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Tohono O’odham Community College Gets Top-Notch Art Degree Program

Students at Tohono O’odham Community College can now smoothly transition to the Institute of American Indian Arts to continue their arts education.

Fransisco A. Fraire Jr. has been drawing for as long as he can remember. Now he’s a student at Tohono O’odham Community College, and thanks to a new Fine Arts Associate Degree program there, he will be able to smoothly transition to the Institute of American Indian Arts to continue his education.

“I really didn’t know about any programs until I came here,” Fraire, 28, Pascua Yaqui, said. “Right now it's my second semester, and they are giving us career goals.”

Kimberly Lund

Fransisco Fraire, Pascua Yaqui, will be entering his panel of drawings in the International Sonoran Desert Alliance Exhibition in May.

Kimberly Lund, Visual Art and Design Instructional faculty, was hired by Tohono O’odham Community College last spring to start the program. Lund brings her experience from the Persian Gulf, where she went after completing her Ph.D. There she developed two colleges, including the College of Fine Arts at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Lund left the Middle East and returned to Arizona in 2008.

Dr. Mario Montes-Helu, TOCC’s academic chair of general education, said Lund was hired last spring because of her qualifications and experience developing schools around the world.

One of Lund’s immediate goals was to ensure that students who earned their Associate of Fine Arts degrees would be able to pursue higher education. The new arts program does that. “Once they get that associate’s degree, they can now go to IAIA for their Bachelor’s Degree, which is fabulous,” Lund said. With the addition of the new program, she said, “We are going to be inviting other tribal colleges to send their students here for Fine Arts.”

On March 16, 2015 the college signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Institute of American Indian Arts, in New Mexico, which will allow TOCC’s AFA graduating students in good standing to transfer there.

The AFA degree program hosts a full range of courses based on a strong art curriculum. “They are getting the real deal here, so they can transfer anywhere,” Lund said, noting that last fall, the students had their first exhibition at the Tri-National Gallery in Ajo, Arizona, and two students sold their work. “There is a natural visual, intuitive, and spatial ability in the population here that is astonishing,” she said.

Kimberly Lund

Arnold Weaselhead, Blackfoot/Pend d’Oreilles, carves a buffalo from a sketch and a block of plaster at the new Visual Arts and Design classes at the Tohono O’odham Community College.

In November, artist Shelly Taylor, Klamath, was brought on board to teach Drawing 1. Attending an art school with a degree program has meaning for her. When she attended the Art Institute of Tucson, she was devastated to later find that none of her credits transferred to IAIA.

Taylor comes to the school from the Klamath Falls Reservation in Oregon. She had minor concerns about teaching for a different tribe, but said it took only a little while before she and the students reached a comfort level. “Something is working,” she laughed. “They are responding, and students who have already taken the class, are still coming back to draw.”

As a reading and drawing “nerd,” Taylor said she struggled to avoid the pitfalls of reservation life. Surrounded by drugs and drinking, and troubled by her best friend’s suicide, Taylor said, “Art saved my life. My students know I understand historical trauma, and there are other reasons we feel more comfortable in a tribal school setting. There is a commonality and when we claim our identity, we reach our potential.”

Taylor takes issue when people tell her, ‘It’s just art.’ “In my experience, Natives have a knack for visual space. We draw things, we weave things, we bead things, we create things. We are visual engineers, to my mind,” she said. “When we create, we honor creation in us, so we honor Creator by creating. It is not ‘just art.’ It is everything that we are.”

Student Christina Garcia, Tohono O’odham, took the drawing class somewhat on a whim and is surprised at how much she enjoys it. “I am in the beginning stages,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could draw, and now I am being told I have a hidden talent.”

Garcia started with Basic Drawing said it brings peace to her day. “It changes the mood in taking the other classes. There is a calm when you can break up your studies; there is a different energy in the art classes,” she said. “My go-to crafts until now have been baking, cooking and sewing,” Garcia said, and admits she is looking forward to taking more art classes. “This program is a stepping stone. A lot of the classes filled up, just by word of mouth. Our instructors are really wonderful.”

Kimberly Lund

Christina Garcia, Tohono O’odham, discovered she had a hidden talent when she took her first drawing class in the new Visual Arts and Design classes at Tohono O’odham Community College.

Garcia said the new program will be a real boon to the community, especially for the students who have not had the opportunity to take their art further. Fraire agreed, saying Lund “informed me of all the possibilities, and kind of gave me a sense of direction.”

TOCC is a small college in the Sonoran Desert, located about 60 miles from Tucson, and 20 miles from the Mexican border. There are currently about 250 students enrolled, and close to 20 in the art department. The college began as a vocational school and is becoming much more focused on education, Lund said.