For the first time in the 49-year history of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) Arts Festival, a San Antonio school hosted the celebration of visual, theater, and musical arts. More than 3,200 students arrived at Saint Mary’s Hall on April 7, to spend three days participating in workshops, performances, and spontaneous happenings around campus. Regular classes were canceled and the festival atmosphere, complete with tents and hula-hoops, flooded the grounds.

Host schools pick a new theme for the festival every year. Saint Mary’s Hall felt that there could be no more appropriate theme for an April festival in San Antonio than the Fiesta fever that takes the city by storm every year. “Viva the Arts” was a perfect fit for the breezy warm days with streamers fluttering in the trees, girls wearing coronoas, and the serapes scattered across the lawns for picnics and jam sessions. It was a little like stepping onto the grounds of a very clean music festival.

The event, considered to be the largest high school arts festival in the nation, brings professional artists and art institutions onto campus, giving the students the chance for masterclasses, adjudication, and feedback.

Artists who have worked with San Antonio arts organizations such as AtticRep, Ballet San Antonio, The Playhouse San Antonio,  and the San Antonio Symphony participated in this year’s events as clinicians and adjudicators. Artpace was officially involved as an organization. In addition, Savannah College of Art and Design, Maryland Institute College of Art, Southwest School of Art, Texas Tech University, Texas State University, Trinity University, UTSA, TCU, UT-Rio Grande, San Francisco Art Institute, and the All American High School Film Festival in New York sent arts faculty to work with the students.

On the baseball field, local muralist Alex Rubio led a mural workshop. A team of Saint Mary’s Hall students worked as Rubio’s assistants throughout the day while students from other schools signed up to work on the serape-themed mural as their schedule allowed.

Among the 140 artists and professionals working at the festival were visual artists Chris Sauter, Katie Pell and Diana Kersey, San Antonio Symphony violinist Stephanie Westney, theater artists Roberto Prestigiacomo and Tyler Keyes, photographers Melanie Rush Davis and Kemp Davis, Ballet San Antonio featured soloist Yosvani Cortellan, and filmmakers Adam Rocha and Rick Carrillo.

The annual event moves between approximately ten different schools in Houston, Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque. This is the first time it has come to San Antonio, though Saint Mary’s Hall, TMI the Episcopal School of Texas, and The Winston School have participated for many years. It’s likely to be at least ten years before the festival returns. 

Students come from independent schools in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Some are freshmen, exploring their interests in the arts, while others are seniors with a distinct focus. The event is funded by the admission fee, and students are encouraged to make the most of the festival to try new art forms. A clay studio and metal works studio allowed students to make a first attempt with media they might not have considered before.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the festival is the lack of a competitive element. The students and their teachers are encouraged to use the time to share ideas, experiment with style and craft, and follow creative inspiration as it bubbles up. Such sharing was exactly the purpose when the event was conceived in 1967 with an invitation from Oklahoma City’s Casady School Choir to the choirs of Wichita Collegiate and Holland Hall to participate in a joint program.

Festival students sleep in the grass and play with hula-hoops in the late afternoon. Photo by Scott Ball.
Festival students sleep in the grass and play with hula-hoops in the late afternoon. Photo by Scott Ball.

Often competition overshadows that cross-pollination, so organizers have resisted the cultural trend to turn everything into an opportunity for awards and anxiety.

Saint Mary’s Hall fine arts director Bethany Bohall feels that the non-competitive spirit of the “hippy-dippy” ’60s, when the festival was founded, has preserved the most constructive elements of the event. She loves seeing students try new things and enjoy each other’s talents without the pressure to win.

In the elite private schools represented at the festival, this may be one of the few events of their year that is not about winning or achieving some particular distinction.

“We don’t get to do this sort of thing very often,” said Mariana Kendall, senior at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Houston.

The professionals who offer feedback are constructive and discerning, but the students can enjoy the criticism, rather than waiting for the bottom line scores.

Saint Mary’s Hall junior Mia Tolin received feedback on her three-dimensional artwork from a local artist. She said he gave her a lot of help thinking of how to expand on her concept of organic forms and bright reflective colors.

“The feedback here is like what you would get at a competition, but without being placed,” said Diana Moriarty, a senior at Duchesne.

Moriarty participated in dance events, and she and Kendall both participated in choir and vocal events, as well as the “Coffee shop” which provides a continuously open mic where students can debut their original material.

Like many students at the festival, Moriarty doesn’t plan to go into the arts professionally. She wants to be an engineer, but she feels the arts have enriched her education. It’s obvious that others standing in line for the food trucks and listening to music at the coffee shop tent are making the most of the low-pressure festival atmosphere and social opportunities.

Food trucks were positioned all over the Saint Mary's Hall campus for refreshments and food. Photo by Scott Ball.
Food trucks were positioned all over the Saint Mary’s Hall campus for refreshments and food. Photo by Scott Ball.

For some students, however, high school is a time of artistic awakening, and the ISAS Festival gives them the space they need to express themselves. One courtyard in particular is full of “happenings” involving hula hoops, spontaneous ceremonies, and the recreation of classic performance art pieces. In the show rooms, students who are serious about pursuing art have the chance to really engage peers, educators, and professionals to hone their craft.

Like most high school art festivals, there is a range of skill on display. Some shows great promise. Some pieces reflect technical mastery of a medium. Some, however, are truly stunning. In both the three-dimensional show room and the two-dimensional, there were a handful of pieces that showed not only technique, but vision and maturity as well.

After 28 hours of programming, with too much social energy to sleep much in between, the kids were no doubt exhausted. However, many were already looking forward to next year.

“(ISAS Arts Festival) is the best thing in my year,” Kendall said.

*Top image: Students gather around the group mural created and designed by local artist Alex Rubio.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.