Elizabeth Bayne: In ArtCenter’s 90-year history, we’ve had 300 black alumni — how do you feel about that?
Esmi Rennick (BS 13 Environmental Design): In ArtCenter’s 90-year history, we’ve had 300 black alumni — how do you feel about that?
Esmi Rennick: It's an incredibly low number.
EB: Were you the only Black person in your department, what was your first impression?
ER: I was the only Black Native American woman in my department. Before me, I can't even name, a woman of color from my department. My first impression was you. I was lucky enough to have you approach me as an upperclassman and say, "I'm reaching out to you as a student of color and to let you know that you can ask me any questions or if you see me on campus, say hi." Otherwise, I don't think I would have begun to even branch out of my initial class in first term.
EB: Did it make you uncomfortable, or was that a familiar experience?
ER: Actually, familiar. I grew up in a predominantly white town. But the more I looked around and realized that my point of view was vastly different from my fellow students, it became glaringly clear that I had a voice that was not represented.
EB: Why is representation important?
ER: So many reasons. It's important for the type of work that's getting put out, and to actually incite change. To champion innovation, I think you need a different perspective, and that's something having more diversity would provide.
EB: What work do you do?
ER: I actually stumbled into the space I'm in, working at an urban planning and design firm. I thought I would be doing luxury hotel design and branded spatial experiences. But midway through my time at ArtCenter, I realized I wanted to design with meaning. So on my quest to really look at community engagement in environmental design and around spatial design, I ended up in urban planning and design.
In ArtCenter's 90-year history there have only been approximately 300 Black alumni. Impact 90/300, a documentary by Elizabeth Gray Bayne, profiles 25 of them. This series revisits each interview from the film, originally created for ArtCenter DTLA's 90/300 Exhibition.
I wanted to design with meaning. So on my quest to really look at community engagement in environmental design and around spatial design, I ended up in urban planning and design.Esmi RennickSocial Impact Environmental Designer
EB: Why is having a different point of view important?
ER: A lot of the communities we're serving are underrepresented in general. They’re communities of color and we’re trying to bring access with transportation, to bring them further into the city and out of segregated areas. For a predominantly white team to go into a community of color, I feel like their voices may not be heard. I specifically wanted to design what that community engagement looks like so that communities have a voice; they're brought to the design table. Instead of feeling like the design has been pressed upon them, they feel incorporated.
EB: How did you find out about Environmental Design and ArtCenter?
ER: My mom made an effort to start shopping around colleges. At the time, I thought it was architecture, but there was just a level of rigidity I wasn't really meshing with. A family friend introduced us to ArtCenter. She made a point to bring me up here and do a tour of the school. That's when I discovered Environmental Design and it was exactly what I was looking for. It had this fluidity to it. Once I discovered that, my main goal was to come to ArtCenter.
EB: What could we be doing as alumni or part of the creative community to tell kids about ArtCenter and these design fields?
ER: I think if I hadn't heard it through word of mouth, I wouldn't have been as excited. When this family friend thought of ArtCenter, they lit up and their eyes were aglow. That kind of lit the spark in me to be like, "Yeah, I see the beauty in this place, and I want to go." I think with word of mouth you’re really sparking the joy in somebody that you may have gotten from ArtCenter. I think that carries a little more weight.
When I talk about ArtCenter, I'm still aglow. So I try to let that show, so that if I'm talking to somebody, they see my passion. I can't imagine going to any other school. There was no other school that I wanted to go to; there was no other school I applied to. It was ArtCenter all the way.
EB: Was it hard for your parents to understand why you wanted to come here?
ER: I had to prove why I wanted to come here. Once I found out about ArtCenter, I took Saturday High classes to make sure it was exactly what I wanted to do. I grew up in Tehachapi, two hours away from here, and at the age of 16, I was driving four hours roundtrip to take a class. Once I graduated high school, I went to community college in Lancaster and took ArtCenter at Night classes. I loved the classes; I didn’t have any other way to build a portfolio for Environmental Design. I didn’t see any other way in my small town. It didn't seem like work because I liked what I was doing, so that made it an easy choice for them to say, "Okay, you can go."
EB: What was your favorite class?
ER: It was materials class with Jen Slibert; we got to take random materials and create with them. The material I chose were eggshells. I went on to do a pretty big installation piece with 10,000-plus eggshells, where I laid them out and let people walk over them. Literally walking on eggshells.
EB: What was your worst grade or project review, and how did it make you better as a designer?
ER: It was when my grandmother had passed away, and my final did not come together. I just kind of let it all drop and basically failed the final, I ended the term with a D, that’s the worst I ever did.. In talking with some of my instructors, I was able to see that rough times happen. But you can still pull it together and find strength in that and infuse that into your work. So I let that just wash over me — and came back stronger.
EB: Does that carry on into your career now?
ER: The biggest thing that carries on in my career is managing stress in general. When things are crazy at work and people are running around with their hair on fire, I'm kind of like, "Guys, it's just going to happen." ArtCenter prepared me for that. It's all going to come together, and you're going to be OK. It's just design, at the end of the day.
EB: Are you hopeful that in another 90 years, we'll have better representation?
ER: I don't always want to be the only one in the room with the diversity perspective. I'm not an expert on all things Black and Native American. I would love to have other colleagues to bounce ideas off of and take a project and make it more robust because of that. I'm hopeful for that.
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams
ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives