One hundred years old and thriving


SJSU’s art department has ‘solid future’
text: Leeta-Rose Ballester / image: George Tanner


The lights were off as some digital video students chatted quietly and collaborated on projects while others sat focused on the lesson at hand. Laptops, cellphones and cameras were strewn about the classroom as Professor Craig Hobbs gave his lecture.

Hobbs’ own camera, perched on a tripod and hooked up to a flat screen at the front of the room, was aimed at odd objects on the desks and walls as he demonstrated how to adjust white balance and exposure settings.

“Sometimes things reveal themselves in the shot that will change everything,” Hobbs said. “It really is a matter of play and exploration.”

Classes that instruct students on how to use computers and technology are newer developments in the SJSU art department’s 100-year history, but the basics are still at the heart of the program.

Hobbs said that without the underlying principles of traditional art instruction — color theory, design, line, balance — artists would not be able to make such great achievements even with the impact that new technology has made.

“That’s a loaded question around here,” Hobbs said when asked about the future of art. “The tool doesn’t necessarily make the artist.”

In 1871 the institution, originally a teachers’ college, was moved from San Francisco to San José, said curator Jo Farb Hernandez. Art classes were part of the core curriculum that was required of every student attending because administration believed it was critical to fostering well-rounded people.

Hernandez said that over time, the school and the art department, which was officially founded in 1911, adapted to the happenings of the world. The art department has gathered this rich history and the achievements of SJSU art faculty and alumni into a collection of essays, galleries and a hardcover book that highlights the mark SJSU has left on the art community.

“We’re trying to take a global look at what has taken place in the last 100 years,” Hernandez said. “Things corresponded to what was going on the universe rather than just the university. What has really been so strongly evident is the creativity and passion that carried on through the decades.”

Digging through boxes and boxes of archives, scrapbooks and yellowed copies of the Spartan Daily, art history alumni Kathleen Kenyon, Marianne Kennedy McGrath and Betsy Vaca researched the vast changes that have taken place throughout the past century.

Kenyon, who explored the department’s past between the years of 1911 and 1945, explained that what was once San José Teacher’s College in the earlier years, struggled with enrollment during WWI. The school began to offer four-year degrees.

“Around 1923, it began offering courses in commercial art,” Kenyon said, which strayed from the school’s close bond with arts and crafts but expanded horizons and possibilities for students.

SJSU began to see a strong force of talent within its faculty and students. Artists such as Mary Robinson Blair, an illustrator who worked on Disney classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, and Leon Amex, known for his watercolors and abstracts, would emerge from this time period.

As SJSU moved into the 1950s, “optimism and ambition” of the nation “filled the art department too,” according to McGrath, who studied the years 1946 through 1970.

Students, faculty and alumni continued to push through boundaries and use art as expression against the Vietnam War and other national movements at the time. San José State hosted psychedelic art galleries, featuring strobe lights and music to accentuate the students’ art.

This golden age of the art department produced artists such as Mel Ramos, best known for his paintings of nudes and superheroes, Manuel Lucero, a performance artist, and Robert Fritz, a pioneer in the glass arts.

Vaca, who focused her studies on the years 1970 through the present, said that changes within the art department reflected technological advances in the world around it.

During this time, the Glassblowing Guild, Watercolor Society, Sculpture Guild and the Industrial Studies program were born.

“The Industrial Design program increasingly gained recognition because of the quality of graduates,” Vaca said.

Three alumni entered the bicycle world, creating mountain bikes and helmet designs, while Nilo Rodis-Jamero is credited with designing the famed “slave outfit” for Princess Leia in Star Wars.

Cuts in the 1980s significantly strained the art department, Vaca said, but a new emphasis on digital arts offered new hope. Computer oriented areas became more prevalent but graphic design and photography saw a resurgence as artists experimented with technology.

Sam Eshtehardi, a junior digital media major, said that no matter what the future holds, the SJSU art department has a solid future.

“Artists will always want to break the mold,” Eshtehardi said. “If we all went digital they would want to go back to classical. It’s the nature of the artist to want to do that.”


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