The new director of Arizona State University’s School of Art wants to see art and arts education properly recognized for the important role they play in transforming the world for the better.
A painter and associate professor, Forrest Solis said that she believes deeply in the value of arts education and feels fortunate to be a member of the School of Art and of ASU.
She points out that she has numerous colleagues in the School of Art working at the intersection of, for example, art and technology, art and ecology, and art and health care, “but we haven’t really gotten to the place where we’re a central part of the conversation when it comes to use-based research.”
Solis aims to strengthen the connection between such work and teaching and curriculum, “to get a foothold, and to demonstrate that artists make work that has the ability to advance and change the world. It isn’t only art about social issues that makes a difference. Our faculty are also making advances in material science, environmental science, social science and the applied sciences that will impact our lives and the lives of future generations. Art shapes the world, period.”
“Forrest Solis is an artist who uses her creativity as a vehicle, in part, to shine light on stories and experiences that are often overlooked or under examined,” said Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, of which the School of Art is a part. “She is equally creative as a leader and academic entrepreneur, building opportunities for our students to tell their own stories, with the support of a world-class faculty and one of the most highly ranked art schools in the country.”
Appointed interim director of the school in July 2021, Solis worked closely with the school’s staff, faculty and leadership to identify and address organizational structures that contribute to existing disparities. Under her leadership, the school implemented new fair and transparent communications and operational systems. Solis led the updating of the school’s governing procedures and guideline documents to be more inclusive and purpose-driven.
Additionally, she updated the school’s recruitment standards and procedures to require targeted outreach, and she is spearheading a revenue strategy that will fund diversity-focused scholarships, programming and professional development opportunities, as well as support research that amplifies diverse perspectives and empowers underserved populations.
“The School of Art and the Herberger Institute are on an exciting path for advancing creativity at social scale,” Tepper said. “Forrest has the knowledge, energy and optimism to help us reach more students, engage more deeply across the university and build a technologically empowered curriculum for our next 50 years.”
Born in Houston and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Solis attended The Chicago Academy for the Arts high school.
“I’ve been a painter for as far back as I can remember. I was inspired by paintings and drawn into their worlds and the stories they told, but also the mysteries they kept,” she said.
Her parents supported her interest in art “and still do to this day,” Solis said. “They made sure I had art supplies and art books, and they took me to art museums. As a young person, I was obsessed with women, and focused on paintings of women, but of course historically, many of those were painted by men. My first painting role model was Artemisia Gentileschi, particularly the way she used her image in her work.”
Today, Solis’ research is focused on women's issues and addressing inequalities through matters of domestic abuse, patriarchal birth practices and sexual oppression; her current body of work looks at issues of desire and death through an autobiographical lens.
Solis received her BFA in 2001 from the Kansas City Art Institute and her MFA in 2003 from Indiana University, then taught as an assistant professor of art at DePauw University in Indiana until 2006, when she chose to come to ASU because of its focus on research, and its diverse student population and commitment to access, as expressed in the university’s charter.
Art shapes the world, period.
— Forrest Solis, director of the ASU School of Art
As the school’s new director, she plans to maintain her focus on increasing diversity and inclusion within the school’s faculty and curriculum.
“I’ve had a complex personal history that gives me insights into the challenges that are shared among people from different socioeconomic, cultural and ethnographic backgrounds,” Solis said.
Her father, who was Latino, grew up in Texas translating for his parents, who did not speak English. He was the first generation in his family to go to college. Her mother, whom Solis calls “one of the smartest people I know,” did not pursue higher education and raised four children “on her own most of her life, without any support.”
“I recognize my privilege, but I also have a sense of what it is to be different, to not conform to a majority standard,” Solis said. “Education can give you economic mobility, and having economic mobility gives you independence; it gives you the opportunity to get out of bad situations. It gives you the opportunity to say no to things that don’t align with your values. We’re giving students the skills and knowledge to help advance them in their academic and professional careers, but in the end, what we’re really giving them is the ability to fulfill their goals and the freedom to choose to participate in our economy and make an impact on the world.”
To ensure that students succeed, Solis also plans to prioritize mentorship.
"Mentorship is hugely important," she said. "Two mentors who were significant to my success are Professor Barry Gealt and Professor Robert Kingsley. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentors I’ve had in my life, going back to my high school art teachers, Mr. Stuart and Mr. Rupert. That is one of the most important things we can offer our students besides knowledge — a lifelong relationship with professionals who can guide them. Someone they can connect with when they have to make an important decision, when they don’t know which way to go — a sounding board."
Solis says that the start of the school year this fall will look very different from the one that preceded it.
“This year, we will have grown our faculty by 30%, versus only 5% over the last five years, and we have increased the total percentage of diversity among faculty within the School of Art from 19% to 35%. Most importantly, we have hired our top candidates: brilliant artists and scholars who are excited to join our community,” she said.
One of Solis’ goals as director is to see that faculty diversity matches student diversity.
“I understand the power of representation,” Solis said. “Having strong women artists as professors in college inspired me and gave me the confidence to imagine myself in that role. Leeah Joo was one of those integral professors who set me on my professional path, and I will be forever grateful.
“We also need to continue to diversify and decolonize our course offerings and curriculum, and we need to increase our community engagement and outreach.”
One notable new hire: Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, who will lead and teach full time within the School of Art’s museum studies program, hold an administrative appointment as the director of the ASU-LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) Fellowship program and serve as the director of Northlight Gallery.
Fajardo-Hill is a British/Venezuelan art historian and curator, with an emphasis on modern and contemporary art and a specialty in Latin American and Latino art. She co-curated the 2017 exhibition "Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985" for the Hammer Museum and is presently co-curator of "Xican – a.o.x. Body," a touring exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts. Fajardo-Hill is developing and teaching a new suite of courses that address issues of representation within art history and museums, including Transformative Exhibitions Since the 1990's: Race, Class, Gender Revised; Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art: A Survey; and Identity Politics & Exhibitions.
“Cecilia is amazing,” said Solis, “and is going to truly advance the museum studies program and the ASU-LACMA Fellowship program.”
The ASU-LACMA Fellowship program, which is a presidential initiative, is completing its five-year pilot and has received approval to bring on a new cohort of ASU-LACMA Fellows. In addition, the partnership is expanding to include local art museums and cultural institutions.
A new addition to the school’s leadership team is Cristóbal Martínez, as associate director of research and practice for the school. An artist/scholar — and ASU alum — Martínez will work closely with Assistant Professor Cala Coats, who will serve as assistant director of research and education.
“Cristóbal and Cala will be working in tandem to advance research in education, designing curriculum around pressing questions and creating the conditions for faculty and students to conduct collaborative research,” Solis said. “We want to fulfill the mission of innovation and interdisciplinary research and education by truly connecting with faculty across the Herberger Institute and ASU, as well as with community members.”
Another of Solis’ priorities is to ensure that the School of Art has up-to-date facilities, technology and equipment for all of its programs. She emphasizes the importance of teaching the latest and most forward-thinking technologies while also honoring cultural traditions and historical practices.
“We can’t lose that foundation.” Solis said. “It keeps us connected to the past as we move into the future.”
Top photo: Forrest Solis, the new director of ASU's School of Art, sits in front of a painting by Thomas Knight (2020 MFA, painting) in her office, in a portrait taken by Ryan Para (2016 MFA, photo).