Sketches, layouts, dimensions? Artist renderings detailing every purpose for every square inch? That’s the technical way to envision the proposed new building for the UNLV College of Fine Arts.
But filter it through one student’s indefatigable passion? That’s the coolest way to really understand the impact it will have.
“In my opinion – and this is what I shared with legislators – it would be a beacon of hope on Maryland Parkway,” says McKenzie Easter, an aspiring sculptor and dean’s list student.
As a nontraditional undergrad at age 32, she possesses both enthusiasm and the life experience to make a compelling case for the building’s need and its future impact on individual students, the College of Fine Arts, and the community. Easter was invited to join the faculty and administrators at the Legislature in Carson City in March. She injected her enthusiasm directly into discussions as the UNLV delegation advocated for state funding. The new building would replace the longstanding but age-afflicted home, Grant Hall, the oldest building on campus.
“It’s important to advocate for the community. It’s important to advocate for the arts students. It’s important to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves,” Easter says. “When I was given this amazing opportunity, I could get a student voice into legislation so they really have an idea – not just from a professor’s or the dean’s perspective – but from someone who is constantly in [Grant Hall] and constantly using it. The new building is going to bring more students in because it’s going to be so innovative.”
Easter wasn’t shy about sharing such sentiments when she joined Dean Nancy Uscher and art department chair David Rowe – who chose Easter to complete the delegation — to meet with Assemblywomen Tracy Brown-May, Michelle Gorelow, and Shea Backus, and Sen. Dina Neal and Sen. Pete Goicoechea.
The goal: Persuade the lawmakers to support and approve approximately $5.1 million in state funds for construction plans, to help launch UNLV’s ongoing fundraising drives for a building Uscher hopes to see completed by this decade’s end.
How’d Easter do? “People hung on her every word,” Uscher says. “The legislators were so interested in what the student experience is like, and she did beautifully. She spoke with great dignity about her work. She loves making art and she believes the students deserve the best.”
The best, Uscher says, is not what students have now in Grant Hall, however much affection many may hold for it. “You talk to people who came here in the early, early days and there’s a lot of nostalgia from people who remember learning there. But the building itself is not doing well,” Uscher says. "I don’t think anyone would disagree that it was a great building for the past, but not for the future.”
With arts enrollment growing – 800 students currently and expected to expand to 1,000 in the next few years – the new structure will be “flexible enough to be very responsive to the needs of the students for the next 100 years,” Uscher says.
As described in the Maryland Parkway Campus Master Plan, the learning-forward Fine Arts building is designed to house approximately 100,000 square feet of infrastructure for art, design, art history, and related disciplines near the corner of Maryland Parkway and Harmon Road. Among numerous improvements, it will boast flexible spaces that lend themselves to teaching, studios, galleries, and exhibition halls.
Among the specific features: experimental “white box,” “gray box” and digital labs; resource rooms; studios for ceramics, painting and drawing, printmaking, graphic design, and photography; assembly spaces for lectures and panel discussions, plus a coffee shop/store and rooftop structure for events; and advising offices and lounges. (Check out this video narrated by Uscher).
While such ambitious enhancements won’t benefit Easter as a student — she’s working toward graduation next spring with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in hand — it could well be among her professional locales as she hopes to become both a professor and a working artist in Las Vegas.
Easter represents both the present and the future, with a passion in her past that led her to UNLV as an older student. Originally from Newport News, Virginia, Easter started her college education at Virgina Commonwealth University and worked at Bombshell Brazilian Waxing and Beauty Lounge in Richmond — which fated her to find UNLV.
When the salon business opened a location in Las Vegas, Easter moved here in 2015 to work as its inventory director and guest services manager. She brought her BFA transfer credits from VCU along with her.
“My whole life I really have had a passion for art,” she says. “Then I made the radical choice to come here and follow my dream again.”
Initially studying photography, painting and printmaking, her artistic love was redirected when she fell hard for another creative form.
“I took foundational sculpture class, and I never realized how I could manipulate objects in three dimensions rather than two dimensions. The opportunities available in sculpture to create certain abstractions that you couldn’t see anywhere else really drew me in, rethinking not only what an object can be, but what an idea can be, what it can mean. Sculpture encapsulates my imagination and my passion.”
And UNLV has placed her among a rich community of artists. “To be honest, I didn’t have a community in Las Vegas until I joined the arts program here. The strong sense of community is just so important and so uplifting. It’s making artists inspire other artists and that is just making the work better and better.”
Such well-expressed enthusiasm was well-aimed at state legislators. Easter says she explained that the new building could not only change the arts curriculum, but the entire UNLV culture by bringing multidisciplinary students together. “Just having updated space to work in could be their next level to bringing their art up, getting into an MFA program, or getting a master’s degree,” Easter says.
Though she can’t predict how their Carson City visit will ultimately factor into the Legislature’s decision – the current session ends in early June – Easter thinks they made an impact on the Nevada lawmakers. “We got great responses about how they support the arts and how they’re alumni from either UNLV or UNR and how important they think the arts programs were for students,” she says. “That was really nice to hear because the arts frequently get overlooked for other majors.
“This was my first type of lobbying experience, but we did our darn best. And if we continue in this direction, our arts program could be nationally or internationally known.”
Since this is Las Vegas, let’s make a wager: Someday, sculptor McKenzie Easter will be nationally or internationally known, as well. And Nevada legislators will feel honored they had the opportunity to meet her.