A life liberated by the arts

Tiffany Ana López’s life testifies to the gifts of an arts education. At 15, the future dean of UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts was serving burgers in Sacramento, having fled from an alcoholic father to live with a school-friend’s family. What saved her, sustained her and launched her extraordinary career was her early exposure to the arts. López recently took time for an interview with the Irvine Standard.

What are your first memories of being inspired by art?

When I was in kindergarten, a friend’s mother took us to a classical music concert. I distinctly remember the wonder of being in front of a live orchestra. Later, I participated in public arts programs for children, in a park near our home, learning macrame and trying on theatrical costumes.

As I became more interested in storytelling, it helped me see the environment I was living in was just one story, and that there are opportunities to make other stories in the world. I didn’t start talking about my own story until I was in my 30s, but I’ve found that doing so helps us remind ourselves that most of us have faced some sort of struggle and that this alone does not define us.

Your childhood sounds difficult. How did you get from there to here?

When I was growing up, my mother was very depressed, and what I always say about her today is that she had very low ceilings. For me, education transformed my life and let me see the horizon beyond those low ceilings.

When I later enrolled in community college, my teachers encouraged me to transfer to a state university, where I met others who nurtured my interest in the arts. I completed my doctorate degree at UC Santa Barbara, and, in 1995, UC Riverside hired me as its first Latina English professor. I went on to lead Arizona State University’s film, dance and theater school and helped launch the Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

When I was contacted by members of UCI, I knew it would be my dream job to be the art school’s dean.

Throughout my career, I have worked with playwrights and theater companies. It has always been important to me to have a foot in both the worlds of higher education and arts organizations.

What are some of your goals as dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts?

For one thing, I’ve spent my nine months in this job meeting with almost every arts organization in Orange County because that connection with the community is incredibly important.

As an educator and as dean, what I most want for our students is for them to understand the power of their vision and voice, which is what the arts help teach us.

What’s distinctive about the UCI school of the arts?

The Claire Trevor school is a jewel in the UC system, the only named school of arts. While other UC campuses have arts programs housed under humanities or social sciences or separated by field, ours stands alone in encompassing art, dance, drama and music. What’s more, our students already see themselves as artists because they have chosen to pursue their studies in a school of the arts. They must audition to be accepted.

Aside from this, I’m particularly proud of our Creative Connections program: a paid, yearlong teaching internship for UCI arts majors that also supports K-12 Orange County schools.

Does Claire Trevor herself have special significance for you?

Absolutely. She was a trailblazer who worked to open doors for others. She was not only an actress but a painter, and her paintings are hung in our school offices.

There’s one outside my office that shows two uniformed flight attendants leaving a plane and looking very joyful in being a conduit for others to expand their horizons and see new worlds. As a dean, I feel as if I’m in the pilot’s seat, helping the school navigate into our future.