Written by: 
Lisa Sciortino
Drawing class, 1942
Drawing class, 1942

For nearly as long as UNT has existed, art and design education has had a presence on campus.

Art classes were first taught here in 1893 -- just a few years after the university was founded. A century later, the program separated from the College of Arts and Sciences to become the School of Visual Arts. In 2007, it grew into UNT's College of Visual Arts and Design (CVAD).

One of the nation's largest and most comprehensive visual arts programs -- with more than 2,700 students enrolled in its 29 undergraduate and graduate degree programs -- CVAD has established itself as a hub of creativity and innovation in North Texas.

In celebration of its milestone 130th anniversary, CVAD alumni and faculty members -- past and present -- reflect on the college's history as well as its far-reaching impact and influence on their lives and careers.

'Arts Identity'
Cora Stafford
Cora Stafford, director of the North Texas Art Department, 1960.

"The heartbeat of UNT is and always will be the arts," says Dr. Karen Hutzel, who has served as CVAD's dean since 2021. She says university leadership "is very supportive of its arts identity."

By all accounts, that identity began taking shape in 1921 when Dr. Cora Stafford joined the faculty. She went on to serve as the art program's director until her 1964 retirement and is the namesake of the Art Building's Cora Stafford Gallery.

During her nearly four decades at its helm, Stafford recruited some of the most innovative artists of the time to serve as faculty, including internationally renowned Guatemalan painter Carlos Mérida and experimental German Bauhaus photographer György Kepes, author of the influential 1944 design book Language of Vision.

"Stafford's understanding of the cultural diversity that is important to an arts education informed her decision-making," Hutzel says. "She set the stage for what CVAD is now."

Lasting Legacies
Student working with ceramics
Ceramicist working on his project, 1970.

Others whose influence continues within CVAD include alums C. Ray Gough ('40, '41 M.S.) and Dr. Georgia "Billie" Gough ('46 M.S.), who later joined the faculty and founded the interior design and ceramics programs, respectively.

The couple, who were both bestowed the Professor Emeritus distinction, went on to establish a pair of CVAD scholarships. They are the namesakes of The Ray and Georgia Gough Design Research Space in the Art Building.

Another CVAD student-turned-faculty member is Johnnie Stark ('81, '91 M.F.A.), who earned a pair of degrees in interior design before becoming an associate professor in 2005.

As a student, Stark pulled all-night study sessions in the Art Building, which in 2019 underwent a major expansion and renovation to become one of the most technologically advanced art facilities in the world.

Decades ago, the building was more like an art "factory," with the smell of kilns firing and the hum of power tools permeating the air, she says. "There was a lot of energy just walking into the building. It was very visceral."

Stark recalls a project produced one year by fiber arts students -- soft sculptures of CVAD faculty members.

"They nailed everybody's likeness -- if they wore a certain type of jewelry or their typical clothing," she says. "We were running around the building wondering who we were going to see displayed around the next corner."

Attracting Talent
UNT Art Building exterior, 1973
UNT Art Building, 1973.

CVAD's history of exceptional faculty members has been critical to the success of its students and alumni, UNT Professor Emeritus Dr. D. Jack Davis says.

A faculty member for 40 years, he spent a decade as UNT vice provost prior to serving as the School of Visual Arts' founding dean from 1993 through 2004.

During those years, Davis hired several notable artists, including Vernon Fisher. The late postmodern artist and UNT Professor Emeritus was awarded a trio of fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.

"You build a really strong program when you have faculty who make a commitment to the program," Davis says.

CVAD's reputation in studio arts impressed photography professor Dornith Doherty. She left a tenured faculty position at Indiana University -- Purdue University Indianapolis and joined UNT's faculty in 1996.

A 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, Doherty traveled to five continents photographing seed banks as part of her "Archiving Eden" photography project. She'd previously spent a year in Mexico as a 1994 Fulbright Foundation Fellow.

Those experiences informed her teaching, she says, and allowed her to bring an international perspective to CVAD students.

Building Connections
Four women are seated at their workstations and working at their looms
Weaving classe, 1952.

At UNT, Emily Fry ('08 M.A.) was a member of the Priddy Fellow cohort in art leadership, which included CVAD art education graduate students as well as graduate students in music.

The experience continues to enrich her professional work, she says – including in her current role as executive director of interpretation at The Art Institute of Chicago where she helps visitors build connections with works of art.

In fact, Fry, who earned a master's in art history and a museum education graduate certificate, says she continues to draw from the lessons she learned at CVAD.

"I was able to sink my teeth into interdisciplinary areas of study that prepared me for a career in art museums -- specifically the work I do now that lives at the intersection of audience, art and ideas."

Fry's experience exemplifies the goals CVAD has maintained -- for itself and its students -- throughout its 130-year history.

"Making relevant a variety of cultural ways through which art and design is made and understood is really a focus of ours -- as it was with Cora Stafford," Hutzel says. "It's about bringing in and highlighting the various ways that people understand and make sense of the world."