Monte Del Sol student work on display at SFUAD

By Arianna Sullivan/Photos by Natalie Abel

The Marion Center is alive with a plethora of energy when I enter. A group of Monte del Sol Charter School students grouped in the corner of the main gallery sing energetically, accompanied by an electric keyboard. The walls are filled, seemingly top to bottom, with an eclectic mix of different mediums—from photography to 3-D dolls—all a product of the spirited Monte del Sol art department, and the efforts of its two key players: Michael Webb and Nancy Sue Michels. The place is absolutely swarming with middle and high school students, Santa Fe University students and faculty, parents of the Monte del Sol students, and even Santa Feans who came to the Marion Center to view the two other shows opening in the space, and then wandered into the charter school’s show with pleasantly surprised looks on their faces.

When Natalie and I finally track down Michael and Nancy Sue, they are both buoyant and enthusiastic about the show, and the turn-out for its opening. “This might be the best show we’ve ever had,” they agree, referring to the success of the Marion Center as a space to showcase their students’ work after 13 years of working together to put up an annual show of the student work being created in Monte’s art department.

Nancy Sue is excited, she explains, by the energy that is constantly buzzing about the

Marion Center Gallery.

“Even when we were hanging the show the other day,” she says, “there were people coming through here, going about their business. It’s not like a gallery space that closes up at night and after that nobody sees the artwork. Plus,” she concedes with an almost mischievous smile, “it gives me this little flashback to being in art school.”

Michael Webb explains that he is grateful for the community in Santa Fe that allows alliances like this one to happen between the two schools. It is because Michael used to teach at the College of Santa Fe and knows current SFUAD faculty members Tony O’Brien and David Scheinbaum that he even thought of asking if the show could go up in the Marion Center. This use of connections in a positive symbiotic way is in accordance with exactly what Michael and Nancy Sue tell us makes Monte Del Sol unique. This, they explain, eyeballing each other as if they are holding the secret to educational success between them, is the prevalence of one very important value, what Michael and Nancy Sue refer to laughingly as “the C-word… community.” The annual showing of student work off campus is an important part of the community component of a Monte del Sol education.

“Not only is it important for the students to learn about what it is like to have their work shown publicly,” explains Michael, “there is also the importance of learning to do that without the idea of the dangling carrot. I hate the dangling carrot.”

At first I think that Michael is referring to one of the 3-D pieces hanging in the gallery—something I missed perhaps. “What’s the, um dangling carrot,” I inquire.

“You know,” Michael says, as if I do, “this idea that the motivation for creating art should be money—cash awards, and all that nonsense.” Michael further clarifies by describing to me the “sort of deal we make with the students when they put their artwork in the show,” which goes something like this: the money from any piece that is bought at a show is split—half goes to the student whose artwork sold, and the other half goes back to the school, to the art department. “Between that and being able to have an off-campus show, it really dawns on the students that they are a slice of the community of Santa Fe, and that they should think in a community-minded way.”

This lesson is so effective for some students that they end up deciding to give all of their proceeds back to the art department.

Michael and Nancy Sue’s passion about community, education, and creativity glimmers through their eyes, but it can be a lot for these middle and high schoolers to take in, Nancy admits. “Sometimes they’re just wandering around the art show grinning, but not really understanding what it is they’re smiling about,” she says with a smile of her own.

This becomes clear as we meander back into the crowd. Lounging on the sofa in the middle of the gallery are three teenaged boys who seem confused whether to be elated or bored by the event. Their expressions turn suddenly bashful when they catch sight of Natalie and I eyeing them with her camera.

“Do any of you have pieces up in the show,” we inquire, and they exchange nervous glances before one finally confesses that he does, “er, well, sort of.” As Shalto Dascher shows me his two colorful retablos hanging on the wall, he excuses himself, saying, “I mean, I’m not really an artist, I guess when I put my mind to it I can put out some good stuff but… I’m better at drawing than painting. But it’s kind of a bummer when they put work in that’s not your best.” His hand gestures timidly at the two paintings. “This isn’t really my best piece, I think.” After a quick snapshot he wanders back to the comfort of his comrades on the couch. Later he blushes every time he makes eye-contact with Natalie or myself—perhaps a little taken aback by the personal attention beyond just hanging his art up on a wall.

We find another Monte del Sol artist, Jessie Bodelson, standing between a wall of alternative-process photographs of a blue hue and a small ballerina doll who looks half witch and half five-year-old with bubblegum stuck in her straw-blonde hair. Jessie has a pencil sketch of her hand in the show, which hangs amidst other grey-scale studies. When I ask her if it was intimidating or exciting to have her drawing hanging up with lots of people looking at it, she smiles just as bashfully as Shalto and answers, “well, I mean, I think it’s more exciting to see my friends’ artwork up. I’m like, ‘wow, you did that? It’s incredible!’” She smiles and excuses herself shyly, emphasizing Nancy Sue’s comment about these kids really having no idea what it means to exhibit your work, yet grasping it in the most simple and real way.