Art School(ed): RISD Alumni Cheat Sheet, Part 1

HistoryScenario: You find yourself at a house party, and your intrigue is piqued by an unfamiliar collegian across the room, wearing a paint-splattered t-shirt emblazoned with the RISD seal. It’s a classic conundrum: two kids from the opposite sides of town, searching for some common ground. You could initiate conversation with age-old ice breakers—”are your calves so defined from walking up the Hill every day?” or, “is it true that you have 8-hour-long studio classes?!” But why not distinguish yourself as the burgeoning free-thinker you are, and discuss the many artists who walked these streets before you did? Maybe you won’t run into any new RISD kids this semester (they won’t be seeing much daylight as they prepare for their impending final critiques), but why not go home for break and impress your mom with these fun facts about artistic beginnings on College Hill? After all, you live in Providence, the self-proclaimed creative capital of the US, and college has transformed you into a learned sophisticate!

Here is your cheat sheet of some eccentric and accomplished artists who have graced the College Hill grounds currently beneath your feet, after the jump:


Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy

Ever wonder why Family Guy is set in Rhode Island? Its creator, Seth MacFarlanelogged his hours as a Providence resident when he attended RISD in the early ’90s. The Providence Skyline can be seen in occasional episodes of Family Guy (here, you can recognize One Financial Plaza, 50 Kennedy Plaza, and the Bank of America Tower).


The Talking Heads

The Talking Heads also got their start at RISD. David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth met at RISD, but Byrne dropped out after his first year. Byrne has less than favorable things to say about American art schools: “I think art school is a real racket, especially in this country. You run into a couple of good teachers and some interesting students but for the amount of money you spend, it’s not worth it.” Tell us how you really feel, Byrne. For one assignment, Byrne put on a performance in which he shaved his hair and beard in public, accompanied by a piano accordion, while a showgirl displayed cue cards written in Russian. (Where, where is [his] common sense?) Pre-dating the official formation of the Talking Heads, Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth wrote what would become their hit “Psycho Killer” while in Providence. (Mention this to your parents. They will totally dig it.)


Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture in Las Vegas

Careful, these guys are fragile: Dale Chihuly received his MFA from RISD’s glass department in 1968.


Josiah McElheny’s “Modernity circa 1952, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely”

Josiah McElheny graduated from RISD in 1989, and the Macarthur Foundation awarded him a genius grant in 2006 for his glasswork. McElheny is infinitely cool.


Francesca Woodman in RISD’s Nature Lab

Francesca Woodman, the tragic heroine of self-portraiture, attended RISD during her brief but prolific lifetime.


Jemima Kirke, not Jessa.

Jemima Kirke, known to all HBO Girls’ fans as Jessa, graduated from RISD in 2008 with a BFA in Painting. She considers her acting career secondary to her painting. Kirke’s portraits are often compared to Alice Neel‘s work. She has painted Lena Dunham nude, which turned out to be a labor of love: “she had a UTI so she was bitching and whining the whole time which touched me because she sat through it anyway for the sake of the painting. It felt very right that I paint her. We’re both artists. We use each other for inspiration. We help each other out.”

photo by Edith Young

Janine Antoni’s “Lick and Lather” soap bust. Photo by Edith Young.

photo by Edith Young

Janine Antoni’s “Lick and Lather” chocolate bust. Photo by Edith Young.

Janine Antoni got her MFA from RISD in 1989. You may know her from her project Lick & Lather, where she created two self-portrait busts: one out of soap and one out of chocolate. She washed herself with the soap bust and licked the chocolate one until each resembled her face.

Gus van
Sant, the director of Good Will Hunting, got his start in RISD’s film/animation/video department. How ’bout them apples?

You might be familiar with this project, which recently went viral: two RISD graduates executed an experiment titled 40 Days of Dating as they grapple with love in the 21st century.


In 2012, James Franco received his MFA in Digital Media from RISD. In case you missed it, he also has MFAs in writing from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and an MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts—not to mention he’s also a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. Additionally, Sofia Coppola’s niece, Gia Coppola, based her upcoming film Palo Alto off of his short story collection. Well, he’s fucking James Franco.

Other alums of note:

  • Famed photographer Harry Callahan established the photography department at RISD. Emmet Gowin pursued graduate work at RISD in order to study under Callahan. Both men had a penchant for intimately photographing their wives, Eleanor and Edith.
  • Aaron Siskind and Diane Arbus taught in the department as well.
  • You probably read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in high school: the short story’s author attended RISD in 1878 (the year after the school was established). Some literary types interpret the piece of fiction as a cautionary tale against marrying a man from RISD. Tough chirps, considering the slim pickings.
  • Duke Riley lived with pigeons in a cheap attic loft during his time at RISD. Riley has not abandoned his avian ways in his post-graduate life: he recently trained 50 homing pigeons to smuggle cigars from Havana, Cuba to the Florida Keys. Some of these pigeons carried cameras to document the journey. A pair of his smuggler birds is for sale ($100,000 apiece), and the flock is exhibited at his solo show at the Magnan Metz Gallery (located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood). Brooklyn-based, Riley makes a living as a tattoo artist.

Tune in next time for the très avant-garde second installment of the RISD alumni cheat sheet series!

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  1. Art Nerd

    FYI – Jessica Walsh is a RISD grad, but Timothy Goodman is not. He went to, and now teaches, at SVA.

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