in Estonia; and Lloyd Walsh and Mark Hogensen, both very accomplished career painters with long exhibition histories. Palo Alto’s adjuncts include CAM Best New Media Award-winner Michele Monseau, video artist and gallerist at Three Walls in the Blue Star Complex, and sculptor-installation artist Chris Sauter, a 1999 Artpace fellow who has shown his work in the U.S. and Europe.
“We’ve got a really supportive president, a lead instructor who’s done great things for the department, and a brand-new facility,” Hogensen says. “I think ACCD is kind of waking up to how important the arts are in the colleges, how many people come in for that … and teaching’s great for the artists, too. I mean, I’m always telling my students to see things in new ways, so sometimes I have to hold myself to the same standard.”
“Between painting and teaching painting, I’m always thinking about painting,” Walsh says. “I can’t imagine that being engaged with art all the time isn’t good for an artist. Also, there’s a fair amount of fluidity in the faculty — I’ve gotten very interested in photography as a process, and Palo Alto is exceptional in that we’re one of the few [schools] still teaching film photography, which has its own process, and is a beautiful way to make an image. Oh, and tell them” Walsh laughs, “we’re the only ACCD campus to teach oil painting. That makes us unique!”
“Teaching art and making art are really reciprocal,” Brawley muses. “I’m not sure I would have gotten as interested in public art had I not had students as part of that experiemnt, part of that collaboration. And I truly love what collaborating with students brings out.”
But Palo Alto, like SAC, St. Philip’s, and even relative newcomer Northwest Vista, is suffering from a drop in enrollment. Most of the faculty I spoke to attribute Palo Alto’s lower numbers to growing pains; due to the dislocation and limited classroom space during the construction phase of the new building, some students lost patience or went elsewhere. Instructors at the other ACCD campuses cited economic woes, such as job losses and increasing difficulty in getting student loans, for the drop.
But it’s a new year, San Antonio. Hopefully the optimism that has flooded the country and the city since the Inauguration will translate into a surge of creative activity. More concretely, President Obama’s $825-billion economic-recovery package currently includes provisions backed by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and others to spend $140 billion more on education than the current budget; this includes an additional $15 billion in Pell grants for low-income students. Also, frustrated workers of all ages involuntarily relieved of shitty jobs may just want to explore their educational options. And compared to university fees, the ACCD colleges, in addition to being excellent, are one hell of an educational bargain. •