Young and talented: SFSU's 26th Stillwell Student Exhibition

Leo Stillwell self-portrait
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Gallery at SF State

The Stillwell Student Exhibition is San Francisco State University's annual showcase of undergraduate and second-year MFA artwork celebrated in the name of Leo D. Stillwell, an amateur artist who died at the young age of 22 in 1947.

But a Google search doesn’t even yield that small bit of information about Stillwell. So who was he, and why has SF State honored him for 26 years?

Mark Johnson, director of the Fine Arts Gallery at SF State, explained that the generosity of Stillwell’s mother, Josephine, created opportunities for student artists all in loving memory of her son.

“When Josephine herself was elderly and aware that her days were short, she contacted San Francisco State University to offer us the collection of about 500 works of her son that she had saved 40 years after his death,” said Johnson. “In 1988, the whole collection came to the university, and she bequeathed her house. It was sold in 1988 for $250,000, and that money endowed a scholarship.”

In return, Josephine asked that her son’s work be showcased every year. Stillwell had struggled with health issues and ultimately died of hypertension, but Josephine believed that had he had the chance to attend college, he likely would have chosen SF State. Thus, the student exhibition was named for him, and a small selection of his work is featured every year.

It’s fitting; Johnson said that because Stillwell died so young, his collection is essentially the work of a student. The four pieces displayed this year are watercolors depicting Roman gods, which Johnson feels are some of Stillwell’s strongest works. His entire collection ranges from family portraits to exploration of modernist iconography of surrealism. He was also the co-founder of the short-lived Antinous Gallery.

“Antinous is the name of the boy who the emperor Hadrian loved, so there is a sense that this was a code space for a gay art gallery,” Johnson explained. “For something like that to happen in the mid-1940s is certainly unusual and interesting.”

It is known that Stillwell’s lover was Russell Hartley, the founding collector of the Museum of Performance + Design, then the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum. Recently, a website was discovered that contained letters between Stillwell and Hartley.

“We contacted that person and the site was taken down immediately, but we’re in the process of trying to get access to the letters, because it’s such an important social document of two young gay men interested in the arts from this very early historical period,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s exhibition design students all have this history in mind while organizing the annual show. And while it may be Stillwell’s name in the title, the exhibition very much belongs to the students, who provide the bulk of the work on display and put the gallery together. It’s a difficult, but rewarding experience, and among the bustle of preparing the show, there is a sense of excitement for what the students have to show.

“Different years, different things come to the surface,” said Johnson. “This year, we have, I would say, a number of very strong, large textile works.”

These colorful textiles, as well as stunning prints, paintings, and photography, sculptures, and so much more – all of them are the works of students, many of whom are young, rising artists like Stillwell had been, and they appreciate what it is to be in that position and have a place to display their art.

“[Stillwell’s] work is very cool. It’s visually appealing, it has a message. He was so young, and he could have had a lot more years,” said Karna Southall, a junior who researched Stillwell and put a video about him together for the class. “I think that it’s great that his mother took this unhappy thing that happened to her, and made it a positive experience for students. That’s admirable.”

Junior Lorraine Campos, whose art is displayed in the exhibit for the first time this year, feels that Stillwell remains a great inspiration to SF State’s great variety of talented art students.

“I think it’s an example of how you can be a young artist but still have a legacy,” said Campos. “By taking [exhibition design] class, I learned a lot more about Stillwell and how he was very diverse in his interests, and I think that’s like almost every student at State.”

26th Annual Stillwell Student Exhibition

Through Dec 5

Wed-Sat, 11am-4pm, free (gallery closed Nov 27-30)

Fine Arts Building, Rm 238

SF State University

1600 Holloway, SF