The life of a student is an experience of constant transition, learning, experimenting, and applying new knowledge. No student perhaps better exemplifies the recent transition of the Southwest School of Art into a full-fledged degree-granting art college than Nicholas Lucio, who also goes by Nicki.
In All That Remains, the senior thesis exhibition of the school’s first graduating class, Lucio’s artwork boldly documents her own gender transition from male to female, in a visceral photographic and sculptural installation.
“What I’ve been trying to explore and express with my art,” Lucio said, “is to at least garner a little understanding, that there’s more to being a trans person than just putting on makeup, the type of clothes I wear, the shape of my body.”
The politically-charged fight over the Texas Legislature’s so-called “bathroom bill” spurred Lucio to openly confront the issue as an artist. “This isn’t about trying to put a on a dress and trying to sneak into a bathroom,” she explained.
“This is no choice that was taken lightly, there’s a lifetime behind it. It has consequences that I’m going to wear for the rest of my life,” Lucio said, visible in Prime Cuts, three images of her transitioning body, and in Copious Consumption, hundreds of pill bottles strung from the ceiling in a geometric array.
Other artworks in the exhibition address personal and family concerns, like Audrey LeGalley’s group of near to life-scale household objects made from porcelain.
“I’m thinking about the domestic and structural elements from the home as a way to reference emotional support structures in the family,” LeGalley explained. Her work garnered a “Best In Show” award at the school’s April 29 commencement ceremony, along with her magna cum laude honors and bachelor’s of fine arts (BFA) degree.
The Southwest School granted bachelor’s of fine arts degrees to its first graduating class of 11 students on that festive day, with speeches from Mayor Ron Nirenberg, noted artist Dario Robleto, and an appearance by one of the school’s founders, 100-year-old Edith McAllister.
McAllister also bestowed an award in her name to graduate Ethan Gonzalez, which underwrites a future exhibition and publication.
The students marched in to the ceremony to a lively processional tune, Bourbon Street Parade, played by San Antonio jazz group Henry Brun & the Latin Playerz. Brun worked with the students to help choose music they felt would represent them and the spirit of the momentous occasion.
Brun said he told them, “You can have a processional with your typical graduation music, or being the first arts graduating group, which is historical on many levels, you can make this your own.”
The students wanted a bit of a strut, Brun said, and New Orleans “second line” music “has a way of bringing feelings out of people you wouldn’t normally see.” Brun said after talking with school President Paula Owen, the idea of students choosing their own tune might become a tradition.
“It’s a school of many firsts,” he said.
“To be first is always heroic,” Owen said in her commencement welcome speech, citing risk-taking as an admirable quality among the students.
The board of trustees for the school also “stuck their necks out” back in 2009, Owen said, to mount the $11 million capital campaign that would help improve school facilities, buy new property for expansion, add new technology, and make initial hires for the new program.
Citing faculty members, some of whom have since retired, Owen said, “There are so, so many people that were instrumental in getting the first class through the program, and to this milestone moment for us.”
Owen knew that “we needed to allow ourselves … plenty of time to get up and running, and make the qualitative improvement that would be required along the way to become sustainable,” while avoiding potential pitfalls of a too-rapid expansion, she said.
Cum laude graduate Ayanna Irek waited “four long years” to get her BFA degree, she said, but time before that also counts. “I had to wait until they got their program together, then start the process of enrolling, then go through four years with other classmates,” she said.
Now Irek feels relief and pride. “There’s a mixture of being sad, being ready, being happy,” at finally having graduated, but now moving on from working closely with those classmates, she said.
Having been the first graduating class was “a learning curve for everybody,” Irek said, in that the school was transitioning from its former existence as purely a community school of arts and crafts, a status which it maintains, to a degree-granting college of art.
“We’re the guinea pigs,” she said, citing the difficulty of scheduling studio time among the community students and other logistical issues. The school worked closely with the students on such issues, she said, concluding “overall it’s been just a positive experience.”
The school is evolving and changing as the students are, said Faculty Chair Justin Boyd. “The nice thing about it being such a small school, if we do see something isn’t working, we can make the change.” he said.
“The ultimate goal in our minds and hearts, is we want you to have the best possible education, and we’re doing all this to that end.”
Boyd said he’s proud of the results, evident in the All That Remains exhibition. The title, chosen by the students, according to Curator and Director of Exhibitions Chad Dawkins, in part evokes that only 11 of the original 20 admitted in the class made it to graduation. The 55 percent graduation rate is standard, Owen said, which is backed up by a survey of arts colleges on U.S. News & Word Report, where rates commonly run between 36 and 68 percent.
Also remaining is for the school to achieve accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art & Design agency, which develops institutional standards for arts-focused colleges.
Owen and Boyd assured that the school is on track to achieve its 2020 NASAD accreditation, and that students should not be impeded in the meantime with graduate school applications, should they choose that direction.
Accreditation is chiefly for accessing federal financial aid, Owen and Boyd said, and Boyd pointed out that one positive of not being accredited is the school’s focus on scholarships. Nearly 90 percent of students receive scholarship money, Boyd said, which greatly reduces any potential debt load.
Without the typical looming debt of college graduates, and equipped with detailed practical knowledge of the art field given to them by Dawkins, students said they are planning their futures accordingly.
LeGalley said she will take one year off from school to teach a functional ceramics class in the Southwest School’s community school program, and plans to apply to several graduate schools including a new master’s program in North Carolina, “which is funny,” she said, realizing she might be part of another “first class.”
Sculptor Chris Sauter, a foundations instructor who joined the faculty three years ago, met this class for the first time as its senior projects advisor. Reflecting on what it means to the students to be the school’s first graduating class, he said, “Honestly I don’t think it’s that important to them. It shouldn’t be important to them.”
They got their degrees, he said, “so that they can be artists, with some tools in their toolkit.” For the school generally, he said, the long process of graduating its first degreed students is “validation that we have the capability to do the things we thought we could do.”
For her part, Lucio said, “I got to feel like I was part of something very special when I came here,” citing the influence of painting and drawing instructor Vincent Valdez on gaining her confidence and voice as an artist. Having moved from painting into photography, sculpture, and installation work, Lucio is now ready to go back to painting.
“My immediate plans are to go full throttle into art, just produce, produce, produce,” she said, continuing a daily self-portraiture project.
“It’s gonna be weird waking up and not having to go to school full time,” she said, “but to me that’s okay, so now we just start painting.”
The All That Remains exhibition is open through Sunday, May 20, in the John L. Santikos Building of the Southwest School of Art.