From GDS to Aix and Back Again

Danny Stock

Meet GDS's Alum Artist-in-Residence Nick Cruz Velleman ’07

“If we want to build compassion and more understanding and help fight prejudice. . .it takes more than just intellectualizing. . .we need to become better listeners, better observers. A lot of that comes through strengthening our ability to perceive through our senses.” – Nick Cruz Velleman ’07

In the gap year following his 2007 graduation, Michael Coursey ’07 attended the Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence—beneath the same hills that Paul Cézanne walked and painted hundreds of times—and returned to rave incessantly about the experience. The raving drove classmates Nick Cruz Velleman ’07 and O’Neill Cushman ’07 up the wall, but it worked. The pair decided to attend the school—even had the same host family—and, upon graduating from their separate colleges, were later awarded teaching fellowships to return again. After earning his Masters of Fine Arts (MFA), O’Neill settled there as a professor.

Meanwhile, for most of his 20s, Nick Cruz Velleman ’07 worked as a nightclub manager at the 9:30 Club. It made a lot of sense for the Peruvian/Filipino American artist, who was a jazz musician in High School and played in various regional bands, to be close to music. “That was really an exciting and amazing experience, but it was not sustainable,” Nick said. The challenging work dynamics there ultimately drove him away even as the visual arts pulled him back, first to GDS and later to a third visit in Aix-en-Provence. 

Visual arts department chair Michelle Cobb welcomed him as a volunteer in the HS art studios, where he helped out in Nick Ryan’s ceramic classes and Michelle’s painting classes, and later served as a long-term substitute teacher in the department. When the Marchutz School opened its own MFA program, Nick took trip number three to earn his degree in France, with Hopper classmate O’Neill now serving as his art history professor; he graduated in the midst of the pandemic. 

This winter, GDS alum Nick Velleman ’07 returned to GDS again for a stint as our first-ever High School alumni artist-in-residence. During his nearly two months at the School, he will leverage his extensive training to teach how observational painting can help students see non-judgmentally. He set a goal to complete life-sized reproductions of three Cézanne still lifes found in the National Gallery of Art and the Musée D'Orsay collections while working in the High School studio. Alternating between two of these paintings, Nick has brought both exquisite works close to completion. Additionally, while supporting the visual arts team, he has been using and teaching mini lessons on the techniques and strategies he learned as a student at the Marchutz School.

“It's humbling and gracious and generous every single time they open up a home here for me,” Nick said of the way the visual arts team has continued to welcome him with open arms.

In February during Social Justice Teach-In Days, Nick taught a workshop called “Paint and Prejudice*” to help students become aware of their own prejudices and the ways preconceived notions can obstruct their view of reality. He spoke about developing the skill of sitting with a subject without inserting an agenda. In the same way that the patient, non-judgmental observation of objects in a still life can help the artist better perceive their colors and textures, those skills, he explained, also allow one person to sit with another and “more truthfully discern the content of their character." 

“Just because you know a lemon is yellow does not mean it's the same yellow that particular lemon is showing you,” he said. “What really connects us to each other is being able to have a conversation and just listen—just let a person and all of their qualities and traits and everything they have to say sing and resonate. . .There's so much more going on in there and you have to give them a chance to show you all the colors happening.”

In addition to his own Cézanne reproduction project, Nick has taught paint-mixing classes, helped curate the High School Identity Art Show, and connected with the French teachers Belinda Lartey and Véronique Mattei for conversations with students in French.

“As a GDS alum, Nick relates well to our students,” Michelle explained. “He has taught several classes on color theory and shares his love of painting in a very authentic way by working on two paintings while students are in class. We study Cézanne's techniques a great deal in our program, but Nick shares with our students the richness of his direct experience, studying and painting in the same location as Cézanne himself.”

Even while teaching painting techniques, Nick’s grounding in the GDS mission is evident; he strives to build greater understanding and equip students with the “capacity to bring needed change to a troubled world.” 

He said, “I want students and the community to understand that doing art is much more than just painting a pretty picture. Ceramics is more than making a nice teapot on your wheel. To me, all of our knowledge as humans comes from our senses, and practicing art is a way to strengthen your connection with those senses and become more observant. If we want to build compassion and more understanding and help fight prejudice—all the things we talk about in this school—it takes more than just intellectualizing. . .We need to become better listeners, better observers. A lot of that comes through strengthening our ability to perceive through our senses.”

GDS sends its graduates out into the world as self-reliant, lifelong learners with strength of character and concern for others. They tackle important, diverse challenges, and, when we are lucky, bring their experiences and expertise back to GDS. Whether it’s the visual arts in Aix-en-Provence—as it was for Nick, O’Neill, Michael, and Amelia Myre '20—or another set of experiences at location X-marks-the-spot, the GDS community benefits from visiting alumni who journey there and back again.


Follow Nick’s Art Residency story on Instagram @sight_and_insight or on his website www.sightandin.site. This summer, Nick and Michelle will travel to Aix-en-Provence with GDS students for an interdisciplinary art program. Learn more (password: gohoppers).

*Nick will be giving this same presentation at a TEDx conference at Georgetown University later this month.

 

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