Head of School Seeks Creative Side of Students



Napa Valley Register: 10 Questions - Head of School Seeks Creative Side of Students

By Jennifer Huffman

October 16, 2012

Stephen Thomas is the founding director and head of school at the Oxbow School in Napa. Oxbow is a visual arts–oriented, one-semester boarding school located in downtown Napa.

Thomas, who has been an educator since 1984, described what he likes about working with high school students. “Their never-ending creativity,” as well as their idealism, energy and hope, he said.

To read full article and his responses to all 10 questions click on the above link.


Oxbow School lures students from across U.S.


Napa Register October 24, 2010

English teacher Jennifer Jordan demonstrates book binding.

by Jennifer Huffman
Napa’s Oxbow School is not your conventional high school.

Seeking admission, an Oxbow applicant recently submitted a small suitcase. Inside, the case contained a dress made from her own design out of a netting-like material. Folded into the dress

This “self-portrait” — a requirement for admission — is but one of countless ways that the Oxbow School, a private arts boarding school serving both local students and those from across the U.S., distinguishes itself.

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A Garden Full of Inspiration


gardenshot.jpgOxbow School's new creation is a 'site of imagination'

REBECCA YERGERNapa Valley RegisterSaturday, October 9, 2010 12:00 am

Secluded along the banks of the Napa river on the Oxbow School campus is a garden of inspiration.

Rooted — literally — in garden design history and academic discourse about nature versus industry, this outdoor classroom and its design concepts encourage contemplation of its principles and hypotheses as well as abstract thinking and creativity.

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Creative License: Using Art as a Medium for a Well-Rounded Education


Edutopia Magazine July 2006

Blood Work: Norbert Garcia Jr., of Tucson, touches up a giant red blood cell for his final project on AIDS.

Under a blue sky during the cool northern California winter, Michael Lopez was conducting first-person research for his final art project at the Oxbow School, a semester-long art program in the Napa Valley. Lopez's subject was low-wage labor, and his research that afternoon consisted of raking leaves. As he worked, he ticked off the skills he had learned in fifteen weeks at the school: time management, self-control, a research-based approach to creating art, and confidence in his ability to talk about his ideas. Strange lessons learned at an art school? Perhaps. But just the sort of skills Oxbow's faculty intend to teach...

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Against the Current: The Oxbow School


Artweek February 2002
By Collin Berry

It overlooks a narrow bend in the river, the eponymous oxbow that sends the muddy Napa flowing west, then south, towards San Francisco Bay. From the street, its five square buildings stand in stoic contrast to the modest Victorians that line the neighborhood’s shady streets. Although it comprises just over three acres, The Oxbow School—a tiny, one-of-a-kind boarding school in Napa, California, that features visual arts at the center of its curriculum—feels much bigger, like a college campus, a spiritual retreat or a private community. In a way, Oxbow is all of these, and for six years has been trying to prove the legitimacy of an intensive, art-based, interdisciplinary semester program for teenagers.

“Most of the kids who come here have a major transformative experience,” says Stephen Thomas, Oxbow’s director and printmaking instructor. “The program we deliver is really solid.”

Oxbow’s students would probably agree. Twice a year for four months, thirty-some high school juniors and seniors—currently 60 percent girls, 40 percent boys—live, study, socialize and create artwork amid elegant buildings, tended gardens and sun-drenched lawns and decks, enjoying mentored study in painting, sculpture, photography, digital media and printmaking. Learning takes place inside four modern concrete-and-Homosote studios designed by Stanley Saitowitz—pristine, north-facing classrooms with eighteen-foot-high ceilings, roll-up doors and sate-of-the-industry art-making materials. Meals are taken in a refurbished Victorian, the chef trained at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. For sixteen weeks, students here get to live every working artist’s wildest dream.

“It’s been incredibly eye-opening, says Esme Vaandrager, a cheerful, articulate junior from Albuquerque. “I came here knowing it would be a wonderful opportunity, that the school and teachers has so much to offer, but—well, I’m kind of overwhelmed.”

Besides its faculty, one of the most persuasive elements of the Oxbow experience is its Visiting Artist Program. The three-part program includes ten-day artist residencies; individual artists’ lectures (free and open to the public) given by painters, sculptors, digital artists and curators; and studio visits in which students—some of the them for the first time—can snoop, scrutinize and pose questions of a professional artist at work. Oxbow’s Visiting Artist Program has real gravity, having drawn nearly fifty Bay Area, national and international artists including Harrell Fletcher, Anya Gallacio, Gay Outlaw, Rigo, Raymond Saunders, Kathryn Spence, Wayne Thiebaud and William Wiley to the school. As if the beautiful surroundings, excellent classroom ratios and fine food aren’t enough, Oxbow students get to rub shoulders with some of the West’s best-known talents.

Randy Twaddle, an award-winning, Austin-based artist and filmmaker who visited Oxbow in fall of 2004, found the students much more advanced than he had expected. “I presented them with a college-level assignment, and was really impressed,” Twaddle recalls. “The tone and aesthetic of their materials was surprisingly sophisticated.”

Oxbow’s brief history traces recent developments in Napa Valley. Twenty years of solid wine-industry growth and the late-1990s technology boom created a huge amount of investment capital in the region, and two of the wealthiest local speculators were Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit. Winemakers who acknowledged the Apollonian/Dionysian link between wine and art (not to mention the proliferation of galleries inside wineries and long-standing nearby art collections like the di Rosa Preserve in Carneros), the Mondavis embarked in 1996 upon the creation of Copia, a $55 million food, wine and art center in Downtown Napa. It was in this healthy economic environment that Oxbow was conceived by arts philanthropist Ann Hatch, best know at the time for establishing San Francisco’s renowned Capp Street Project.

“We started with the premise that the arts were as valuable as other academic subjects,” recalls Hatch, whose other ventures included the Bay Area’s California College of Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “We wanted an environment for pre-college students we felt had been underserved.” Hatch partnered with the Mondavis, who provided $6 million to found Oxbow as an arts-education enhancement to Copia, two blocks upriver; Oxbow’s first class completed the program in 1999.

Oxbow’s curriculum was built with an awareness of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences and designed, as Thomas explains, “for multiple points of entry.” Half of Oxbow’s applicants come from California, and the rest from as far away as Houston, Knoxville or Putney, Vermont. This is not a portfolio school: Applicants need not be art students, nor even be headed for an art academy after they graduate from their sending high schools. But they do have to be highly motivated, excellent time managers, self-disciplined and generously creative.

“The kid who lands here has the inclination to exploit the program’s human and material resources,” says Thomas, who taught for fourteen years and chaired the art department at San Francisco’s uber-progressive Urban School. “We have a rigorous external standard, but we’re also trying to identify where each student is coming from.”

Whatever their son or daughter’s artistic abilities, parents who send their child to Oxbow tend to be financially secure. A single semester for the 2005-2006 school year costs $15,000 but for their (parents’) money, students get a one-to-six teacher-student ratio, long stretches of supervised studio time, and a verdant academic and creative environment that could itself spring from a painting—a Hudson River school of a different kind. Plus, the food is excellent.

With room for forty-eight students, spaces at Oxbow are presious; yet, the school has never been full. It’s also never made a profit, and that has to change. Oxbow president David Brown says enrollment has shown incremental growth from year to year: “We’re close to full, and 80 percent of the kids who apply eventually make it here,” he explains. But, he adds, it’s essential that Oxbow balance the number of qualified applicants with the number of open slots. To do so, the school has stepped up its promotional tempo, and starting this year, a new admissions director will facilitate face-to-face connections with seventy to eighty Northern California high schools. National schools will follow, the presumption being that personal contact with counselors and prospective students will increase knowledge about—and eventually applications for—Oxbow.

The task is formidable. Getting parents to pay top dollar for an experimental boading school is challenging these days, and one reason is economic. It’s no secret that the country is feeling financially pressed—even those willing to drop $15,000 in their child’s creative future. Another reason may bne cultural: The last eighteen months of high school are a crucial time for an American teenager, when college applications and admission tests loom large over her educational future. Although Oxbow is fully accredited, some parents still perceive its program as a risk to their child’s college qualifications.

More difficult to consider, however, is a third option: That the country has become a place where a personal, progressive school that emphasizes creative arts is something we don’t place much value in. That opinion is dicey. Thirty percent of families with students at Oxbow receive financial aid; money is available if families are in need. But what this option says about America, and its feelings about its children’s and culture’s creative future is perilous.

“If we don’t start investing art education in young people, there won’t be anybody left in the museums,” says Hatch, only half-jokingly. “They’ll all be filled with old people.” Oxbow is tilting against this, but needs an undercurrent of social and financial support.

Every few years, the Napa floods, and Oxbow’s studios are built upon a five-foot retaining wall that protects them from high water. The river is something of a metaphor for the school itself, for the ebb and flow of mercurial economies, of the values a society places upon art and arts education, upon a nation’s investment for its creative future. But the Napa’s sharp bend can also symbolize an abrupt directional change—the turn an economy or a social climate can take—or a single student, placed in just the right setting.

“We’re really pleased when kids walk away from Oxbow knowing exactly what kind of learner they are,” director Thomas says. “If they take themselves seriously, we take them seriously, and right from that first semester, they’re making major breakthroughs".

A School Like No Other