How exploration brought Laura Fine Hawkes to Santa Fe as a performing arts student and then as department chair.

August 2016—Laura Fine Hawkes ’95 almost didn’t come to Santa Fe the first time. An “opera fanatic” from a young age, she initially focused on undergraduate programs where she could specialize in the 400-year-old art form. That would have been a mistake, she says, because what she really needed was more opportunity to explore and discover multiple areas of interest, developing an artistic voice and process.

The opportunity to explore and the artistic appeal of New Mexico ultimately enticed her to the College of Santa Fe, where she majored in acting, but took courses from literature to visual arts. (Linda Swanson, current dean of the School of Visual and Communication Arts, was her drawing teacher.) She had stage roles in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Animal Crackers,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” But what she found herself doing consistently was painting scenery for campus productions with faculty member Clark Duncan. “I painted for him every chance I could,” Hawkes says. “I wasn’t even that good a painter; I just wanted to be around him.”

Scenic painting paid the bills when she graduated and moved to LA to pursue acting. While her fellow grads were waiting tables between auditions, she was working on innovative projects with artists and major industry players, including a collaboration between Maurice Sendak and Sony. “The art directors and set designers in LA seemed like the smartest people I’d ever met,” she says. “I loved how they could draw, I loved how they thought, and I loved the conceptual work they were doing.”

After two years of bringing conceptual work to life, she knew that scenic design, not acting or opera performance, was the path for her. That led to an MFA in scenic design from UCLA and projects as diverse as art directing the live-streamed multimedia show “24 Hours of Reality: Cost of Carbon,” designing the Air Force One Discovery Center at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, filming a short for Cirque du Soleil, and, of course, designing scenery for operas.

“It’s a fun puzzle that is always changing. You are asking, ‘Who is on the team? What story are we telling? Who are the artists and performers we are working with?’ ” she says. “That’s the draw.”

Now that she’s found her way back to Santa Fe as chair the Performing Arts Department, she has students asking those questions in their productions. It’s one way she’s evolving the curriculum to include even more integration with industry. Theatrical training is still the spine of the program, but Hawkes wants graduates to know how to apply core design, technical, and acting choices across any medium whether it’s a live show, recorded camera work, a theme park, a 4-D or 5-D production, or an experience that has yet to be imagined. She’s emphasizing contemporary work because students can sink into it quickly, and that’s where much of their future employment is likely to be.

She is also encouraging students to do the same type of exploration that launched her career. “The opportunity to explore and work across departments is still why students come here,” she says. That includes cross-department student marketing teams to boost theatre attendance, as well as a collaborative live performance involving dancers and actors at last fall’s Outdoor Vision Fest, where performing arts has historically been underrepresented.

What she emphasizes most with students, and for alumni, is to be curious. “There is a technical and skills foundation, an ideas and information foundation, and curiosity. That’s the thing that defines a really strong designer in any genre: How curious are you and how willing are you to continue to educate yourself.” —Eric Brosch