Dolores Park in the Mission District.

Life in San Francisco as an art student

CCA students Layla Namak, Jennifer Guo, and Angel Lusky, and alum Wally Corona give us an insider’s view of what it’s like to live and learn in San Francisco.

See how alumni Eleni Berg (BFA Ceramics 2019) went from discovering her creative voice in San Francisco to cultivating an entire career in the Bay Area after graduating.

California College of the Arts (CCA) campus is set against the backdrop of the greater San Francisco Bay Area, a hub for cutting-edge technology, major music festivals, unique architecture, world-class museums, art fairs, breathtaking ocean and mountain views, and a thriving creative economy.

Three CCA students and one alum, Layla Namak (MArch Architecture), Jennifer (Jen) Guo (BArch Architecture), and Angel Lusky (BFA Ceramics), and Wally Corona (BFA Painting and Drawing 2023) give us an insider’s view of what it’s like to live and learn in San Francisco and how the city expends classroom learning with artistic exploration and inspiration.

Photo of the waterfront in the Design District in San Francisco.

The waterfront in Mission Bay.

What it’s like to explore the city

In San Francisco, each neighborhood tells a story of its own. From the iconic streets of Chinatown and North Beach with their rich cultural heritage to the vibrant communities in the Mission and Castro Districts, the city’s diverse neighborhoods carry their own charm and atmosphere.

Our first stop is in CCA’s own backyard, the Design District, with Architecture undergraduate Jen Guo. She says, “The Design District has this really nice blend of architecture because you see the historical transition from industrial warehouses to more of a modern era.”

Image of a mural in the Mission District in San Francisco.

A vibrant mural adorns the Women's Building in the Mission District.

Adjacent to the Design District are the Potrero Hill, Mission Bay, and Dogpatch neighborhoods, all easily walkable and with neighborhood feels from quaint residential to towering landmarks. “There’s really nice places like the Chase Center and Oracle Park for performances, and the Bayfront Park is a beautiful walk along the water. It has everything you would want,” Guo adds.

The art-filled Mission District lies just to the west of campus and is accessible walking, biking, or on local transit. Recent alum Wally Corona (BFA Painting and Drawing 2023) looks to the Mission as a testament to the power of art for social change.

Corona explains that in San Francisco he is completely immersed among people from diverse backgrounds, with every block of the city representing the deep cultural history of its communities. “I love that you can’t go to the corner store without hearing six different languages along the way,” he says.

Angel Lusky, a current Ceramics undergraduate, is also humbled to be in a city which allows aspiring artists to constantly interact with varying art forms from different backgrounds that inspire, challenge, and broaden their outlook. “There are so many incredible people to learn from because every individual is offering their own unique perspective. The exposure to so many backgrounds has been so important to finding my artistic voice,” they say.

“The exposure to so many backgrounds has been so important to finding my artistic voice.”

— Angel Lusky

BFA Ceramics

Dolores Park on a sunny afternoon.

Dolores Park in the Mission District.

San Francisco has no shortage of places to get outside, relax, and enjoy the fresh air after a full day (or week!) of studying and making. MArch Architecture student Layla Namak’s favorite spot on a sunny afternoon is in the lively Dolores Park. “It buzzes with the joy of friends gathering and dogs running in a grassy field. Being surrounded by so much activity makes me feel connected to my community,” says Namak. “The park is situated on a steep hill, and its skyline view of the city is breathtaking.”

Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park.

Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

Other outdoor gems popular with CCA students include Golden Gate Park, Lands End, the Japanese Tea Garden, and Ocean Beach, each offering scenic and tranquil environments to relax and find inspiration all day.

Blended in with ocean views and deep forests, there are urban green spaces at every block. “There’s a lot of great spots to just sit and draw or paint. You really don’t have to go far,” says Wally Corona.

Spring fair with students interacting with each other.

What it feels like to join this Bay Area community

San Francisco is ranked number one as the most vibrant art community in the United States.

Layla Namak explains, “The city has long had an ethos of supporting local artists, and I love discovering and engaging with their work in cozy coffee shop atmospheres and other curated spaces that showcase local talent. It's this blend of creative energy and community support that makes San Francisco such a special place for me as a student and as a creator.”

Students at CCA are also fully immersed in the classroom and within the greater San Francisco community. The city is home to numerous art galleries and collaborative spaces that provide platforms for artists to showcase their work and connect with others.

“I saw one of my favorite artists work at a coffee shop, and the same week I saw them at an arts festival,” says Wally Corona. “I introduced myself and made that connection just like that. I feel like San Francisco is the only place that allows for this kind of creative serendipity.”

“It's this blend of creative energy and community support that makes San Francisco such a special place for me as a student and as a creator.”

— Layla Namak

MArch Architecture

CCA students and friends hanging out over a fire pit.

Photo courtesy of Wally Corona.

San Francisco has always attracted people who imagined new worlds were possible—artists, poets, musicians, and more. The home of many counterculture movements and one of the birthplaces of the LGBTQ+ movement, our city has a well-earned reputation for sparking change and building community.

Despite being far away from home, student Angel Lusky was able to effortlessly find their community in San Francisco. “Places like The Castro made me feel welcomed immediately as a queer person,” says Lusky. “Even though San Francisco is so different from where I grew up, I felt so a part of the environment because of how diverse and accepting the people are here. Everyone and everything is a source of inspiration for me and my art.” Lusky now calls San Francisco their second home.

Spring fair at CCA.

CCA Spring Fair, 2024.

From urban hiking to vintage shopping to stand up comedy, there is a place for everyone in San Francisco no matter how unique (or even specific) your interests are.

“Because of how diverse the San Francisco community is, there’s always someone out there that will like what you like and want to be your friend. There’s never really a fear of judgment,” says Jen Guo. “In a bigger sense, I think culture is something that amalgamates and it’s amazing how people can unite through shared values and openness. The sense of community has added so much beauty and richness to my life. CCA is also a great example of a tight-knit community of artists and designers who support each other.”

Art installation in the de Young Museum.

CCA students have endless museums to explore across the city, including the de Young Museum.

How learning goes beyond the classroom

The opportunities to learn and grow as an artist outside of the campus are boundless. All CCA faculty and professors are active artists or practitioners. In addition to teaching, many of them maintain practices in the city.

“One of my professors had his work showcased at SFMOMA and we just took a class field trip there. That was when I realized that it’s a real thing. Artists are actually doing it and making it. It was so important for me as a young artist to see that,” says Corona. After graduating from CCA, Corona decided to stay in San Francisco to pursue his career as a creative professional.

CCA student Jen Guo and classmates in Greenville.

Jen Guo and class on a field trip to Greenville.

Many CCA programs partner with local communities to promote learning through real life impact. Guo had the opportunity to collaborate with the Northern California communities of Greenville and Canyon Dam, towns touched by the 2021 Dixie Fire, to create proposals for revitalization.

“Our entire class created a game called Find Your Way Home as a community engagement tool to spark conversations and the values people had for a place that felt like home to them,” says Guo. “It gave me a lot of confidence as a designer to be trusted with something that would have a huge impact on the community.”

A class field trip to the Presidio Nursery in San Francisco.

Class field trip to the Presidio Nursery.

Like Guo, Namak participated in a studio course that collaborated with a partner in the community, this time with the Presidio Nursery on the design of an ecological stewardship and education center.

“This hands-on project exposed me to their sustainable practices and created a meaningful community connection that I wouldn't have otherwise made. It felt like a genuine collaboration between our class and the community,” says Namak.

Namak and Lusky also highlight how San Francisco is a place that draws in artists globally and locally to exhibit and attend some of the most prestigious museums and acclaimed art festivals.

“The city is always picking on your brains, there’s everything from work to play to academics. It’s one of the best places to not just push yourself artistically, but also just as a person.”

— Jen Guo

BArch Architecture

Purple glass hallway in SFMOMA.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Lusky says, “Not only are there major art museums like the SFMOMA or the Asian Art Museum, but there are so many smaller and more local art galleries around the city in every corner.”

“The de Young offers opportunities to engage with local and broader art and design,” Namak adds. “There’s also events like the annual FOG Design+Art Fair that showcase artistic talent and bring together the creative community in play, learning, and celebration.”

No matter how many galleries, events, or neighborhoods you explore, there will always be something innovative and exciting happening that will inspire you to grow as an artist and person, Guo adds.

“You will never be able to finish exploring the city. I've been here for a long time, but I still feel like a newcomer every single time because there's always something new happening, and I think that's really refreshing to be in a place where things are always advancing and adapting. It's never stagnant or boring,” says Guo. “The city is always picking on your brains, there’s everything from work to play to academics. It’s one of the best places to not just push yourself artistically, but also just as a person.”

Published on April 2, 2024