It’s uncommon to launch a new project or make a significant investment amid an economic crisis. But almost 100 years ago, the University of South Dakota went against the grain. During the darkest days of the Great Depression in 1931, the university established its College of Fine Arts.

The fact that the college was founded during a depression doesn’t seem so odd when you consider what it stands for: Hope, inspiration and the power to change the world. These are empowering feelings. They help get people through tough times.

Over the last 90 years, the college has demonstrated those values as the only College of Fine Arts in the state of South Dakota. Serving the state as a cultural hub means bringing unique points of view, world-renowned artists and talented faculty to campus to create a welcoming community for the next generation of creative leaders.

As the college reflected on its history and vision for the future, one thing became clear: Those who contribute to its vibrancy and success deserve recognition. Thus, the Celebration of Excellence was created to annually induct into a Hall of Fame the alumni, educators and friends who have made such a difference for the USD College of Fine Arts.

“It was important to us that the honor wall itself reflect the essence of the fine arts." - Bruce Kelley, Dean of the College of Fine Arts
A Distinct Honor

When you envision a Hall of Fame, a wall of plaques or display cases with photos and mementos of the recipients likely come to mind. Knowing the USD College of Fine Arts, it won’t surprise you to learn that those aren’t the direction it went.

“It was important to us that the honor wall itself reflect the essence of the fine arts,” explains Bruce Kelley, dean of the college.

With that goal, Director of the University Art Galleries Amy Fill created the design of a wooden sculpture, emerging from the wall next to the John A. Day Gallery.

“Our sculpture evokes a grove of trees, and our recipients will be recognized by brass nameplates that will be placed, like leaves, throughout the sculpture,” Kelley says. He highlights that the sculpture is created from locally sourced and milled maple planks.

Fill says she presented more than a dozen options to the Hall of Fame committee after gathering their feedback and exploring different types of honor plaques and walls.

“It’s fun to listen to all of the feedback and various responses and consolidate all of those ideas. I love this part of the process,” she says.

In addition to Fill, Natalie Higgason, who is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in sculpture, Levi Sternburg, a B.F.A. graduate in sculpture, and Courtney Lavallie, the University Art Galleries assistant, helped construct and install the Hall of Fame wall.

“One of the roles of the gallery is to provide professional work experiences for students,” Fill explains. “A project like this is a great opportunity for problem solving, working with materials, learning new ways of working, using new tools, et cetera.”

Even after the concept was finalized, Fill says she and the students continued to adapt their plan to best honor the materials.

“The wood has so many color variations and other marks that are too beautiful to hide with a stain,” she says. “We did sample five different colors of stain prior to deciding that oil was all that we needed. The next step was to find the best option for hanging. We tried several types of hardware before deciding on the keyhole hardware. This required chiseling out two small areas per board to accept the inset of the hardware. This worked great – it has a low profile, minimum impact on the wall while providing the emerging-from-the-wall effect.

“I am so happy with the result,” Fill adds.

Not only does the recognition wall speak to the values of the College of Fine Arts, but so do the awards that will be given to the recipients.

“We also wanted to create a distinctive award for the recipients, something that we could create in-house that would uniquely reflect our gratitude,” Kelley says. “The Celebration of Excellence award is a series of resin-like geometric planes that, taken together, provide a 3-D outline of the Warren M. Lee Center for the Fine Arts.”

The award was designed and constructed by USD Assistant Professor of Graphic Design James Quigley, with input from the college’s Hall of Fame committee.

Recognizing Legacies of Influence

This first year is an anomaly – “With 90 years of history we have some catching up to do in these first few years,” Kelley explains – in that it is welcoming nine Hall of Fame inductees. There are three recipients in each of the three categories: Outstanding Educator, Outstanding Alum and Outstanding Friend. The intention is to have one recipient per category going forward.

“We had many deserving nominations,” Kelley shares. “Each of these nine presented something so unique and so special that they were chosen for our inaugural class.”

The inaugural year is special for one more reason: The college is bestowing its highest honor, the Special Recognition Award, to Oscar Howe – the most influential artist who has taught at USD.

“As Oscar Howe’s only daughter, I am deeply honored to receive the USD Fine Arts Celebration of Excellence Award on his behalf,” says Inge Dawn Howe Maresh. “He truly would have been pleased by this recognition of his contribution to the University of South Dakota Fine Arts Department. He loved the opportunity to teach, to mentor and thus broaden the horizons of the many students that he met during his tenure and he always strived to spread true appreciation of the arts and the cultures that generated them.”

Considering what the USD College of Fine Arts stands for – hope, inspiration and the power to change the world – Howe was a living embodiment of these sentiments.

“Oscar Howe frequently stated that he chose to stay in South Dakota because of a deep-rooted love of the land and its peoples, even though this severely limited his professional horizons,” Maresh says. “I might add to this that he was a humble man with great strength of vision. He wanted to make sure that the beauty and spirituality of his own Native American cultural background was recorded and appreciated going forward.

“He did not aspire to fame or fortune per-se,” she adds. “He lived his life filled with inner peace and joy despite many obstacles. He had a family and friends who loved and supported him and he was doing work that he felt was important to his native people and to future generations of all people. He used his great genius and humanity to build bridges of understanding between two cultures which actually were not so very different, considering each culture’s universal core beliefs.”

"Acceptance of cultural diversity in the arts and recognizing the unique individuality within a culture is key to understanding all cultures, while ignoring or relegating segments of culture as ‘not important’ is a restriction on individuality and the creative spirit. The general result is a lack of respect, understanding, and empathy for other cultures different from one’s own." - Inge Dawn Howe Maresh

Maresh says her father hoped his paintings “would serve to bring the best of Indian culture forward into the modern way of life.” She notes a “scathing letter” he wrote to the Philbrook Art Center in 1958 after the center rejected a painting for competition because it was “not Indian enough” and says Howe’s words – and art – helped “change the course of the history of Indian art and freed it from the restrictive rules by the White world dictating what Indian art should be.”

“By retaining the ancient spirituality and symbols in his work while at the same time incorporating them into designs and compositions which a modern audience could enjoy and appreciate, Oscar Howe built a bridge for Native American Art to pass seamlessly into the non-Indian mainstream,” Maresh explains. “Acceptance of cultural diversity in the arts and recognizing the unique individuality within a culture is key to understanding all cultures, while ignoring or relegating segments of culture as ‘not important’ is a restriction on individuality and the creative spirit. The general result is a lack of respect, understanding, and empathy for other cultures different from one’s own.”

Maresh encourages other artists to stay true to themselves, patient in life and art and unafraid to stand up to the status quo. That’s how Howe led by example.

“He was a very spiritual man. His strong foundation in faith, hope and love were inspired by his family and culture. He was a man who was humble, kind and strong in character,” she reflects. “Trials in life come, but they can be overcome if one perseveres. Prejudice is universal and difficult to overcome, but education, empathy and a good attitude can go a long way to foster understanding and good will.”

Receiving the Outstanding Alumnus award this year are:

  • Janet Brown (B.F.A. ’73, MPA ’04): After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre from USD in 1973, Brown traversed the world – from San Francisco to New York to Europe – in various arts management capacities before returning to South Dakota. Her leadership in supporting and developing artists has left a lasting legacy on local and national art communities.
  • André P. Larson (B.F.A. ’64): This award is being given to Larson posthumously. In addition to being an alumnus of the USD College of Fine Arts, Larson also served as a professor of music and was the first director of what is now known as the National Music Museum. Under his direction, the museum began curating and preserving many of the crown jewels of music history – becoming a world-class attraction. He established the Center for the Study of the History of Musical Instruments – the nation’s only graduate degree in this field.
  • Ruth Lingen (B.F.A. ’80): Lingen is the only USD graduate to become a Master Printer in New York City. Through her work, she celebrated collaboration among artists and writers and pioneered the use of handmade paper as a printmaking medium. Her work is featured in collections at renowned museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Getty, and dozens of libraries.

This year’s Outstanding Educator recipients include:

  • Wayne S. Knutson (M.A. ’51): A dean to the college, distinguished university professor and ardent supporter of the National Music Museum, Knutson is the namesake of the college’s main stage theatre and also inspired a group of students and colleagues to establish an endowment in his honor to provide scholarships to hundreds of students. The award is being given to Knutson posthumously.
  • Wilber Moore Stilwell: Stilwell came to USD in 1941 and retired as Professor Emeritus after 32 years. He was active in the community – providing counseling from his home and summer classes at Prentis Park – and won several prizes and commissions for his artwork. He was nationally recognized for his work and was awarded the National Gallery of Art Medal for Distinguished Service to Education at the White House by Lady Bird. He is receiving the award posthumously.
  • Frank J. Aiello: Over the course of 33 years at USD, Aiello served as chair for the Department of Music twice and, as a professor of studio voice, taught students impeccable vocal techniques that allowed them to pursue professional singing. He was the recipient of USD’s highest teaching honor – the Belbas-Larson Award for Excellence in Teaching – in 1994.

The Outstanding Friends being recognized are:

  • Evelyn Schlenker: A regular at USD fine arts events for more than 35 years, Schlenker is also a generous donor and volunteer with the Department of Theatre, stepping up to attain matching funds for grants and additional financial assistance for students with high needs. Although a biomedical scientist by trade, Schlenker has chronicled the history of the arts community – writing books on stained glass windows in Clay County and architecture in Vermillion. She is active in the state’s arts community and volunteers with local arts organizations.
  • Doug and Sue Tuve: The Tuves are USD and Vermillion advocates, volunteering with several community organizations and the USD Foundation and singing with local choirs. Within the College of Fine Arts, they have established a professorship in choral music and a scholarship endowment for theatre, and provide support to the South Dakota Shakespeare Festival, Opera Guild and USD Chamber Singers.
  • Tom Schaack: While leading First Bank & Trust in Vermillion, Schaack secured significant financial commitments to support the College of Fine Arts totaling more than $260,000 over eight years. These funds supported scholarships, guest artists, special events and tech upgrades – truly transforming the quality of the college’s offerings to students and the community.

The USD College of Fine Arts has a rich history thanks to the students, instructors and supporters who have pushed boundaries and strived to establish a leading fine arts community in Vermillion. The college is humbled by the contributions of those who have come before and is committed to continuing to promote creativity and scholarship to make a difference in the world.

“It is time for us to say thank you to the amazing people who have worked so hard to make this college as successful as it is,” says Kelley. “As we honor those who have given their time, talents and resources to support fine arts, we inspire and challenge our current and future students to do the same.”

More details about the College of Fine Arts Celebration of Excellence and this year’s Hall of Fame recipients can be found here.