For the second year, USD alumnus John Thomson ’74 B.S.B.A., ‘77 M.B.A., hosted USD fine arts students and faculty in New York City to show them museums, galleries and studios and to introduce them to successful New York City artists. Dean of the College of Fine Arts Larry Schou accompanied the students and describes the week.
John Thomson, a prominent collector of contemporary art and a New York City businessman, was our gracious host for USD’s College of Fine Arts second annual art student tour to New York City.
I met Thomson, a native of Centerville, South Dakota, a few years ago via the USD Foundation and struck up a friendship. Soon, talks began of how he might use his artist contacts to benefit USD art majors. We started to plan a unique tour for USD’s top art majors—undergraduate juniors and seniors and graduate students at USD— to visit New York, see Thomson’s personal collection of contemporary art and meet with a variety of famous artists. Fourteen art majors, two faculty/staff members and I went to New York City in November 2016 to visit artists’ studios, see museums and galleries and to be inspired by the artists’ stories.
Among the artists we visited were Ai Weiwei, brothers José and Rey Parlá, Natalie Frank, Lucas Blalock, Will Ryman, Dean Levin, Peter and Sally Saul, Eric Parker and John Newman. Each represents a different area of artwork, whether it be photography, painting, sculpture or ceramics. Several of these artists, in their 30s and 40s, are already reaching toward the top of the New York art market. These artists gave several hours of their time for our visit and provided great advice to the students about building a career in the arts.
Before the trip students learned about the artists they would meet during several evening classes with Carol Geu, Department of Art online art historian, and Michelle St. Vrain, art gallery interim director. These two staff members went on the trip to provide their expert guidance at the museums and the studios.
“USD faculty made sure their students were prepared,” Thomson told me. “The students were well-informed about the artists and came prepared with pertinent questions.”
Upon arriving in New York City on a Thursday, our group made a quick trip the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) before dinner. At the MoMA the group was given a tour of the exciting and thought-provoking exhibit entitled “Insecurities.” Curator Shaun Anderson explained how he came to put this exhibition together and gave us background for many of the pieces in the show.
It is important to get a sense of what New York City is about by sensing the sights, smells and sounds of this great city. Walking is a must. From the MoMA we walked to Thomson’s home to see part of his collection and talked with artist Natalie Frank.
“John is a rarity in the art world—a true lover of art, mentor, trusted friend and incredibly generous of his time, gifts and support,” Frank said. “It was a thrill to visit with the talented and articulate students of his alma mater. I was bowled over by their precociousness and so impressed by the tremendous weekend in New York that they had in store. They have bright stars in their future.”
Thursday night, we dined at the Monte Carlo restaurant, which is becoming a wonderful tradition for the trip. Dinners with the artists are also a must so that students have extra time to socialize in a relaxed atmosphere to ask more questions about their career in the arts.
On Friday we were up early to reach our first artist studio in the Bowery area of lower Manhattan. Will Ryman’s studio is an exciting place where creativity flows. His artistry is seen in his sculptures made of graphite and his ceramic figures that show a flair of whimsy. One sculptural work filled a room and depicted the now-famous photo of the war room as the nation’s administrative team waited to hear about the death of Osama bin Laden. That famous picture was put into 3-D as Ryman gave life to each person’s mannequin body and brought out their gestures and expression.
The rest of the morning and afternoon were filled with visits to the studios of young artists Dean Levin and Lucas Blalock. Each of these artists speaks with a different voice, Levin in his paintings and Blalock in his photography. These young artists are reaching new heights in their careers. USD students were engaged in discovering how they, too, could develop their careers just as Blalock and Levin had.
‘There is something about seeing real artists work in New York in their own studios that makes anything seem possible.’
“For me, Ryman and Blalock were the most inspiring artists we met on the trip,” said Epiphany Knedler, a senior. “While everyone’s experiences are different, Ryman and Blalock were the most understanding of our situations as students. These great artists showed us so many opportunities in our future career fields and gave realistic recommendations as to how to be successful in the New York art world.”
On Saturday, our last full day in New York, we started out at the Mary Boone Gallery. This gallery is very well known in art circles and features some of the world’s most prominent artists. Thomson, working through Mary Boone, arranged for our group to meet with the internationally- renowned Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei. The artist had two large art pieces on display in the main gallery with a smaller wooden piece in another room. It was an extraordinary opportunity for USD art students to meet this famous artist and have a chance to dialogue with him.
The next stop was a visit with the artists and brothers, José and Rey Parlá. These amazing artists have a large studio in Brooklyn where José creates his masterful pieces; sometimes five or 10 pieces are being worked on at a time. José is the creator of the large art piece that is currently on display in the lobby of the One World Trade Center.
The Parlá brothers were very generous with their time for the students, and the questions kept flowing. After a lunch of Cuban food, Rey and José each told the group how they develop their artistic ideas and how they bring those thoughts forward, whether it is on canvas or in a multimedia presentation. There was so much energy in the room and the students were inspired to get back to their own studios immediately. Before we left, José and Rey gave each student copies of their catalogs of works, and took time to autograph each book.
Our New York City trip closed with a visit to the studio of artist Erik Parker. His work catches the eye for its vibrant colors and the exciting and playful fun it exhibits.
Students had several prepared questions to ask each artist, with each student researching one of the artists for the class presentations. Questions for Parker centered on color and design.
On our last night in New York dinner was at an Italian restaurant with Erik Parker and his mentor, the famous artist Peter Saul, and Peter’s wife, artist Sally Saul. Students had a wonderful time talking to these artists. “Getting the opportunity to speak with these artists directly was rare and those conversations are directly inspiring work I am making now,” said Rebecca Froehlich, a senior. “Many of the artists gave advice about work ethic, mentorship and maintaining your inspiration, which are lessons that I am taking away as I graduate and move on to a career in the field of arts in health.”
Heading home early Sunday morning, students began to reflect on what they had experienced. This was the real world of art— and they were able to meet many amazing artists in three days in New York City.
All the artists the students met with are personal friends of Thomson’s. “It was a very intense few days,” said Thomson. “I think being able to see and visit with the top 5 percent of artists in New York City is a game changer for a lot of these students.”
Thomson provided us with a dream come true as these USD art majors experienced more than the sights and sounds of the Big Apple, but were also able to step into their field of interest to discover what it means to be an artist at a high level.
“The opportunity Thomson gave to me has opened so many doors and possibilities and changed my life for the better,” said Dillon Bryant, a junior photography major.
“It was a great honor for me to get to know Thomson and visit the artists. This trip was a big help and encouragement for me to pursue my dream,” said Leila Ghasempor, a senior.
This is what the great faculty of the College of Fine Arts at USD seek to offer each and every student, every day.
“The students do a great job of representing South Dakota. They really blew me away. I can’t stress enough how that reflects on the education they’re getting,” Thomson said. “USD should be proud of how well these students are doing. I got great feedback from the artists we met with—they were delighted to get an educated group.”
Special thanks to John Thomson and Tom and Nancy Gallagher for their financial support of this trip.