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After a tumultuous year, the San Francisco Art Institute celebrated its150th anniversary with a virtual commencement on May 22 bridging poignancy and hilarity through performative speeches, SFAI-style. SFAI recognized artists Dr. Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas and artist and activist Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. 

When addressing the students, Dean Dr. Jennifer Rissler stated, “As I reflect on this past year, a refrain keeps coming to mind, one that suggests to me that you refuse to be defined by what was lost to this pandemic. Insisting instead to be remembered by how you responded to it….Your work is a reminder that artists are above all else critical first responders to social, economic, and political upheavals. . . You showed us what it means to be artists.”

After commencement, SFAI launched openings of BFA and MFA interactive online exhibitions, and an MA/Dual Degree Symposium: 


Wave Tossed but Never Sunk

2021 BFA graduation exhibition, May 22 - June 25


Wave Tossed but Never Sunk is an online exhibition showcasing the works of SFAI’s 2021 Bachelor of Fine Arts graduates, highlighting the resilience and perseverance of the artists during a year of turmoil. In an excerpt from the exhibition text, Gisselle Immormino, BFA 2021, writes: “You taught me so much more than I was expecting, maybe even more than I wanted or welcomed at times. Thank you for your magic, confidence, laughter, opportunity, tears, late nights, sunshine, life. Everything.” Graduating BFA artists are  Rora Blue, Zeming "Alex” Dai, Camila de Andrade Bianchi, Emily Golla, Gisselle Immormino, and Diane Vadino.


here, and yet—

2021 MFA and Dual Degree  graduation exhibition, May 22 - June 25


here, and yet— showcases the works of SFAI’s 2021 Master of Fine Arts and Master of Arts graduates for an online exhibition, documenting the installation of their works on campus. Students reflected both on their past year of remote learning, lack of access to campus, and the distance felt within the community during the time of the pandemic while also developing their own agency for what the different futures may hold. 

In describing the show, the graduate students wrote: “The hereness is abstract. Subjective momentary hereness. There is no anchor - there is no meeting point, there is only the continuous forward motion. Disjointed perfections.” Graduating MFA and MA artists include Dominique Birdsong, Lexygius Sanchez Calip, Qian Song, Colette Standish, Christian Tan, Kit Radford, Marisa Weissman, and Flora Wilds.


PhD Honorees + MacAgy Award Recipient


At the Commencement ceremony, SFAI recognized artists Dr. Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas with Doctorates of Fine Arts, honoris causa, for inspiring contributions to society and demonstrating how aesthetically astute, investigative minds can impact the world for the better. As an artist, author, and curator, Dr. Willis has focused her art and research on cultural histories envisioning the Black body, women, and gender. She is a celebrated photographer and acclaimed historian of photography, authoring dozens of books that contribute to and advance the field of photography. Hank Willis Thomas’s work as a sculptor, photographer, installation artist and cultural activist in works such as the Question Bridge and more recently the establishment of the political action committee known as the For Freedoms initiative continue to raise awareness around sensitive social issues.

Artist and activist Patrisse Cullors was awarded the Douglas G. MacAgy Distinguished Achievement Award, which is bestowed on a person who has made a singularly compelling societal contribution, especially concerning the public awareness of issues and ideas through the visual arts. Cullors’ practice and commitment to social activism have ignited a global movement for social justice, and against racism, and classism in the world, by co-founding Black Lives Matter.

SFAI Board Chair Lonnie Graham (SFAI MFA ’84) concludes: “Through the course of their practice, these artists (Willis, Willis, and Cullors) demonstrate the integral role the artist plays in society. Beset with the challenges of human endeavor, these individuals have imagined innovative ways to increase our understanding, gain insight through dialogue, and ultimately identify and face our problems head-on,”. “SFAI is pleased to honor these artists, and we offer our congratulations and best wishes to this year’s graduates.”

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