Where Gandhi and C-3PO converse

Writers, artists, musicians floated to San Dieguito Academy.

An abstract piece, featuring Gandhi and C-3PO. The kids wanted to do something that made people stop and go, “Huh?”
  • An abstract piece, featuring Gandhi and C-3PO. The kids wanted to do something that made people stop and go, “Huh?”

SAN DIEGUITO ACADEMY’S DESIGN would fit better amid the incohesive architecture of Tijuana than the square sterility of Southern California, where rows of beige-and-white dwellings and office buildings cloak themselves in the camouflage of each other. Boring architecture and arid landscapes define the unrelenting suburbia of the Southwest United States. Not so at a public high school in Encinitas.

San Dieguito Academy

800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas

Founded in 1936, the San Dieguito Academy campus celebrates its 80th year in 2016. When La Costa Canyon High School opened in 1996 five miles away, San Dieguito High School became a school of choice — which students can elect to attend instead of the school in their neighborhood — and changed its name to San Dieguito Academy. Its modus operandi? To foster an environment of individuality, self-motivation, and creativity.

Classroom buildings, laid out in a hodgepodge of styles, reflect the era in which they were built. Architecturally, while most other campuses have one or two exits for students, San Dieguito has no fewer than five, which plays into the school’s spirit of independent self-motivation.

“We were definitely being innovative,” history teacher Bob Teisher says. “We knew we were doing something different; that is, not doing what other schools were doing.”

When art teacher Jeremy Wright first arrived at San Dieguito in 2003, the school featured one mural of a wave and some senior tiles (tiles created by students in their senior year to hang on campus). The wave mural, initiated by a student, started a tradition of public art at San Dieguito that remains today. Wright could successfully promote public art on campus, furthering the offbeat traditions of San Dieguito art teachers John Ratajkowski and Neal Glasgow.

“Wright had an open-field to do what he wanted, thanks to [the wave mural],” Ratajkowski told me. “New principals came in and said, ‘Oh, we don’t do [murals].’ We’d say, ‘What do you mean we don’t do it? We’re doing it.’ That wave mural set everything up.”

Student art on San Dieguito Academy's campus.

Student art on San Dieguito Academy's campus.

Over the years, Wright “noticed kids would sit wherever [murals] popped up, as if there is an innate need to be around color.”

It makes sense. Humans have evolved an extra dimension of color vision other mammals have not. Scientists conjecture that the ability to see reds and greens simplified finding fruit and leaves. Other theories posit that color vision evolved so individuals could sense the emotions or health of others. This ability has led to a wealth of research into the crossroads of color and the human brain. It’s common sense today that colors can affect mood. Researchers, for instance, speculate about a correlation between blue streetlights and a decrease in suicides and crime in Japan. Blue is thought to have a calming effect.

This research, however, remains broadly unapplied to the public school campus, leaving a dearth of historiography on the topic. A 2007 work, “Guadalupe Arts High School: An architectural study in student-centered educational theory,” by University of Texas master’s of architecture student David Garcia, explores “a design of a high school that incorporates learning strengths and social developmental needs of students and focuses on architecture as more than a setting for the teaching and learning process.”

Thus, student-created public art at San Dieguito serves as a novel experiment into the effects of color, and art, on the student learning experience. Principal Bjorn Paige describes the sui generis nature of the campus.

“[Administrators from other schools] walk onto our campus and they know — I mean, they just know — we’re something different,” Paige told me. “We administrators have all gone to schools [that are] a little corporate. But at San Dieguito, being different and incorporating the arts just defines who we are. You turn a corner and you see something neat you’d never see unless you’re here.” He describes the campus as an Oz of sorts.

This is the principal’s 22nd year in education. He’s worked in Oregon and the Bay Area. Never had he seen a campus as rich with public art before San Dieguito. “It just wasn’t a part of the everyday culture at other campuses,” he said. “Art is something we do here every day.”

The effect of color on psychology has played a role in much modern design. Hospitals and mental institutions incorporate soothing hues, whilst retailers use colors to catch the attention of consumers in their target demographic groups. Beyond the effects of blue, pink, or orange on student psychology, the art at San Dieguito offers lessons also about the nature of art, time, and change.

Principal Paige's protection from the construction. The kids decided to paint it. He let them.

Principal Paige's protection from the construction. The kids decided to paint it. He let them.

Old and new

A post appeared last year on Paige’s blog explaining that, due to new construction, some student murals would be lost. The loss of student murals have created a moment for pause. “It took an event like this for them to know it was going to disappear,” Paige elucidated. “All of a sudden, kids were reading over those senior tiles.”

Paige saw a connection forming between San Dieguito generations. “It was this connection between students who put this up decades ago when they were 16 and 17 and students who are looking at it now,” Paige said. “It gave them this moment to think and reflect and connect with their school and people who were at the school before them, which is what good art does.”

As new buildings are constructed at San Dieguito, new art goes up. The campus recently added 11 classrooms in its northwest corner, which currently lack public art. And so, students are working on a mosaic seahorse with a mermaid-esque tail using some old tiles from senior court. “So it will be old and new,” Paige explains. “I see the fluidity of time in that. That relationship between space and art happens on this campus, whereas on other campuses I don’t see it.”

He quips: “Here, you have a chance to put your mark on the school in a legal way.”

Spontaneous order

“Spontaneous order” is a term used to describe self-organizing systems. The concept, oft associated with laissez-faire economics, has grown more popular in explaining biological evolution. Natural selection, as the driver of measured change over time in biological systems, has taken more of a backseat in modern evolution. Some biologists now accept that randomness and disorder play a major role in how natural systems evolve. For instance, Dr. Greg Graffin, singer of punk band Bad Religion and an evolutionary biologist, coined the term “anarchy evolution.”

Similarly, a chaordic system is a system of organization blending chaos and order. Dee Hock, founder and former chief executive of Visa, coined the term. Is San Dieguito an example of chaordic system and spontaneous order? Teachers who have witnessed the campus’ evolution note how the artistic focus on campus took on a life of its own among the student body, possibly stemming from the school’s lack of a football team.

“It wasn’t planned to be an art-based school, but it certainly turned into that because of the type of kids they brought in,” Ratajkowski told me over coffee one winter morning in his Del Mar home. “With no football, the school of choice thing, a good music department and all that, they brought in all the art people. Writers, artists, musicians just floated to the school. It was a great place for me to teach.” Ratajkowski says San Dieguito created itself spontaneously. He also notes that the self-motivation helped not only students, but also teachers.

“I always painted in class,” Ratajkowski said. “I had a show in downtown San Diego years back. There were 32 paintings of which 25 were done [in class]. I get letters from students all the time saying watching me paint was the reason they paint now.”

Gandhi and C-3PO

Charmaine Olivia, a 2006 San Dieguito graduate, enjoys a career as an oil painter. She credits her time at San Dieguito for some of her success. “San Dieguito for sure had an effect my career: it helped shape me into who I am as an artist,” Olivia told me. “I loved that we were given the freedom to explore and discover our own artistic voices in such a supportive environment.”

The artist, who’s created artwork for Lady Gaga, recalls Mr. Wright’s advanced-placement art studio her senior year as when she became “totally hooked on painting.” She hasn’t stopped since.

The school recently rehabbed a metal Mustang sculpture that was made by San Dieguito students in the ’70s.

The school recently rehabbed a metal Mustang sculpture that was made by San Dieguito students in the ’70s.

I happened upon three tenth-graders standing around chatting during fourth period. I started talking about the art. “I think it’s very nice; it keeps the entire atmosphere of school lighter,” said Miles Jambeau. Alex Schenkhuizen said that “seeing so much art everywhere is cool,” and everyone at San Dieguito is “having a good time.” He recounted the painting of a mural in which he took part. “I take Japanese, and we collaborated with the sculpture class last year on a mural of C-3PO and Gandhi having a conversation.”

Each student had their own one-foot-square tile. It’s a common theme in Wright’s work with students, and perhaps an expression of the school’s spirit of individuality while also recognizing that individual is part of a greater student body. The art on campus, according to the students, helps bring people on campus together.

“You see someone making a piece and you become friends with them by asking them how it’s going,” Jambeau said.

“It’s the coolest if you help to make something. Like, say I painted that tree on the wall over there,” Schenkhuizen said, pointing toward the art piece he described. “If I walk around every day here, or come back, I can say, ‘Hey, I made that. I am truly a part of this school even into the future.’”

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