Home Featured Academy Alumni and Faculty Works Featured at The de Young Open 2023

Academy Alumni and Faculty Works Featured at The de Young Open 2023

by Art U News
The de Young Open 2023. Photo courtesy of Dean Larson.

By Rachel Reyna 

This past September, The de Young Open made its return since its first exhibition in October 2020. The show was created to support Bay Area artists, allowing them to be widely viewed and sell their work. The de Young Open 2023 contains 883 selected pieces in a salon-style set-up. The artworks are grouped by subject, including political and social issues, the urban environment, the human figure, nature, abstraction, and surreal imagery. 

Among the many artists on display are faculty and alums from the Academy of Art University’s School of Fine Art (FA), including Jane Cavala, Ni Zhu, and FA instructor Dean Larson, whose works were selected for this year’s exhibition. 

The de Young Open 2023. Photo by Dean Larson.
The de Young Open 2023. Photo by Dean Larson.

It’s quite an honor that our alumni, faculty, and current students get accepted into a museum show; it’s pretty prestigious, and it’s a feather in their cap, and our cap, because [the artists] are going through our training,” said School of Fine Art—Painting & Printmaking Online Director Anna Nelson. “It’s wonderful that the museum judges appreciate [the] strong artwork that our students, faculty, and alumni create and that our students have the skill set to go out and begin their career as a fine artist with a museum show on their résumé.”


Metamorphosis,” an oil painting by Cavala, depicts the artist’s subject against a background of subtle yet stunning butterflies. Cavala wanted to incorporate the personal story of her subject into her piece. Over the eight weeks that Cavala worked on the piece, she learned that the woman she was painting was going through a transitional period as she explored new possibilities while figuring out her career path. 

“I began to think about my own life in those terms,” explained Cavala, “of those periods of time where I was in great transition and that feeling of uncertainty and having it kind of bloom into this next thing that you can’t quite anticipate, which is how the metamorphosis metaphor and the butterflies in the background came to be.”

"Metamorphosis" by Jane Cavala. Image is courtesy of Jane Cavala.
“Metamorphosis” by Jane Cavala. Image is courtesy of Jane Cavala.

Cavala, who graduated from the Academy with an M.F.A. in 2016, shared that her time at the Academy allowed her to unlock a new level of expertise in her artistry as she studied portraiture. 

“In my early design studies, there had not been a focus on developing tangible skills,” shared Cavala, “so for me, studying at the Academy opened up a world of processes and methods that can be learned to become a better painter. From there, you just have to work on your weaknesses and practice.”

“They Say He’s Homeless No. 2”

Zhu’s piece, “They Say He’s Homeless No. 2,” depicts a homeless man sitting on a park bench in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Zhu first encountered the man in 2021 and saw something in him that inspired her to sketch. 

“There’s nothing different between me, him, or anyone else,” said Zhu, who obtained her M.F.A. from the Academy in 2020. 

In 2021, Zhu was searching for camaraderie and a connection with the outside world that had been missing since the start of the pandemic.

Dean Larson and Ni Zhu with Zhu’s piece, “They Say He’s Homeless No. 2.” Photo courtesy of Dean Larson.

“I went to Chinatown in San Francisco, and I did some plein air work with friends. Of course, it was still really empty. There were still people there, but in terms of [an] art scene, there was not much going on. I really wanted to see people, so I went to a park. I started sketching people, and then this guy was sitting there, and he didn’t mind me sketching him. I had a lot of fun sketching him.”

The man allowed Zhu to take reference photos of him and bought him dinner as a token of her appreciation for his time. Her reference photos were put to the side until 2022. Zhu later realized she was still thinking about the man in the park and decided to paint him. 

In discussing her time at the Academy, Zhu said, “The Academy is focused on vocational training, the technique, which is what I needed. The M.F.A. did make me more confident.” 

“Scaffolder 2”

Dean Larson with his piece, “Scaffolder 2.” Photo courtesy of Dean Larson.

Larson’s piece, “Scaffolder 2,” was inspired by the scaffolders he saw while on a study abroad trip in Florence, Italy. FA is one of the Academy schools offering study-abroad courses to students of all majors to further their knowledge and gain inspiration overseas. 

One year, while painting a view of the Duomo, Larson spotted a group of workers taking down a scaffolding structure. Larson admired the nonchalant attitude of the man who was at the top despite being so high up in the air. 

“The paintings that I was doing [in Italy] were more typical Italian cityscapes, which are great and wonderful to do but are not as San Francisco orientated. The subject matter does not resonate with California as much,” explained Larson. “So, [‘Scaffolder 2’] just seemed like something different and kind of dynamic to see somebody up so high on a scaffolding like that. It seemed like a good fit [for The de Young Open].”

View works from Cavala, Zhu, and Larson, as well as additional work on display from FA faculty Zhaoming Wu and alumni Aiwen Chen, Siana Smith, Sophie Bing Zhang, Ned Axthelm, Thalia Stratton, John Wentz, and Erin Zhao at The de Young Open 2023 through January 7, 2024. 

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