About two years ago, when Nan Avant (Music BFA 80) and Robert Smulling (Theater MFA 84) learned that CalArts wanted to start a chapter of the Alumni Association in Seattle, where there are more than 220 alumni, they both eagerly signed on as chapter co-chairs. Although they did not know each other at the time, their goals were the same. Avant, an award-winning composer and musician, and Smulling, a theater consultant, agree that their time at CalArts was a unique experience and a period of unbridled creativity, and they were hoping to reconnect with other alumni—even those who graduated at other times—because they knew that, as CalArtians, they shared a history and creative sensibility.
“Going to CalArts was like being part of a sisterhood and brotherhood,” says Avant, a Seattle native who composes for films, games and orchestral works for concert stage. That camaraderie continues even after CalArtians graduate. “I don’t know if it’s because CalArts is so small or because we share the experience of having studied in a place where everyone is creating. But the connection with CalArtians is different than the connection that I have with my creative colleagues who didn’t go there. CalArts educates people who think out of the box.”
Says Smulling, “CalArts is a unique school, where students write their own ticket and there is no right or wrong way to make art. It’s how you choose to develop it. I have good memories of CalArts, so I figured it was time to get reconnected.”
Since they started the chapter in 2012, Avant and Smulling have arranged gatherings at local Seattle pubs where alumni meet to reminisce about their CalArts days and to catch up on their activities since graduating. They also like to organize chapter meetings around events in which CalArtians are performing. For example, last September, the chapter met to hear horn player Marc Smason (Music BFA 73) perform with Latin band Los Buhos at a local restaurant, and in February it met to watch vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Madeleine Sosin (Dance 78) perform at the Royal Room with Correo Aereo and Kate Copeland & Company.
Avant and Smulling have developed rich creative careers since leaving CalArts. Avant, who studied piano at the Institute, furthered her studies after CalArts in film scoring and currently composes for independent film and concert work. Her recent concert piece, Tributum, composed for Celtic bagpipes and chamber orchestra, was nominated in the Hollywood Music in Media Award 2013 competition and the 13th Independent Music Awards 2014. After moving with his wife to Seattle, Smulling has spent more than 20 years working with architects and theater professionals designing stage equipment in new theaters as well as working on restoration projects throughout the Pacific Northwest.
While Avant and Smulling both have extensive professional contacts, they say that CalArts’ Seattle alumni chapter is a perfect place to network for job opportunities, since CalArtians know that their fellow alumni come with a high level of professionalism and conceptual skills that make them unique. “Once you go to CalArts, you’re part of a family,” Smulling says. “You pull some favors if you have to. Alumni who live here might be in a position to lead me to a project or maybe I could help them.” Indeed, when Smulling first moved to Washington State, a CalArts classmate helped him land an interview with a theater consultant from Seattle who hired him.
Avant and Smulling say that they are continuing to plan their regular quarterly mixers, as well as a summer family picnic and meetings centered around performances and lectures by CalArtians. On July 7, Seattle alumni will meet at Agua Verde, a scenic Mexican restaurant, and on August 19, they will meet with CalArts alumnus, composer and author Norman Ludwin (Music BFA 77), who will be visiting from Los Angeles to lecture about his new book.
“We ask area alumni to let us know if they’re going to be performing so we can promote the event on the alumni Facebook page,” Smulling says. “Then we follow up by meeting at the performance. There’s a reason we went to CalArts. We’re all driven to create. Our job is to keep that going.”