By Anne Shulock,
Communications Specialist, San Francisco Art Institute
In art school, there is no single way to approach your education. Art is messy—not just in the splatter-painted-clothes sense, but in the way that artists must grapple with form, content, and concepts to arrive at meaning. At the San Francisco Art Institute, students embrace an interdisciplinary, experimental approach to contemporary art, taking many paths to and within the school. Here are some SFAI stories.
For many people, being a partner in a major law firm would be a fulfilling professional achievement. But after 13 years of practicing law, Melanie Piech had a different thought: that her career choice had been a mistake.
In her childhood, Melanie was surrounded by hands-on work: her father spent 10 years remodeling the family home, doing everything from woodworking and tiling to plumbing and electrical work. Despite a similar knack for building, Melanie became an attorney—but the urge to create didn’t go away. After taking time off work to raise a child, Melanie decided to pursue her true passion for sculpture, furniture, and art.
In choosing a school for this second act, she was drawn to the “funkiness” of the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as the emphasis on ideas. Says Melanie, “[Professors] really push you to go to the next level, a more conceptual level, and to figure out not just what you want to build, but what is it within you that you’re trying to express.”
At SFAI, Melanie has made ambitious sculptures such as an oversized redwood chair that resembles an exoskeleton, and a chair with welded 7-foot wheels that turn independently, allowing the sitter to maneuver and perform. She has also studied computer-aided design, using Vectorworks to model a fountain that a local housing complex has asked her to build for its courtyard.
Art school has proven to be a far cry from her structured former profession. “Here, it’s pretty wide open and you have to forge your own path,” says Melanie. “My experiences at SFAI have given me ammunition to figure out where I’m going.” And along the way she’s achieved not just artistic but personal growth. “When I was a lawyer, I always felt like I was pretending to be somebody else. Now I just feel a lot more comfortable in my skin.”
BFA Design and Technology
“Before coming to SFAI, I had a narrow view of what I understood art to be,” says Djavan Santos, who, like many kids, grew up drawing and painting. But in his first semester, he took the course Intro to Digital Sound. “That really opened my eyes to what art couldbe and the broad spectrum of what other artists in the world were doing,” he says. “I felt really drawn to experiment with new technologies and the intersection of art and technology.”
In 2009, SFAI received a grant for the development of a digital platform to facilitate new media collaborations between institutions in San Francisco and Paris, and Djavan, now a Design and Technology major, has participated in the resulting projects. “It’s really interesting to me what role technology plays in our social lives and in connecting geographies,” says Djavan. “What do geographic borders mean in the age of the Internet? What does it mean for someone to be in Paris and someone to be in San Francisco if I see you on my computer screen and we can make work together?”
Djavan further explored these questions in Hamburg, Germany, where during summer 2011 he participated in the HFBK Art School Alliance, a prestigious study abroad program in which seven students from renowned institutions around the world live and work together. The Alliance aligned perfectly with his interest in cross-cultural art and the appealing risk of collaboration: “You can sort of jump in this pool with other people and see what happens.”
That willingness to try new things has been a big part of Djavan’s SFAI experience. “You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do before you come here,” he says. “There are a lot of pathways for you to take, and the teachers and staff will really help you find out what’s best for you.”
An education at the San Francisco Art Institute is based on rigorous studio practice and coursework—but what happens outside the classroom is also a vital part of the experience. “Here, you’re really encouraged to make connections with artists and with faculty, and fostering those relationships is almost as important as academics,” says Kimia Kline, a figurative painter whose work takes on notions of femininity, sexuality, and idealized beauty. “[There is a] sense of energy and camaraderie that exists, both in terms of the undergraduate and the graduate program, and then the way that those two programs intermingle.”
Building on that spirit of collaboration, students frequently exhibit together, both on and off campus. In 2010, Kimia participated in a show at San Francisco’s Treehouse Gallery called Meet Me in the Middle, featuring the work of female Iranian and Israeli artists from SFAI. The show explored how, in a time when political rhetoric and generalizations dominate global discourse, artists’ personal narratives can offer new perspectives on inter-cultural conversations.
And there are more inter-cultural experiences to come: immediately after graduating last spring Kimia moved to Chennai, India. “I’m really excited to see how India affects my work—the colors, the aesthetics there,” she says. She has already tried painting with beet juice to capture the ubiquitous hot pink of the country, and has also received both an artist residency for painting and design work for an advertising company.
In these new explorations, Kimia will draw on her interdisciplinary
education at SFAI. “I came in as a painter, but I’m leaving this school with so many other skills under my belt,” she says. “I’ve been able to study documentary film, I’ve learned how to use Final Cut Pro, Illustrator, Photoshop, I’ve taken a course in graphic design—so even though you may be in one department, they make it very easy for you to use these other artistic practices and bring that into your own.” ■