Cover Stories

Hands On

Santa Fe Community College welcomes new and familiar faces to arts leadership roles as post-pandemic enrollment numbers continue to rise

For days, snow closures and delays thwarted SFR’s plans to visit the Santa Fe Community College and conduct interviews with a number of new faces and returning faculty settling into leadership roles in the school’s arts department.

According to Jim Wysong, who serves as the dean of both the School of Liberal Arts and the School of Arts, Design and Media Arts, however, it was better for the weather to shutter the sprawling Southside campus then instead of after classes began Jan. 16.

Those snow days, he tells SFR, didn’t really count.

“Ironically, too, it was four years ago this week that my preliminary interview at SFCC was canceled for a snow day,” he says with a laugh over the phone.

As students and teachers reunite and get to know each other for the first time this week, five arts educators settle into new leadership roles this semester alongside Wysong: Shane Tolbert, academic director; Jared Weiss, drawing and painting program head; Beth Greene, jewelry and metal arts program head; Elizabeth Hunt, ceramics program head; and Sage Paisner, photography program head.

The roster reboot results from retirements and other changes for previous program heads, Wysong says, and it gives longtime adjuncts and newcomers—all who come with rich, practical experience in their fields—the opportunity to make their marks. With the current semester starting this week, potential students have until April 8 to enroll for the next one. And they should strongly consider doing so, as classes tend to fill rapidly. Arts at SFCC are on the rise.

Wysong came to Santa Fe following a position as an arts dean at the Dale Mabry Campus of the Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, where he kicked off his teaching career in geosciences and held other faculty and administrative positions. He began at SFCC in the summer of 2020, mere months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like most institutions at the time, SFCC took a hit during those days of lockdowns. Like most people, Wysong is a little sick of discussing those effects. As remote learning replaced hands-on courses, arts education experienced newfound challenges. And it quickly became clear which classes would and wouldn’t work via Zoom as more folks were forced to stay at home. Teaching and/or learning arts, it turns out, requires no small amount of facetime.

Arts enrollment numbers have steadily come back around, however. In the spring of 2020, just 286 students enrolled in arts courses. This semester, 695 are enrolled—an increase of more than 41%.

More students are signing up for multiple classes, too, according to SFCC Marketing and Public Relations Executive Director Todd Lovato.

The renewed interest bodes well for the future, Wysong says. Together with a handful of program directors already working in woodworking, sculpture, printmaking and other mediums, the arts program leaders act as “force multipliers,” Wysong explains.

“They take my vision forward, yes, but they also have their own visions that they amplify through the choices they make and the hires they recommend. That’s where the magic is. And it was very deliberate; they’re not newbies, but they’ve still got a lot of tread left, a lot of miles.”

Now, Wysong notes, if he has any enrollment problems, they’re rooted in increased demand. Even though all program directors also teach at least three three-credit courses per semester, some classes in the SFCC catalog have waiting lists nearing double digits.

And, in classic community college fashion, student demographics are all over the place.

“Because Santa Fe has such a rep for the arts and also attracts people who want to retire here, we have a lot of people coming back to school to take classes,” Wysong tells SFR. “I’ve got all these folks who’ve retired, but we also have a real need to make sure young people who are interested in pursuing arts as a career can come and get their experience. And [even if they transfer] to [the University of New Mexico] or the Institute of American Indian Arts or another four-year college or university, if they return to their hometown, hopefully they can stay and afford to live here by participating in the arts economy.”

Shane Tolbert, Academic Director School of Arts, Design and Media Arts

“My goal is to get back to really activated hallways.”

Santa Fe might seem small to those who moved here from a big city to embrace a life of art and gorgeous vistas, but for a painter like Shane Tolbert who hails from the tiny Texas town of Corsicana, the myriad artistic opportunities loom large.

Like most artists-turned-educators on this list, Tolbert picked up an MFA in his field (a self-designed degree obtained at the University of California - Santa Barbara) but never thought he’d wind up on the academic side. Some self-described success early in his career, including a series commissioned by United Airlines for its first-class lounges, seemed to herald good things.

“Then,” he says, “the checks stopped coming.”

Tolbert headed back to Texas for a litany of jobs, including stints in real estate and gallery direction. But when he started to feel that one driving part of himself slip away, he hightailed it to Abiquiú in the summer of 2016.

“There had just been no space to be an artist, and I didn’t like the political climate in Texas at the time,” he tells SFR. “Plus…I came because I was burnt out, and I found out you have to see it to believe it. I understood the critical mass of artists and makers in Santa Fe you hear about.”

And, he says, for the first time in his life when he told people he was an artist for a living they seemed to understand.

Tolbert called Abiquiú home base for two years, which he describes jokingly as his “Eat, Pray, Love moment.” Working without a studio, his kitchen became a makeshift space to continue his explorations of abstract works.

“When I settled in New Mexico, my practice opened again,” he says, “and I started getting commissions again.”

By 2018 with his practice humming along, Tolbert took a job teaching painting and drawing at Northern New Mexico College in Española. While there, he expanded his focus to include visual arts, film, art history and more. Five years later, he transitioned to SFCC as adjunct faculty; today, he works in a dual academic/administrative role that finds him helping to oversee the School of Art, Design and Media Arts.

“Part of my role…is to be an educator,” he says, “and I need to earn the respect and trust of my faculty and peers, so part of that is being in a classroom to know what everyone is dealing with firsthand. Beyond that, my goal is to get back to really activated hallways and for the arts department to be full of people.”

Jared Weiss, Drawing and Painting Program Head

“We’re…trying to make the school into something only we can make it.”

Collectors know oil painter Jared Weiss for his simultaneously accurate yet dreamy portraits of people in motion. But they might not know he has also launched a career passing on the technique to others.

“I had a show at the Center for Contemporary Arts in 2016, and an SFCC teacher at the time needed a sub,” he tells SFR. “He asked if I’d fill in for four weeks, and I just kept slowly gaining traction. I’ve worked with some of our students for seven years now.”

Weiss’ own arts education includes time in Florence, Italy, a BFA from the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio and an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute.

He’s also gained a bit of local notoriety. For example, Weiss’s work was featured on the cover of the SFR Annual Manual issue in 2018. His good-natured bedside manner and casual humility are desirable qualities in an educator.

“These are great people at the community college,” he tells SFR. “They’re [older people who are] wonderful and community-driven; they’re younger students looking to get the first two years of a bachelor’s out of the way. I wouldn’t say it’s 50-50, but we have some quality faculty onboard and the trend lately has been degree-seeking students looking to use the great facilities.”

Like his fellow teachers, Weiss taught virtually through the pandemic though he definitely prefers the return to classroom-based sessions, especially now that he has more say in scheduling, hiring faculty and enacting curriculum for best results.

“[Academic director Tolbert] and I have had a lot of conversations about this, and SFCC has been a rather traditional school,” he says, “but we’re filtering and we’re changing things through the process of observing and trying to make the school into something only we can make it.”

The drawing and painting courses at SFCC equip students with the proper tools to learn—and then break—the rules. Weiss believes everyone’s unique view of the world can and should inform how their creative practices wend and weave across time, but they need a foundation.

“Maybe that’s the strength of the college,” he says. “A solid understanding of the fundamentals, but…OK, so you can put one foot under the umbrella of the academic approach, and I like to keep a foot on that side of things; but the other we could broadly say is more in the contemporary side. You can be at a point between the two, I think.”

Beth Greene, Jewelry/Metals Program Head

“We have this division in our minds between art and craft…I don’t think it’s an adequate distinction.”

Recent Santa Fe transplant Beth Greene is no stranger to the deeply embedded jewelry tradition of the Southwest, though she points out that the medium’s legendary 7,000-plus year history transcends locales. Part of what draws her to the practice of jewelry and metal work, Greene says, is in how they become naturalized over time.

“While I was in undergrad learning about African history and how their native forms of ornamentation within that continent were taken by European forces and altered by the technology that was developing throughout that time,” she says, “I thought it was so fascinating how ornamentation can hold all this meaning and history and how it gets adapted by forces that people didn’t invite in.”

Greene’s own practice and love of jewelry and metal work dates back to her undergraduate days when she worked for an arts shop in Columbus, Ohio.

“We had all these traders from other countries—mostly the African continent—and they’d travel back and forth from their home countries and fill up these cargo vans, so we’d have these individuals show up with vans packed with stuff.”

Some of these items were broken down into piece parts, or components of jewelry, which gave Green insight into how everything came together. She started making pieces of her own.

“I…started taking classes at a cultural arts center,” she explains, “and decided to go back to school and do work in metalsmithing.”

Greene pursued her master’s at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, and continued to hone her jewelry making and metalworking chops. She taught at that school as well as Eugene’s community college and a local arts center.

Next, Greene embraced a more outdoorsy off-grid lifestyle, which she pursued in Northern California and Colorado over the following 15 years. During the pandemic, Greene took on landscaping, firewood stacking and other such odd jobs that pop up in rural community economies. In 2020, she moved to Albuquerque to get involved with jewelry making school and co-working space Meltdown Studio. When the COVID-19 grip began to loosen, however, Greene pursued an adjunct faculty position with SFCC. She moved to Santa Fe full-time in June 2022.

Now that she helms coursework in her specialty, Greene oversees adjunct support and curriculum, such as studio visits and guest artists. She aims to increase the program’s focus on the metal aspects of artistry, both in relation to jewelry and not.

“We think of jewelry in this very specific way, a very specific style, a virtuous craft—and it is that,” she says, “but we also have this division in our minds between art and craft, and while I wouldn’t say that’s a useless distinction, I don’t think it’s an adequate distinction.”

Sage Paisner, Photography Program Head

“I don’t ever want to be the only faculty—I want a lot of voices.”

Anyone who follows the Santa Fe photo scene even a little will likely know the name Sage Paisner. For starters, Paisner’s nonprofit space Foto Forum Santa Fe has been a constant beacon of education and exhibition since he opened the doors in 2017 as what was supposed to be a temporary project. It has been going strong ever since, with Paisner, who holds an MFA in photography from the California Institute of the Arts, serving as a primary instructor.

“Y’know, being a teacher is…really just thinking about the pedagogy and how to activate your students,” he says. “Running the nonprofit has helped me, I think, to be prepared for some of what goes on being a program head at SFCC. Because it comes down to recruitment, building your programs, getting them in.”

Like his peers, Paisner’s classes are full for the coming semester, though he’s in the process of hiring more shooters to fill out the roster and offer more classes.

“I’m aiming for photographer Treston Chee, and he’s younger, but he has experience and I think it’s important to get up-and-coming people into the program,” Paisner explains. “I’ve got an upcoming meeting with this photographer Anna Walsh. She’s from Boston; she wants to teach; I want to build the program. I don’t ever want to be the only faculty—I want a lot of voices.”

Paisner also wants to showcase numerous styles and methods across classes. At Foto Forum, for example, you’ll find tintype workshops and demos; you’ll find an actual darkroom. SFCC has much larger facilities—as well as a digital lab and more modern equipment—but Paisner says he believes students are “hungry for” projects they can hold in their hands when completed, especially given the ubiquity of camera phones and the nonstop barrage of meaningless digital imagery.

“For example, I’m going to be teaching a landscape class; alternative processes; salt printings; and silver and platinum processes,” he explains. “For me, as an artist, a photo has got to be a print. It’s got to come from an idea in your mind to taking the photo to having an actual print you can present and talk about.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Paisner received his master’s from the University of New Mexico.

Elizabeth Hunt, Ceramics Program Head

“With clay, it’s not just making the work.”

Born in England and raised in Jamaica thanks to her father’s job studying diseased coconut trees, sculptor and ceramicist Elizbeth Hunt has tackled her new role with gusto, even if she has already taught at SFCC for 17 years after receiving her MFA in 3D arts from UNM. Pursuing that degree was, she says, all about working with her hands.

“It was also a studio and a job and health insurance,” she says matter-of-factly before letting out a laugh. “I’ve been here a long, long time—it was my first job out of grad school—stuff just sort of fell into my lap.”

Of course, that’s if you count tireless dedication as things falling into your lap. Hunt is currently preparing for an as-yet unnamed solo show at the Taos Ceramics Center through which she will explore faces and busts with complex accouterments like chains and hats; all painted in rather muted, earthy tones. First and foremost, she’s a sculptor, but her experience also crosses into in video, land art and computer graphics. That last one even became a focus during her undergrad years at Michigan State University, but she craved hands-on work.

Hunt would like to pass that ethos on to the next generation of ceramics and sculpture enthusiasts. Ceramics, she notes, is both about artistry and technical know-how. She’ll teach a wide variety of methods this semester and welcome adjunct faculty and guest instructors over time, each with their own areas of expertise.

“Literally all the classes have a waiting list, though,” she cautions. “We could add two more sections of classes, but we’re at capacity for now. With clay, it’s not just making the work, it’s loading the kilns and firing them, and more classes mean more labor.”

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