Home Featured 2023 Commencement Master of Fine Arts Valedictorian: Stephanie Conti, School of Photography

2023 Commencement Master of Fine Arts Valedictorian: Stephanie Conti, School of Photography

by Art U News

Stephanie Conti is a fine art and portrait photographer in Saint Simons Island, Georgia. With a background in film capture and printing in the darkroom, her current projects utilize both traditional analog techniques and the latest digital technologies. 

Inspired by her three young children and driven by the therapeutic element of art, Conti aims to create photographs that see the world in a unique and authentic way. Her projects center heavily on domesticity and how identity is shaped by the often interchanged but vastly different concepts of space and place. She examines motherhood and domiciliary life in order to expose the taboos of our modern-day culture and provide a departure point for change. 

Conti currently serves on the Board of Directors at Glynn Visual Arts and mentors emerging digital photographers. She also teaches at the local library to share her passion and appreciation of the medium to youth in the area. 

Her work has been shown in over ten online and in-person gallery exhibitions, and she continues to have images selected to open calls. The analog series “blackbird” was recently honored by Analog Forever Magazine, demonstrating Conti’s expansive knowledge of the photographic medium in not only modern approach but film as well. 

In addition to her commercial photography business, Conti graduated in December of 2022 with her Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Academy of Art University in San Francisco. After developing a course on visual metaphor in photography during her time at the Academy, she is currently pursuing a career in collegiate professorship to instill the love of art in a new generation.

Conti delivered the following speech to this year’s class of graduating students.

Good morning, Dr. Stephens, faculty, staff, and the graduating Class of 2023. I am honored to be here today and to be a part of this incredibly talented group of artists, a group of artists that I know have created their own definition of success. They have gone beyond grades and let their art speak for itself. 

I had an art teacher in high school, more years ago than I would like to admit, who held a contest. She would choose a few students to design and execute their creative freedom until the entire car was covered. She was quirky, incredibly passionate about her artistic endeavors, true to her word, and even maybe a little bit crazy. After a few weeks, a group of us students were out with paintbrushes in hand, decorating the art teacher’s car. A car that could never be confused with anyone else’s again. 

That class, followed by several pottery, drawing, digital art, and, most importantly, photography courses, became the foundation for my love of art. I wouldn’t focus on one medium until my sons were born and I purchased my first digital camera. A slew of horribly composed and poorly lit images captured on automatic would follow until one day, I decided to apply to the Academy. 

When I started, I was just someone’s mom taking pictures. I didn’t define myself as a “real” artist; I hadn’t been in school for five years. I had no idea what to expect; I just wanted to learn about this medium that I fell in love with, as I am sure you all can relate to. The beginning days were scary, somewhat intimidating, and, if I’m honest, a bit overwhelming (that History of Photography class is a doozy!). 

However, within just a few weeks, I was challenged to think about my artistic voice and to consider what I had to say and share with the world. Not only were my professors instilling in me the foundational instruction that I signed up for, but they were inviting me to be a part of this art community and telling me that my voice was important. I was NOT just the CEO of laundry and dishes; as long as I was creating with passion and pride, I was an artist. They were calling me an artist, and in the semesters to come, a magical thing happened; I began to believe them. 

Master of Fine Arts Valedictorian Stephanie Conti. Photo by Bob Toy.

I wonder if you can remember that moment when you went from practicing a medium to feeling like an artist? As much as art is subjective, so is success. Whether it is a judge at an art gallery, the director of a film, or the HR recruiter at a job interview, what they deem “successful” varies greatly. I look back on those first few semesters, and let’s just say that my work has come a LONG way since the beginning. But my artistic voice and style were emerging, I was creating constantly, and I was doing it with pride. I wasn’t getting chosen for exhibitions, I wasn’t selling artwork, but on my own terms, I was successful. And in turn, I was creating my own definition of success.

So, if we all define success differently, is there still a fundamental building block that we all share? I believe so, and that is pride. When my boys come home from school or a game disappointed with the outcome of a test or the numbers on a scoreboard, I always ask one thing: ‘Did you do your best?’ Most times, they roll their eyes and drag my name out, ‘Mommmmmmm,’ but I continue to ask. Because whether we are eight or 89, the message is the same: Are you proud of what you have done? And if you are, aren’t you successful? 

If we make our own rules and allow our work and dedication to our medium to speak for itself, that becomes a level of success that no outside force can reach. It took me six years to complete my degree; some might deem me unsuccessful as I didn’t do it in the typical four-year span. But, as you can guess, I disagree. 

As we walk across this stage today to receive our diplomas and enter the post-graduate unknown, remember to create your own definition of success. Do not let anyone else define it for you. Furthermore, continue to create. All of us here are artists. We are creative thinkers; we have an innate urge to play within our medium and share it with the world. 

As we depart here today, I want you all to remember that going forward, there are no grades, no final exams, and no due dates. Our prior measure of success becomes irrelevant. But, if we have created in original thought and soulfully put our heart and sweat equity into our work, we can’t ever actually fail. Winston Churchill once said, ‘Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.’ 

Understand that you’re not going to win them all. Take criticism and turn it into personal drive. End your day knowing you did your best to grow, to learn, to push your boundaries, and not only to create but to inspire others to be creative. Take risks. Design work that you are proud to claim because that’s what gives our art a voice. Embed your pride into your practice and celebrate the victories big and small. 

If you find yourself with students of your own one day, I hope you remember that teacher who made a lasting impression and left their love of art on you. And even if you don’t teach, find a way to take your art and share it with a new generation of creative thinkers. We have earned the honor to do so. 

Regardless of the past and no matter what might transpire in the future, we will always have this moment. Look to your left. Look to your right. And when you leave here today, look in the mirror and remember: This is what success looks like. 

Class of 2023, we did it, and we should all be proud.

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