By Darla Martin Tucker
The world began through an unfathomable act of brilliant creativity that human minds cannot comprehend. Earthly life, marred as it has become, abounds with innumerable exquisite moments and elements, all the handiwork of the original Artist who expressed Himself and communicated His deep love through creating what previously did not exist.
The stated aim and mission of Seventh-day Adventist education is to pursue whole-person development and produce service-oriented, joyful individuals who are deeply connected to and modeled after our Creator God.
The visual, performing, and literary arts provide a multitude of avenues for students to develop in this way, to function as “brand ambassadors”—storytellers for our Creator and for His gospel mission and objective to create new lives out of suffering, to give a voice to the marginalized, and to know ourselves and each other in a meaningful way.
“The arts give us meaning and help us communicate our stories and experiences across time,” said Terrill Thomas, chair of La Sierra University’s Art+Design department. “Without visual communication…no organization, including the SDA church, would be able to communicate their message to an increasingly connected and visually literate society.”
He added, “The only way we can influence the world is to engage with the world and connect our students to art and design careers to every industry around the world.”
Alums of La Sierra’s arts programs over the decades have made their presence known across industries, including within the Adventist denomination. Among them: the late Wayne Hooper, a 1941 La Sierra music alum and prolific gospel music writer, arranger, Kings Heralds quartet singer, and coordinator of the 1985 Seventh-day Adventist hymnal; 1975 and 1977 English department grad Donald Davenport, award-winning television script writer for Hallmark Channel movies and Kenny Rogers book collaborator; 2003 music grad and operatic mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka, whose performances on high-profile stages have garnered rave reviews; 2008 music alum and baritone Abdiel González, who has also appeared in significant operatic productions and on major feature film soundtracks and television scores; Curt Doty, an Art+Design graduate whose branded and original content company, Vertuoso, is making waves with such clients as The Grammy Awards, Spaulding sporting goods and HUD; Patricia Fa’asua, English department/drama program graduate and actress on the 2019 TV miniseries Unbelievable.
Input and interaction with professionals, and professional involvement on the part of faculty, are vital to the development of relevant arts skills and serve as inroads to industries.
The drama program through the English department is led by Dr. Marilynn Loveless, a multi-award-winning theater director and screenplay writer who led past La Sierra drama groups to Kennedy Center honors and other recognitions. She brings experienced actors and directors to assist with the drama program’s productions.
Most of La Sierra’s music department faculty members, including its adjuncts, also function as professional musicians, appearing with such noted groups as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and many other leading groups. Its members have won Emmy and other awards, played on film score soundtracks, and made significant marks as prolific composers. Its Hanson-Koobs Chamber Music Series brings high-profile classical artists to the region at little cost to audiences, and the annual Montecito International Music Festival includes free performances by some of classical music’s most eminent artists.
Art+Design’s Thomas and faculty also function as professional artists in the Los Angeles and Riverside areas. The department partners with design companies and brings in visiting artists to teach classes. The department’s Brandstater Gallery, under the direction of Tim Musso, assistant professor and an exhibiting artist, brings in recognized artists and curators each year.
The department’s students have won multiple regional Addy Awards from the American Advertising Award. This March, Art+Design brought home a record 16 student Addy Awards and three professional awards, with marketing and graphic design student Katie Nichols winning a $1,500 Academic Achievement Scholarship Award, a department first.
The Film and Television Production Department, one of La Sierra’s newest disciplines, brings accomplished film industry professionals into the classroom to deliver firsthand knowledge of the business. The program is led by Rodney Vance, an award-winning writer, producer, and director whose short film The Butterfly, the Harp and the Timepiece starred Oscar-winner Melissa Leo and Golden Globe-winner Alex Ebert. Vance also wrote Miracle at Gate 213, a 2013 holiday television drama produced by Faith for Today and starring Oscar-winner Louis Gossett, Jr. Film students’ work has been recognized by film festivals around the world, including by the SonScreen Film Festival organized by the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.
The department has recently realigned its degree programming in keeping with industry demand and toward enhancing the employability of its students. The department’s Bachelor of Fine Arts degree teaches all of the basic skills required to complete a video or short film with advanced specializations in either editing or sound. The BFA also incorporates workshops teaching vocational skills in software and gear, for which students receive a certificate.
“Editors from Spectrum and Adventist Review regularly visit our Writing for Publication class and give students insights into what makes for a successful submission,” said Sari Fordham, associate professor of English and creative writing, and a multi-award-winning writer. Her students’ work has frequently appeared in Adventist youth publications such as Guide, Primary Treasure, and Insight, as well as Spectrum and Adventist Review.
Fordham’s creative writing class launched The Road Runner Review, a student-produced international literary journal that brings together students from various universities around the world. Two of La Sierra’s students won awards in 2019 from the Society of Adventist Communicators for their work on the Review.
During the current coronavirus pandemic, arts instruction has merged into online delivery mode and public programming has been temporarily suspended in light of county and state stay-at-home orders. Faculty are presenting classes on Zoom video conferencing and other platforms and pushing their own creative efforts to teach the arts remotely.
In addition to lecturing and doing art critique sessions on Zoom, Art+Design faculty are asking students to post their progress online to Pixieset.com. Professors screen-record their feedback and send students a Quicktime file. They are also using overhead iPhone tripods to record video demonstrations.
A+D department ‘FAM’ food nights, held with Film and TV students, are also continuing via Zoom.
During the pandemic quarantine, Film and Television students have been challenged to create a short film that is shot entirely in the space they are inhabiting using equipment they have on hand, and to learn lighting techniques with light sources that are available to them.
“We are creators,” Vance told his students. “We are the best-equipped people on the planet to deal with this kind of abrupt change. We tell the stories that give people hope, that hold communities together.”
Noted Vance, “Stories reveal the process of human change and growth and so are foundational to the human experience. Ideologies and positions divide us; stories unite us and invite us into a communal experience strong enough to create the world we long for. The question is, what kind of world do we long for?”