Spotlight on Say Sí
Jon Hinojosa with students from Say Si. Photo courtesy of Say Si
“We believe that each student that joins our program is there not only to gain wisdom but to impart wisdom.” – Jon Hinojosa
Jon Hinojosa is the artistic and executive director of SAY Sí, a multidisciplinary arts education facility in San Antonio, Texas serving students from elementary school through college. Hinojosa has led the organization since its inception in 1994. His pride for the students, teaching artists, and programs bursts through in conversation, sometimes leaving a stream of unfinished sentences in his wake. SAY Sí was awarded an NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant this spring to support its high school visual arts program, which offers students opportunties to study drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, and art history, as well as to create commissioned artwork.
NEA: Tell me about SAY Sí and specifically the high school visual arts program.
JON HINOJOSA: SAY Sí started in response to a lack of creative opportunities for young students in public schools in our area of the city. Mike Schroeder, our founder, felt a great need to serve this area’s high school and knew what a difference a significant arts education program would make. SAY Sí started with a visual arts program and 12 kids from Brackenridge High School. We were open three days a week. From that we’ve grown to serving 185 students from 70 different high schools and middle schools through four distinct programs.
Receiving funding from NEA for the high school visual arts program is special because it is our core program and, in many ways, our trademark. It became the proving ground for the philosophy that runs through all of our programs now.
NEA: What is that philosophy?
HINOJOSA: We take an organic approach. One of our tenets is a focus on peer-to-peer learning and another is reciprocal learning. For the peer-to-peer learning, we believe that each student that joins our program is there not only to gain wisdom but to impart wisdom. We have an open studio environment in which every student creates their own schedule. We use what we call umbrella ideas and what each student does with that idea is up to them. Our job is to facilitate.
What I love about our program is that we’re able to offer many approaches and each student gravitates to the one that make sense for them. They learn to be their own storyteller.
As regards the second tenet, we have qualified, committed, working artists that teach our programs, but if they’re not learning something working in the studio with the kids every day, then we’re not doing our job.
NEA: What else do the students learn in addition to creating art?
HINOJOSA: Our teaching artists also strive to be role models. What I look for in the teachers is that they’re not only great, amazing, committed arts educators, but they are working, producing artists because they need to be advising the kids about being working artists if that’s what the students want to be.
Also, in order to graduate you have to go through a senior thesis process in which you work with your fellow seniors to put up your exhibit. That includes writing the press release, designing the invitation, choosing the color for the gallery walls.
Then, you have to do your senior thesis presentation. I call them mini-TED talks. Each student has 15 minutes to talk about their work, who they are as an artist, what they’ve learned, what impact the program has had, and what they’re planning to do with their future. In addition, students have to price their work and be at the exhibit opening to talk about their work.
NEA: What is it like for a student to put a price on their art work?
HINOJOSA: That’s the most amazing thing. It’s a reminder that someone else values what they’ve done. Somebody’s saying “I value who you are and what you’ve created.”
We have shows that sell out, where there’s a line at the sales table. I always know when it’s a student’s first sale because there are multiple picture-takings by the parents and family members of that student with their art work and that red (sold) dot on the label. But we do remind the students that it’s not just about selling work. It’s about being creative. But that entrepreneurial piece is important too.
NEA: What is the impact of the program on your students?
HINOJOSA: At our graduation ceremony at the end of the summer every year, we always have lots of [tissues] on hand because the students and their parents are in tears. Because we are a long-term program, we’ve had kids who have been with us since fifth grade and are now graduating from high school. That’s eight years and very formative years. It has to be life-changing.
I have something I call the invisible thread and that means once you are in a SAY Sí program there’s this invisible thread that will follow you everywhere you go. On occasions it’s going to be tugging at you and on other occasions it will be slack, but that invisible thread is going to be with you always.
NEA: What does Art Works mean to you?
HINOJOSA: Art Works is such a great moniker because it defines the importance of art in our economy. [Artists and art workers] are a significant contributor to our economy and we can’t lose sight of that. For us at SAY Sí, you can’t have youth development and you can’t have education if you’re not including the arts.
We have shown the importance of art in young people’s lives. The high school graduation rate in San Antonio is about 65 percent. For the last nine years, every student who has graduated from SAY Sí has graduated from high school. More significantly we’ve 100 percent college placement. You cannot tell me that the arts are not a significant contributor to young people’s lives.