Pure Imagination

USD students and faculty


“Excuse the mess,” says Noé Olivas as he climbs aboard his dismantled 1967 Chevy Step-Van in the cool shadow of a maintenance yard behind Camino Hall. Well-worn by decades of use — from delivery truck to homemade RV — the white steel panel van has been stripped clean of its former lives. Bread and beds are long gone, replaced by wire brushes and bags of steel wool, makeshift work lights and the odd engine part under reconstruction. A stop sign, bent and repurposed as a wheel hub during the RV years, reveals the grass roots history this Chevy has motored through. His wooly mane nearly brushing the roof he plans to raise more than two feet, Olivas, a visual arts major who creates sculptures out of ready-made objects, gazes steadily at his most ambitious project yet.

noe olivasFor his senior thesis, he is transforming this 45-year-old van into a mobile exhibition space that also serves as a social sculpture, where artists can mount a show and then take it into the community, perhaps even use it as a portable artist-residence-studio with an added trailer.

“We are talking about this idea of creating your own art world, about how to make a living in the future by doing what we love,” explains Olivas (pictured, at left).

As is typical of the Department of Art, Architecture + Art History, he’s not working on this monster project alone. Initial funding came through a Keck Faculty Fellowship — which funds scholarly mentoring projects — under Assistant Professor Allison Wiese, as well as an Associated Students grant. The inspiration and sweat equity are courtesy of friends and fellow artists like Jake Zawlacki, senior humanities and art history major, who was elbow-deep in the engine with Olivas the night before. As the conversation turns to the exclusive New York art world, Nate Vaughan ’11 steps forward from the adjoining wood shop, where he’s hand-crafting a table to be used at a baked goods and pour-over coffee fundraiser for the project.

“The art world is so globalized now, you can be anywhere, even in San Diego,” says Vaughan, one of 40 working studio artists at Space 4 Art in the East Village. “There’s plenty of art world here, plenty of interaction.”

In fact, there’s plenty right here at USD.

The Department of Art, Architecture + Art History, for one, is at a seminal moment in its development. Now at the end of a five-year academic plan — the first strategic plan for the department — faculty and students are reaping the rewards of a discipline energized by new directions. Bring in a renowned scholar in Chinese and Thai art? Check. Add an acclaimed printmaker to the faculty? Check. Add a full major in architecture? Check.

When the academic plan was implemented in April 2007 under the direction of Department Chair Can Bilsel, 52 students were art majors; 31 in visual arts and 21 in art history. In the spring of 2012, art majors had more than doubled to 113; 47 in visual arts, 22 in art history and an astounding 44 in architecture, which was approved as a major just two years ago, in February 2010.

Beyond the rise in the number of students, the unequivocal hallmarks of the program are that it is student-centered, individually focused and endlessly collaborative.

“Instead of coming up with goals outside of the students and then trying to mold the students to that curriculum, we shape the curriculum to the individual needs of the student,” explains Bilsel, who adds that the architecture major resulted directly from student interest. “This is very important in visual arts, because every student is different, and their talents and interests are different.”

The faculty make it their business to get to know each student’s strengths, from the junior review, when students present their work in every area of visual arts to a panel of arts professors, to the senior thesis, when students present a written thesis and advanced work — often resulting from independent studies with an individual professor — to arts faculty and peers.

“We are a small department by a lot of standards, but the proximity to faculty can be enormously valuable,” says Wiese. “The students get real connections with faculty and those connections are often across disciplines.”

All of which often lead to enviable opportunities. Take Zawlacki, the art-historian-writer-roving-mechanic, for example. On a quiet weekday, he leads a guided tour of the current exhibition at the Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries in Founders Hall: “Character & Crisis: Printmaking in America, 1920–1950.” As one of three student-curators working last semester under the direction of then-guest curator Derrick Cartwright, he helped develop themes and interpretations for the exhibition and extract the final print selections that document the social, political and economic upheavals in the early- to mid-20th century, which is work undergraduates rarely have a hand in. In a stroll through both galleries, he points out his favorite piece, talks about the piece he considers the most powerful, expands on the themes presented and reveals nuances within the works of art. His expertise is undeniable.

“I can give you a pretty good argument for why every piece is here,” says Zawlacki with the confidence of a practiced pre-professional.


The Hoehn Print Study Room and the University Galleries — comprising the Hoehn Family Galleries, May Gallery and IPJ Fine Art Galleries — are invaluable resources for USD and the larger San Diego art community. The print study room houses one of the finest print libraries in California, as well as USD’s permanent collection, curated by Victoria Sancho Lobis, which represents the history of printmaking from the 15th century to the present, including works by masters such as Goya, Rouault and Rembrandt. Endowed through generous gifts from Robert and Karen Hoehn, the print collection, study room and galleries combine to create the consummate print program in San Diego, leading to creative partnerships with institutions like the San Diego Museum of Art.

Lobis encourages faculty across campus to participate in the gallery exhibition lecture series and to develop curricula around the collection itself and the exhibitions, such as the Spanish classes that incorporated a Goya exhibition into their studies or the theater students who have written and performed monologues inspired by exhibitions. Students like Zawlacki are welcomed as programming and curatorial interns. Others are invited to create sophisticated works of art in response to exhibitions and then see their pieces mounted next to the master works in the exhibition.

derrick cartwrightThe return of Derrick Cartwright (pictured, at right) in the newly created position of director of university galleries in August has created similar momentum. An assistant professor of art history at USD during the 1990s, Cartwright went on to become one of his generation’s most respected museum directors, leading museums in France and at Dartmouth College, as well as the San Diego Museum of Art and the Seattle Art Museum. His vision and reputation for seeking collaborations across disciplines and creating opportunities for art novices is well documented, and his plans for USD will build on past successes.

“I’m looking forward to the day when we have this program so well constructed that someone could come spend time at the IPJ Fine Art Galleries, stop in and see what we are doing with the Hoehn Family Galleries, get lunch, pay a visit to the May Collection and then see something at the Student Life Pavilion; to have as rich and varied a museum experience as you can have on almost any college campus in the country,” explains Cartwright, who can envision up to a dozen exhibitions a year, with students involved in every one. “The goal is to assemble a ‘string of pearls’ stretching the entire length of the USD campus that, when viewed collectively, will add up to something truly vital and significant.”

He also anticipates culling the creative spirits of students and faculty across the USD campus by devising projects with the law professors, for instance, or the students in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences. “All of these programs should have a stake in what we do,” he says. “If we are not, over a period of time, engaging that broad spectrum, then we are not really doing our job well.”


Step into Mary Boyd’s office, nestled in the heart of Founders Hall, and you’ll see another gallery she is proud to share: the walls of her office, which currently frame a senior thesis photography exhibition. While the outgoing dean of the College of Arts and Sciences comes solidly from a science background — chemistry, specifically — she’s an active proponent of the arts. Every few months, a new show embellishes her walls as she carries out the work of the college, the core of the USD academic experience.

Engaging in the arts as a student is a mind-broadening experience, she says, particularly at USD, where founder Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill believed students should be surrounded by beauty as a way to foster a life of intellectual pursuits. Boyd took her own first studio fine arts classes as a faculty member at Loyola University in Chicago, starting with color theory.

Mary Boyd“I spent more time working on the weekly assignments in that course than in any chemistry course,” Boyd says with a grin. “But I loved it.”

Over the past four years, Boyd’s work has included the review and revision of the core curriculum, a three-year process headed by a 39-member committee, primarily made up of faculty from the arts and sciences, business and engineering. Now in year two, the committee is scheduled to have an articulated core curriculum for faculty consideration and vote this spring.

Future developments aside, the Department of Art, Architecture + Art History already has a powerful mix of studies. Visual arts alone covers sculpture, drawing, painting, printmaking, photography and visual communications. Additionally, with the recent addition of Victoria Fu, that concentration now includes new media art, an area that explores film, video and time-based media as an art form. Just as important as the course offerings, say the faculty, is synergy. Department professors see the three majors not as parallel areas of study, but as intertwined, an approach which is natural for disciplines that encourage high levels of collaboration. Students mimic their mentors and help each other’s artistic instincts to flourish in spaces such as the senior studio. Before long, students find themselves working in multiple disciplines within the department by double majoring or by majoring in one area and minoring in the other two.

That scenario defines Olivas, a triple threat who is hard at work behind Camino Hall several days a week, rebuilding his creation from the tires up. Still largely out of public view, the project, “Untitled: A Rolling Social Structure,” is drawing interest not only from his arts faculty and peers, but from the facilities workers who pass by in their duties.

“They’re peeking their heads in and I’m hearing their comments and their ideas. It’s an awesome experience,” says Olivas. “That’s what got me excited about this project, the idea of the community coming together and having this dialogue. It’s fantastic.”

When it’s finished, the exterior of the working-class van will be an intentionally nondescript gray and the interior will be a professional exhibition space with hardwood or cork flooring, white steel walls and track lighting. In addition to housing an enlightening exhibition program, the van itself will serve as a space for dialogue.

“I like the idea of fostering the starving artist, showing our friends’ work, showing work that we enjoy,” Olivas says. “It’s really about bringing this community together — all the different disciplines — and sharing art in whatever location we might be. It doesn’t have to be in San Diego; I really want to take advantage of the mobile capability.”

In the end, Olivas’ intentions are quite simple. “I’m just trying to have fun and at the same time, trying to make an impact,” he says, pausing.

“All of us are trying to make an impact.” — Trisha J. Ratledge

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