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Art School Reunion

A decade after graduation, the class of 2006 reflects on life in the real world.

Ana Teresa Fernández, SFAI

(1 of 23)

Weston Teruya, CCA

(2 of 23)

Jen Merrill, SFAI

(3 of 23)

Sarah Thibault, SFAI

(4 of 23)

Phil Briggs, AAU

(5 of 23)

Angela Fox, SFAI

(6 of 23)

Margaret Caragan, AAU

(7 of 23)

 

Taravat Talepasand, SFAI

(8 of 23)

R.S. Whipple, SFAI

(9 of 23)

Kalia Brooks, CCA

(10 of 23)

Alexis Amann, SFAI

(11 of 23)

Joyce Grimm, CCA

(12 of 23)

Mari Tibbetts, AAU

(13 of 23)

Ricardo Hernandez-Santiago, SFAI

(14 of 23)

Stephanie Lindsey, SFAI

(15 of 23)

Kathrin Blatter, AAU

(16 of 23)

Christine Welcher, AAU

(17 of 23)

Jared Kozel, AAU

(18 of 23)

Seth Armstrong, CCA

(19 of 23)

Chris Russell, CCA

(20 of 23)

Michael Franceschi, AAU

(21 of 23)

Christopher Riggs, AAU

(22 of 23)

Val Britton, CCA

(23 of 23)

 

For the aspiring artist with a high tolerance for student debt, there’s nowhere quite like San Francisco. We’re home to a holy trinity of art schools in the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts, and Academy of Art University, which every year collectively release more than 3,000 students into the art-world wilds. Of course, once they’ve graduated, students have no guarantee that they’ll actually ever work as artists—especially when they’re saddled with the kind of debt that accompanies annual tuitions of $42,220 for SFAI, $43,248 for CCA, and $20,952 for AAU. Then again, art school’s not just about the skills you learn, but about the people you meet. And who, exactly, might these people be? We chased down 30 alumni from SFAI, CCA, and AAU’s classes of 2006 to hear how they’re faring as artists (and teachers, curators, fashion designers, illustrators, and makeup-effects specialists) a decade after graduation. Unsurprisingly, their trajectories have varied wildly, as do their verdicts on art school itself.

Ana Teresa Fernández, SFAI
Then: A native of Tampico, Mexico; earned a merit scholarship to attend and graduated with an MFA in painting and new genres.
Now: Visiting faculty member at SFAI and CCA; her sculptures, videos, and hyperrealistic paintings have earned international recognition.
What I really learned at art school: “Growing up, I had been instructed in right and wrong, but at SFAI, here was a platform for how to reimagine something—a place where you could go into the dark zones of your psyche. It was revelatory. I felt like my brain was exploding!”

Weston Teruya, CCA
Then: Got his MFA in painting and drawing and an MA in visual and critical studies.
Now: Artist in residence for Recology San Francisco and an appointed member of Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission; previously spent eight years with the S.F. Arts Commission’s Community Investments program.
Is art school worth the price tag? “When I applied, I was working on the community-arts side of things and wasn’t sure how to jump back into the academic or art-world dialogue. Despite the cost, art school represented an access point to a field that at times can be deliberately opaque and unfriendly.”

Jen Merrill, SFAI
Then: Graduated with an MFA in painting; to make ends meet her first year out of school, she sold most of her SFAI paintings.
Now: Has worked at a library, a rug restoration company, and Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant; recently moved to Sacramento to pursue art full-time.
Is art school worth the price tag? “The astronomical cost of student loans for a private art school is almost certainly not worth it anymore, but who am I to say? I wouldn’t trade what I gained for anything! To a potential art school student, my only advice is, choose wisely.”

Sarah Thibault, SFAI
Then: Grew up in Minnesota; graduated with a BFA in painting.
Now: A practicing painter, sculptor, and drawer; current codirector of Royal NoneSuch Gallery in Oakland; co-curator at the Painting Salon.
What I wish I’d done differently over the past decade: “I would have been more protective of my time and my money, and I would have accepted more support from my community. I realize now that I can’t do it all by myself.”

Todd Lanam, CCA
Then: Studied painting and drawing as an undergrad, creating “large, colorful landscapes in an impasto style.”
Now: His artworks have been featured in San Francisco’s Mark Wolfe Contemporary and New York’s Gallery Henoch; he’s also worked as a teacher and is the founder of the San Mateo–based social painting event series Tipsy Painter.
Harsh reality: “I recently talked to a former professor who told me that he got a call from Walmart asking him to be a professional reference for a recent graduate. I think that says it all right there.”

Sam Rodriguez, CCA
Then: Graduated with a BFA in illustration.
Now: For several years, he set his art aside to raise his child; in 2011, returned to painting to create his own personal brand of graffiti-esque illustration; has done commercial, public, and studio art.
Takeaway from art school: “It’s all about maintaining your voice. So if someone gives me a topic, I can now do the Sam Rodriguez version. My art isn’t guided by one sort of content.”

Phil Briggs, AAU
Then: A former international racing cyclist; graduated from AAU’s cinematography program.
Now: Spent first five years postgrad establishing a solid base of clientele; has shot commercial, narrative, and music videos in South Africa, Japan, and Israel.
Advice to the aspiring artist: “Outlast everybody. You can weather the storm, so to say, and it is a big storm, but you can make it. The hardest part is sticking with it.”

Angela Fox, SFAI
Then: At the age of 22, made her pilgrimage from Texas to pursue her MFA in printmaking.
Now: Having returned to her San Antonio birthplace, she currently works as an art teacher and paints illustrations that evoke the printmaking aesthetic.
Is art school worth the price tag? “I’ll probably be in debt until I’m 60 or 70, but I would do it again. I would even pay more if I had to! Art school is about developing yourself as an artist, and to me, you can’t put a price on that.”

Lisa K. Blatt, SFAI
Then: Practicing law by day, she pursued her MFA in new genres at night.
Now: Travels to Antarctica and Chile’s Atacama Desert to capture their intrinsic beauty; her work has been featured in the Contemporary Jewish and Asian Art Museums and Smithsonian magazine.
Is art school a necessity? “The reason I went into art doesn’t have to do with the business of art. It’s an enriching education. But everyone should go in with their eyes open.”

Margaret Caragan, AAU
Then: Received a BFA in sculpture, with a specialty in makeup effects.
Now: Founded Oakland’s makeup-effects company Pandora FX; has been featured on Syfy’s Face Off; has stacked her résumé with gory films such as Red Ice and Fist 2 Fist.
The perks of being a commercial artist: “I’m sculpting a dragon mask as we talk, and it’s cool and it’s dynamic and it has a story to it. I find it very cathartic to be working on a scene, but also, this is something I do for my job!”

Jasper Wong, CCA
Then: A Hawaii native, he moved to San Francisco in 2002 and graduated with a BFA in illustration.
Now: Cofounder of the Hong Kong–based gallery Above Second and Honolulu’s Lana Lane Studio; founder and lead director of the art and music festival Pow! Wow!
Advice to the struggling artist: “Don’t wait for someone to contact you for work. You can create work. Start a company. Make an app. Do a comic. Write something. Have those passion projects, and, sometimes, those passion projects can end up becoming your career.”

Dina Pugh, CCA
Then: An events manager at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts before enrolling in CCA’s curatorial program; while still in school, she co-curated the Mission’s Triple Base Gallery with fellow classmate Joyce Grimm.
Now: Closed Triple Base in 2012; moved back to her hometown of New York City; cofounded the creative agency Imprint Projects; has curated artistic projects for such tech elites as Facebook.
Biggest surprise in her postgrad career: “I never would have expected this, but the tech companies have become the new Medicis. The commercial work I do for them has helped artists create projects on a much larger scale.”

Taravat Talepasand, SFAI
Then: Born to Iranian immigrants in Oregon, she moved to San Francisco to study painting and drawing at SFAI.
Now: Current work challenges the ideologies of the Iranian state and has been shown worldwide; a visiting faculty member at SFAI and CCA.
What artists and immigrants have in common: “My mother always told me that I would have to work hard for everything that I wanted in this country, as my parents had both done. There is luck, chance, hard work, but nothing will come of it unless the artist is true to her practice and ultimately creates stupendous work.”

R.S. Whipple, SFAI
Then: While pursuing her MFA in painting, she set her sights on entering the exhibition world of museums and galleries.
Now: Dissatisfied with the stringent purism of fine arts, she’s since branched out to animation, children’s book illustration and authorship, scriptwriting, and a budding interest in set design.
Advice to a current art school student: “Every discipline can suffer from its own version of myopia, so do not let the truisms of one discipline confine you. Focus on developing a practice that is sustainable for you, something that can ground you throughout the longevity of your career.”

Kalia Brooks, CCA
Then: Grew up in Sicklerville, New Jersey; moved to San Francisco in 2004 to study curatorial practice.
Now: Formerly an exhibitions director for Brooklyn’s MoCADA, she works in New York as a curator and writer, adjunct professor at NYU, and founder of KB Studio.
One takeaway from CCA: “Art school taught me that beauty is not simply a superficial thing; rather, it is an intrinsic quality that deserves to be advocated for. I think people often forget that beauty is productive.”

Alexis Amann, SFAI
Then: After studying painting, drawing, and printmaking at Portland State University, she enrolled in SFAI to receive her MFA in painting.
Now: Having worked as an educator, a nonprofit staffer, and, briefly, an employee of the Sharper Image, she is currently the office manager at a disability rights law firm; artistically, she has continued to paint and is soon to be featured at the gallery and shop Resurrect Oakland.
Is art school worth the price tag? “I love SFAI and still place a lot of value on my education and relationships from my time there, but my life took a major hit financially from it. It’s hard to think big picture when you are leaving high school or in your 20s, but student loans can be a life sentence.”

Joyce Grimm, CCA
Then: Codirected the Mission’s Triple Base Gallery while still in grad school; received her MA in curatorial practices.
Now: Spent the past decade as a curator for the San Francisco Arts Commission, a project coordinator for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, an educator for urban youth and community groups, and a creative consultant for Manresa Gallery; recently moved to Ashland, Oregon.
Is San Francisco still hospitable to artists? “The art and tech fusion is amazing, but it’s a matter of having artists get their fair share in commission. They give away so much for so little, and if we could actually get artists the right pay, San Francisco could be a great place for them.”

Mari Tibbetts, AAU
Then: Immediately following her graduation from the MFA fashion design program, exhibited her first collection at New York Fashion Week and was named one of “Five Designers to Watch” by Forbes.
Now: Has made her name as an activewear designer, working with companies like the North Face and Alo Yoga; currently resides in Southern California and is a director of design at ASICS America.
The real benefits of “fashion school”: “I think ‘fashion school’ sounds fun, but in reality, it’s not just drawing pretty pictures and making pretty dresses; it’s learning to build your senses, creating your vision, and making it work.”

Ricardo Hernandez-Santiago, SFAI
Then: Prior to getting his MFA in sculpture, studied in Paris, received a BFA from the University of Puerto Rico, and worked as a New York–based art teacher.
Now: Having moved to Oxford, England, has since been employed as a freelance illustrator, a storyboard artist, a prop artist, and a set designer; his nightmarish drawings and sculptures have been shown in Tasmania, Puerto Rico, and L.A.
Is art school worth the price tag?Hell no! Intellectually, art school is a farce. My ideas did not grow there, and few professors are really willing or able to give. They are there for their own gain.”

Stephanie Lindsey, SFAI
Then: Moved from her hometown of Denver in 2004; received her MFA in photography.
Now: She returned to Denver and has worked as a photography and visual arts educator, served as a field organizer for Obama for America, and has been exhibited nationally.
Is San Francisco still a place to become an artist? “There was a period of time when artists came to San Francisco and they created things, they created a rich history of San Francisco art, and I hate to say it, but that period may be coming to an end. I don’t know if this city is going to be able to recapture that.”

Kathrin Blatter, AAU
Then: Previously a pro mountain bike racer, she enrolled in the online graphic design program in 2003.
Now: An adjunct professor at AAU, she has her own design firm, Un-Studio; previously worked as a graphic designer for Chen Design Associates, where she redesigned packaging for the North Face.
On recognizing the work of peers: “When I walk down a street in San Francisco and I see a billboard, a magazine, a logo, etcetera, I know that chances are this was created by one of my fellow alumni. I’m quite impressed with what they do, what they’re capable of producing, and how they have been moving up in their careers.”

Michele Carlson, CCA
Then: Moved to the Bay Area from Washington State to complete an MFA in printmaking and an MA in visual and critical studies.
Now: Considering herself “a transdisciplinary practitioner where visual art, collaboration, writing, curating, and teaching are all a part of my practice,” she has seen her artwork exhibited nationally.
On the downside of hustling: “When I was in the adjunct grind, I taught up to 23 classes in one academic year across four different colleges—mostly because I was afraid to say no. On one hand, I didn’t think I could say no for fear of never getting asked back, but I also thought the quantity at least made up for the instability and anxiety I had around professional progress. It doesn’t.”

Christine Welcher, AAU
Then: Had previously worked in advertising in New York City; moved to the Bay Area in 2002 and began studying fashion design in 2004.
Now: Worked a variety of freelance gigs straight out of art school, landing her first full-time position at San Francisco’s Weston Wear. In 2010, she got hired as a designer at Lucy Activewear.
What art school couldn’t teach: “The times that I struggled were because I tried to force a solution to arrive. In design there are times when you have to meander and explore and be comfortable with not knowing the answer. I might spend the rest of my career figuring out how to do this wholeheartedly.”

Jared Kozel, AAU
Then: A summa cum laude grad from the University of New Mexico’s communications and journalism department; received his MFA in advertising, specializing in art direction.
Now: Worked as a teacher and a practicing artist and is currently Yahoo’s global creative director.
Main takeaway from AAU: “At school, we were continually pushed by our instructors and peers to think big and never settle. ‘Never sleep’ was something we’d often joke about, but that mantra and work ethic has stuck with me.”

David Maisel, CCA
Then: Received BA from Princeton in 1984; returned to school in his mid-40s to continue his work as a visual artist and aerial photographer.
Now: MFA exhibit Library of Dust was published by Chronicle Books; 2007 fellow at the Getty Research Institute; artwork has been shown in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Advice to a current art school student: “Without wanting to sound facetious, don’t quit your day job. Be an artist-slash-curator, an artist-slash-publisher, an artist-slash-something. Basically, find a way to be involved.”

Seth Armstrong, CCA
Then: Born and raised in Los Angeles; studied painting in northern Holland; completed his BFA in illustration at CCA.
Now: While still living in Oakland, he worked part-time doing exhibit installations at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; now an L.A.-based artist and illustrator with paintings shown in Germany, London, and New York.
On hitting rock bottom: “There are times that I’ve struggled professionally, financially, romantically, and legally, but not for too long, and not all at once. Except for that one time that I broke up with my girlfriend and moved out of her condo, became basically homeless, was unemployed, broke, nobody was buying paintings, and then got myself arrested in Oakland. That was a bit of a struggle.”

Chris Russell, CCA
Then: A Boulder, Colorado, native; received his BFA with a high distinction in painting and drawing.
Now: Continues to create oil paintings and graphite drawings; works as a bicycle shop manager and mechanic in Portland, Oregon.
Is art school worth the price tag? “In terms of financial return, art school is not worth the investment. However, I became a much better artist in my four years at CCA. If I look at the awful paintings I made my freshman year, I would say I am really glad I went to art school.”

Michael Franceschi, AAU
Then:
In 2001, received his BFA in illustration from Syracuse University; graduated with an MFA in animation from AAU.
Now: Worked in animation with Nickelodeon from 2006 to 2011; is now an animator at Disney and worked on Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia.
Advice to a current art school student: “Look at what is happening in the field of your chosen discipline. Don’t simply compare your work to your classmates’, but look at the professionals that are making a living in that craft. Because when you graduate, it’s very likely that you’ll be competing in a job market with working artists who have production experience.”

Christopher Riggs, AAU
Then: Graduated with an MFA in graphic design; meeting with Marty Neumeier, the influential author and design guru, at AAU’s Spring Show led to his employment with the strategy firm SYPartners.
Now: Creative director at SYPartners; senior lecturer at CCA.
Is San Francisco still hospitable to artists? “Since its beginning, San Francisco has been in a constant state of change. It’s in the city’s DNA. So it looks different than it did in the past, and that’s what people are responding to. However, it’s an amazing time to be a creative, and there are a lot of opportunities for the arts.”

Val Britton, CCA
Then: Graduated in printmaking; CCA’s interdisciplinary program allowed her to work with mediums including painting, collage, and cut paper.
Now: Recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant; has exhibited at the New York Public Library; in 2015, completed a wall piece at the San Francisco International Airport, commissioned by the SFAC.
Where she is versus where she thought she’d be: “I am exactly where I hoped I’d be: working full-time as an artist, supporting myself through my work, exhibiting, and working on challenging projects.”

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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