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Room to Explore

A welcoming arts community at Santa Clara and in the Bay Area allowed valedictorian Simon Lanzoni ’24 to find his niche in sound and sculpture.
June 13, 2024
By Lisa Robinson

You grew up in Burlington, North Carolina. What sparked an interest in applying to this school, 3,000 miles away? 

Burlington is a rural, small town in North Carolina. I was interested in coming to Santa Clara because I wanted to throw myself off the deep end into something new. I experienced so much growth during my gap year living in Morocco—being alone so far away from home—that as I considered my pursuit of higher education, I wanted to continue that ideal. California was on the opposite coast and that was appealing. 

Has it lived up to your expectations? 

The move certainly surpassed my expectations. I truly fell in love with San Francisco. From the first time I stepped foot there, I knew I had this overwhelming feeling that I was exactly where I belonged, and I went into it with a completely open mind. 

How has this area differed from your hometown? How has that changed your approach to life? 

Living in the Bay Area has absolutely changed how I go about life. I have become much more mindful. The East Coast has a certain energy; an element of directness, of realness. Whereas out here on the West Coast, I describe it as very heady and emotional, which is very different. Living in the Bay Area has given me a perspective where I have a balance between these two ideals. It is really beautiful. 

Looking back at the day you arrived on campus, how have you grown?

I’ve grown in many ways, but particularly in finding myself as an artist. When I came to Santa Clara, I knew I wanted to pursue the arts, but I lacked a little bit of direction. It’s such a broad field. I wasn’t sure really what I wanted to do. One of the beautiful things about education at Santa Clara is you have a really close connection with the faculty. They give you a lot of room to explore independently and find your interests outside of constructs that you often find in art schools or conservatories. The ability to explore freely and radically was formative and life-changing for me. It allowed me to find my niche. I’ve blended my studies in sculpture and sound to create these audio-visual installations that have become the essence of my work. 

You’ve engaged with Italy in several ways throughout your education, through language, art, and internships. Where does that come from and why was it important to you? 

I have been interested in Italy and Italian studies my entire life. My dad’s mother was born to Italian immigrants in France, so I have a great deal of Italian family. More than that, both of my parents’ research engages with Italy. My father studies Italian cinema and my mother is an art historian who specializes in high Renaissance Venetian studies. Throughout my childhood, I spent summers in Italy—in Venice in particular. I grew up playing soccer with kids in the street and even went to school there for a little bit. Italian culture is central to my identity. 

When I came to Santa Clara, I knew that this was a beautiful opportunity, and maybe even the last one, to pursue Italian studies and immerse myself in the language in a way that I couldn’t get elsewhere. 

When have you surprised yourself?

I think the moment that I truly, truly, truly surprised myself was last year when I started and led the Free Arts initiative. It was the first time in my life I realized the power your voice has as a student to effect change for the greater good. I had never really led an initiative or anything like that.

I started a petition to make the performing arts free for students. Word of the petition spread like wildfire. It reached about 500 signatures in just a couple of days, and at that point, it became a big deal. I then collaborated with student government and spoke with provosts and deans, and it just never stopped. After a bunch of back and forth and some challenges, it eventually happened, and tickets are now free for all students, which has had drastic implications on the flourishing of the arts community here on campus. It had been severely underrepresented and undervalued. Now we’re starting to see a shift, especially this year where the arts are flourishing on campus, and it’s so satisfying to see. Even students majoring in biology or English can have an artistic voice, and students can support them free of charge. It’s a wonderful thing. 

I saw that you did a REAL internship in Italy. What inspired you to pursue that? 

I’ve done a few REAL internships during my time here. The first was with an organization in Florence. I worked with adults with special needs and organized events for them. It was wonderful to speak Italian and coordinate with people across the globe. It was a wonderful experience. The next year the REAL program allowed me to organize an art installation in the Dowd Gallery as a student over the summer. It was a solo exhibition, focused on language and the influence of language on our perceptions of reality. I’ve been exploring this for a few years now. It also informed my honors thesis. Post-grad, I'll be doing another REAL research project where I’ll be living in Rome, and studying the acoustics of the Pantheon. My hope is this will inform a solo exhibition in a gallery in the Bay Area in 2025. 

Who are the people you’ll remember most from your time here?

It’s difficult to include everyone, but there are certainly a few people who have drastically changed the course of my life during my time at SCU. One of those is William Stevens, who’s a music professor. He teaches the musicianship series. The course itself changed my musicianship. It changed my approach to sound and the sonic experience. But on a more personal level, he has been a role model, a mentor, and more than anything, a friend and someone I care deeply for. It will be a lifelong relationship. I also have to mention Carl Schultz, the director of jazz studies. He has changed my approach to sound. He was my advisor, and I cannot speak highly enough of him and his dedication to the student body. 

Finally, Ryan Carrington, who’s a sculpture professor here at Santa Clara. I took his class on a whim. I was deeply invested in sound and music and decided to take a sculpture class. During one of our first classes, he played a video of an artist named Kevin Beasley who creates sound and sculptural installations. It was at that moment I realized this even existed or was possible. I never looked back. He was there with unparalleled support and always inspired me to pursue sculpture. It’s how I found my artistic identity and my niche was cultivated—more than anyone—through him, and I’m eternally grateful to him for that. He’s truly a special person. All three of the people I mentioned are. There are so many more that I could mention. Bruno Ro in the music department changed my approach to experimental sound and exposed me to the Bay Area’s rich history of experimentation and the avant-garde here. This is the mecca of the avant-garde in sound. 

Were you able to bridge out into San Jose and San Francisco with your art? Whether to perform or to take in other’s art?

One of the most important things about my education at Santa Clara was the proximity to major artistic hubs, particularly San Francisco and Oakland. In the experimental scene, which is where I find myself (as an artist), a lot of that is based in Oakland. Pretty much every weekend I would go to see shows, meet artists, speak to gallery owners, and visit galleries. Through that, I’ve established connections that have led me to perform my work and do solo shows. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I had a solo show in Oakland at this experimental space, and I will be doing a solo exhibition at a gallery in the Bay Area in 2025. 

How many times did you get to perform or display art at Santa Clara? 

Well, I’ve performed and displayed more times than I could count on campus. Initially, I felt there was a lack of opportunity for students to showcase their work independently. I took it upon myself to push for, especially within the art department, a student gallery exhibition space, which is now on the third floor. Every two weeks a student shows a different installation. I’ve shown there a couple of times. I showed in the main Dowd Gallery on the first floor, countless performances in various parts of the music building or the theater black box. I worked at KSCU, the radio station here, and organized a biweekly concert series for students who are performing and composing original experimental avant-garde work because there’s a rich community of that on campus. I wanted to give voice to that because it’s often underrepresented within the arts community here. 

How do you view milestones like graduation? Are they a big deal for you or just another step on the journey? 

In the past, I’ve tended to undervalue them. I’m not one for celebrations, but as I’m trying to be more mindful, it’s important to take a little bit of time to reflect on everything you’ve done and everyone who’s allowed you to reach this milestone. I think that being mindful in those moments allows you to move forward in a wonderful state of mind. I look forward to celebrating with the class of 2024. 

How would you describe this class of students? 

I would describe the class of 2024 in one word—unrelenting. I say that because there’s just a deep dedication to social justice and a deep dedication to leaving this campus and community a better place than when we got here. 

Without spoiling your speech, what message do you want to share with them? 

I will be talking about the great optimism I have for our generation. We’ve been left with quite a lot of challenges to face, whether it be climate, geopolitical issues, socioeconomic issues, health, housing, and food insecurity. We’ve got a lot on our plate, but I feel a great sense of hope that our generation really sees through these social norms and binaries that have been taken to be for so long. We’re starting to question why things are the way they are.