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Souto artwork captures the student experience at Nebraska U
The pulse of campus life — beats that resonate with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s commitment to being a place where every person and every interaction matters — has been captured in a new artwork by Francisco Souto.
Commissioned by Chancellor Ronnie Green, “We Are Nebraska” is a 2-foot-tall by 8-foot-wide graphite drawing and acrylic paint pattern that depicts a single year on campus. Through his unique, intricate style, Souto captures individual university experiences — from students moving in and hanging with friends, to a chat with the chancellor and classroom instruction — in the artwork.
“’We Are Nebraska’ reflects how this university and community support our students and each other,” said Souto, director of the School of Art, Art History and Design, and a professor of art. “It shows connections that matter, those moments that lead us to success.”
The idea for the commission formed after Green was inspired in late 2019 by the Venezuelan artist’s “Diaspora II” exhibition at the Kiechel Fine Art Gallery. Through the show, Souto explored how, since 2015, more than 7 million Venezuelans have left their homeland due to ongoing economic and political crises.
“Francisco is a gifted, internationally acclaimed artist, and I have long admired his work,” Green said. “At the debut of the Kiechel exhibition, I had a revelation that we needed to have a piece of Francisco’s work that featured and would forever be a part of our university.”
Discussions about the commission coalesced around a single theme — the importance of access to and the transformational value of higher education. Beyond that central idea, Green gave Souto carte blanche in the overall design.
“To show the breadth of our student experience in a single piece was a huge idea,” Souto said. “Truthfully, the idea was overwhelming at first, and I didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
Ultimately, Souto conceived the work as a timepiece — a full academic year that moves across the design from left to right. It starts with students moving into on-campus housing and culminates in a graduation celebration.
Souto used hundreds of photos from Craig Chandler, director of photography, as inspiration. Each interaction in the drawing is a composite of multiple images.
Overall, the drawing, which started in early 2020, took 17 months to complete. As it progressed, Souto inadvertently captured the pandemic experience on campus, working in face masks and outdoor classroom instruction.
Souto’s signature aesthetic of forgoing a background and focusing on the subject matter (in this case, people) also reflects the distance felt as the university’s COVID-19 response shifted to remote instruction and work for much of 2020.
“It wasn’t planned at the start, but it was pretty exciting to have the piece reflect the pandemic and the time we’re living in,” Souto said. “When you look at it 10 to 15 years from now, it will definitely be a historical piece.”
The design also includes more personal choices, including Green talking to a student (a surprise for the chancellor) and an image of Souto’s son, Pablo, a junior graphic design major, walking alone with a portfolio in hand.
“We’ve been here for 18 years and Nebraska has become so incredibly important to me and my family,” Souto said. “Putting Pablo in the piece is a way to reflect that we’ve put down roots here and that they are growing, getting deeper and deeper.”
Souto presented the final design to Green’s executive leadership team in late November. Green said that the campus leaders were awestruck and inspired by the piece.
“Francisco’s work is always incredible, but this one so incredibly meaningful,” Green said. “And I love that Pablo is in there because I actually remember recruiting him to come here when he was a high school student.
“It is fabulous and beautiful piece that far exceeded my expectations.”
“We Are Nebraska” is now a part of the Office of the Chancellor’s art collection. It is on display for all to see in the Office of the Chancellor, Canfield Administration Building South, Room 201.
“This is a work that will forever be in my heart,” Souto said. “I am very proud for this to be a part of my legacy at the University of Nebraska.”