We Make Creativity Happen

Dancers follow their teacher's lead in an SF State ballet classAt San Francisco State University, a renewable resource has always powered our culture: creativity. Whether you're looking at the arts, science or business, SF State cultivates the kind of unfettered inspiration that leads to innovation.

Nurturing the write stuff

"Creative writing programs can be stodgy," admits novelist, editor and Carl Sandburg Award-winning poet Maxine Chernoff … who also happens to be the chair of SF State's Department of Creative Writing. According to Chernoff, there's nothing rigid, old-fashioned or insular about SF State's creative writing program, which was founded in 1955 by celebrated novelist Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Though it's more than 60 years old, the program still emphasizes new ideas, openness and freedom.

"We give people a lot of flexibility," she says. "You apply in fiction, poetry, nonfiction or playwriting, but once you're in the program you can try other genres, as well. We don't segregate the students as much as some programs do, where you're on a track you can't get out of. So people experiment and collaborate and follow what interests them. That leads to a trust in themselves that doesn't just help with career building but with life building."

That confidence-stoking approach has paid off for scores of writers who've been through the program, including Pulitzer-winning poet Rae Armantrout, National Book Award finalist Kim Addonizio, best-selling memoirist Kelly Corrigan, former poet laureate of California Carol Muske-Dukes, young adult novelist Kelly Loy Gilbert and legendary "Interview with the Vampire" author (and onetime program chair) Anne Rice.

"SF State's creative writing professors ensured that there was a community and a respected space to take risks with your writing," says novelist, short story writer and poet Nina Schuyler, who graduated with an MFA in 2003. "Each piece, however rough and raw, was given full attention and care. Most of my professors took the time to point out where, exactly, my writing was strong, or as one professor put it, 'had heat,' and what I'd done to create that heat."

O. Henry Award--winner Jan Ellison, who received her MFA in 2007, says her creativity was sparked by the program, as well — something she appreciated all the more because, at the time, she didn't have much energy to spare.

"I had two kids when I started the program and I had two more while I was in the program," says Ellison, whose novel "A Small Indiscretion" became a national bestseller. "It took me seven-and-a-half years to do it, but the program was flexible enough that they give you that much time. For me, especially in creative writing, you want your life and your writing to be working together, so it was appealing to have time to do both."

According to Chernoff, the Department of Creative Writing is taking that student-focused flexibility even further by offering students innovative options, such as collaborations with the School of Cinema and the School of Theatre and Dance, a new creative nonfiction track and, beginning this fall, a track for Spanish translation.

"We're really open about how students get to their goals," Chernoff says. "We're not interested in boxing them in."

Developing the stars behind the cameras

The University's School of Theatre and Dance, School of Art and School of Music also are world renowned, having produced such lauded alumni as Obie-winning playwright Ed Bullins, Broadway music director (and Tony Lifetime Achievement Award winner) Paul Gemignani,  painters Carmen Lomas Garza and Roy De Forest and conductor Kent Nagano. But the art form SF State might best be known for is the one that requires a synthesis of several others: filmmaking.

Named one of the top 25 film programs in the U.S. by The Hollywood Reporter, SF State's School of Cinema has helped launch the careers of Oscar-winning Pixar producer Jonas Rivera ("Inside Out"), Oscar-nominated (and Golden Globe-winning) director and screenwriter Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right") and screenwriter Steve Zaillian, an Academy Award nominee for four films (and a winner for one: "Schindler's List"). In fact, between 2000 and 2014, not a year went by without at least one SF State grad being nominated for an Oscar. In 2016, three were, including Rivera.

Professor and School of Cinema Director Britta Sjogren credits that impressive track record to the program's combination of hands-on experience and deep-delving ideas.

"Our curriculum is oriented around the notion that theory and practice should be closely intertwined," Sjogren said. "This commitment to an environment which understands filmmaking as more than turning on a camera or making a splice — which asks students to think critically about where they place that camera or why they would make that cut — results in intelligent, risky films."

It helps that the teachers in the program — Sjogren included — have been making intelligent, risky films themselves. Sjogren is a writer, director and producer of independent movies, and the School of Cinema faculty also includes documentarian Jesse Moss, self-described "queer black cinema artist" Cheryl Dunye, experimental filmmaker Greta Snider and award-winning Chinese cinematographer Weimin Zhang.

"School of Cinema students make films under the tutelage of some of the most free-thinking, inspiring filmmakers teaching at any university in this country," Sjogren said.

Still frame from the movie "Gravity"

Gator Rich McBride helped provide the dazzling visual effects for the film "Gravity."

That free-thinking, inspiring attitude is nothing new. Visual effects artist Rich McBride — a veteran of such Hollywood blockbusters as "Avatar" and "Gravity" and an Oscar nominee for last year's "The Revenant" — says he encountered it when he began studying film at SF State in the late '80s.

"I met a lot of creative people who were supportive in a way that said, 'You can try anything you want and it isn't going to be wrong,'" he recalled.

That broadminded approach paid off when McBride was trying to get his career rolling post-graduation. Though he was a wannabe movie animator, he ended up applying for a job with a game developer. To his surprise, he got the gig.

"Getting in the door just came down to having a creative background," said McBride (who later used his gaming experience to transition into the world of visual effects). "They could look at me and say, 'This guy doesn't know how to make computer games yet, but he's creative and that's the kind of person we want to hire.'"

Promoting intelligent (and groundbreaking) design

Sometimes creativity isn't just about dreaming up new and better works of art. It's about using artistic skills and thinking to meet real-world goals.

That's the mission of SF State's School of Design, where students learn how to solve problems and meet needs by finding creative approaches to product design, graphic design and digital media design. The goal is to produce socially aware graduates on the cutting edge of modern design — something that's not always easy given the rapid pace of change in today's world.

"Over the last 20 years, we have been in an ongoing state of dynamic reinvention in response to opportunities such as data visualization and a progression of new digital media platforms," said Professor Jane Veeder, who has taught at SF State since 1988 and served as chair of the School of Design from 2012 to 2015. "For us, socially conscious design is key to responding to these opportunities."

The School of Design's Furniture Institute for Technology and Sustainability encourages students to explore green materials and practices, for instance, while its Design Center for Global Needs brings a social justice component to the school's classes and projects. Veeder also points to a 3D printing lab, a new "Prototyping Smart Devices" class (which incorporates 3D model making and programming) and a new design gallery for outreach as signs that the School of Design is keeping up with the ever-changing times.

Other departments are keeping up, too, with the School of Engineering and the Department of Kinesiology both adding 3D printers for their students. Two new 3D printers and a 3D scanner have been added to the J. Paul Leonard Library's Digital Media Studio, as well, making some of the most cutting-edge creativity-enhancing technology in the world available to every SF State student.

"We're open to anybody," said Information Technology Consultant Christopher Novak, who helps manage the Digital Media Studio, a "makerspace"-type lab that also features a poster printer, layout tools, video equipment, editing bays and team meeting spaces. "What we're trying to provide is not just the 3D printers but a place that encourages collaboration. Traditionally, a library was the place for students to go and say, 'How do I do research for my project?' But we're facilitating creativity in a new way."