Studios of Their Own, Thanks to an Alumna’s Gift



 Photo by Jim Collins Newly opened senior studios bear the name of college supporter Suzanne Chonette, who, along with other board members, got their first look inside last Saturday.
Photo by Jim Collins
Newly opened senior studios bear the name of college supporter Suzanne Chonette, who, along with other board members, got their first look inside last Saturday.

With the end of the term just weeks away, Laguna College of Art and Design seniors didn’t need all that much prodding to show up on a weekend to work on unfinished year-end projects in newly finished studios and workspaces.

Though student animators, painters, designers, gamers and illustrators settled in with light tables, easels and computers beginning in March, last Saturday they demonstrated how the newly acquired and renovated space was put to good use.

Christened the Suzanne Chonette Senior Studios, students occupy a 5,400 square foot former gym opposite the main campus, acquired by the college for $3 million and renovated for another $500,000, with more remodeling work still needed. It features light-filled, well-ventilated spaces designed for myriad needs, including room for collaborative efforts.

The studio’s was named for Suzanne Chonette, of Newport Beach, who with her husband David, a former executive of Edwards Lifesciences Corp. and a venture capitalist, contributed more that $500,000 to the project.

“This is the most generous gift the college has ever received,” said LCAD president Jonathan Burke, who also thanked an array of other donors whose support contributed bringing the student studios to fruition.

Serendipity brought Chonette back into the college community. Art and music aficionadas Chonette and Betty Shelton met during a culture sojourn through Munich, Germany, in 2006. They discovered a common connection to the former Southern California Institute of Art, now LCAD, and a friendship took root.

Chonette was one of the school’s first graduates in 1990, earning a bachelor of fine arts. (The school earned accreditation from the National Assn. of Schools of Art and Design in 1985.)

Shelton, a faculty member since 1995, teaches portraiture and painting and chairs LCAD’s post-baccalaureate department.

Chonette did more than take up Shelton’s invitation to visit. She enrolled in a life drawing class, immersed herself among faculty and students, and last year joined LCAD’s board of trustees. “Suzanne came back to the school and has been giving back since,” said Shelton.

Giving back comes naturally to Chonette, who served as a board member for the American Heart Association, Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum and Children’s Hospital of Orange County among other organizations. An oboe player during her youth, she is a life member of the Pacific Symphony’s board and also a supporter of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory.

Even before Burke began negotiations with owners of the building previously occupied by the Sports Performance Institute, Chonette supported his plan to transform it into long-needed studio spaces for seniors.

The project initially met resistance. Some perceived LCAD’s multiple locations in Laguna Canyon as a threat to other tenants and some residents were unhappy about losing the area’s only gym, operated by Eric Parizek, Silvio Delligatta, Mike Catanzaro and John Thomas.

LCAD acquired the property last August and Burke aimed to ready it for student use by the spring semester.

“We listened to discussions about the importance of acquiring the property and when it became available everyone wanted to step up,” said Chonette, who never anticipated the building would bear her name.

“This is a complete surprise,” she said. Neither she nor her husband asked for naming rights; their aim was to provide students with a room of their own to work.

Chonette spent most of her adult life raising five children. Now that they are adults with children and grandchildren of their own, she returns to her training. She uses chalk pastels in a style that she describes as true to life, à la Mary Cassatt, and shows work at Palm Springs’s Desert Art Center.

Last Saturday afternoon, the studios buzzed with creativity, with nearly every studio or workstation filled.

Benjamin Gibson, an aspiring painter, appreciates his new quarters. He is working on two paintings, smaller than his usual work, due to space constraints, he explained. But, at least he finally has a space, if only for one semester. “Last year, I did not have a place to paint at all. I used an overflow room so this is a huge improvement,” he said. “The best part is that the school does not put us out right after graduation. We can use the studios over the summer,” he said.

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