Stephen F. Austin State University

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Vista Viewpoint: William Arscott, Professor of Art

February 29, 2016 - Story by Donna Parish and photography by Robin Johnson
William Arscott
A fixture at SFA for more than half a century, William (Bill) Arscott, professor of art, has no intention of leaving anytime soon. SFA's longest-tenured faculty member came to SFA in fall 1963 and planned to stay a couple of years. However, those intended two years have now exceeded 52.

Arscott, who turned 81 in December 2015, still comes to work each day and looks forward to teaching filmmaking students. He said when his beloved wife of almost 50 years, JoAnn, passed away in 2008, he was glad he had not retired. Teaching has kept him busy, and he still enjoys the daily interaction with his colleagues and students.

Sawdust recently visited with the legendary professor and discussed the changes he's witnessed at the university during his tenure.


Trained as a painter and ceramist, Bill Arscott was originally hired as an art instructor at Stephen F. Austin State College at the age of 28. With an annual salary of $5,400, Arscott supported his wife and five (and later six) children.

The family started its trip from Michigan to SFA by way of Arizona, where they traveled to visit relatives before making the 1,200-mile drive to East Texas. In an old Cadillac loaded to the brim with personal possessions, the family arrived with little else.

Arscott recalls visiting a local bank, where he asked for a loan to purchase bunk beds for the children. With no credit history, he was denied. "I'd heard you could purchase items on credit at Johnson Furniture, so I decided to give it a try," Arscott said. "Mr. Johnson agreed to sell me the beds and let me pay them out. He was the first businessman in Nacogdoches to have faith in me and my staying power."

When Arscott first arrived at SFA, Dr. Ralph W. Steen was president, and enrollment was 2,054. The campus also housed fewer structures. "There were fields then along East College Street. The lone building located on that end of campus was purchasing," Arscott said.

In 1964, Steen led the university toward a huge campus expansion, which progressed east of Raguet Street. Arscott said that by the mid-1970s, the campus was home to new dormitories and academic buildings. The coliseum was built, and the Ralph W. Steen Library opened.

He also recalls the dress code being different. He said females could not wear pants, and men wore button-down shirts and slacks.

During the 1960s, Arscott remembers seeing the college smoothly transition through integration and witnessing the shift from a mostly-male student body to more females.

In the 1970s, Arscott said the College of Fine Arts began to contemplate offering a filmmaking program, and in 1976, he was asked to run it.

"I didn't know a lot about filmmaking," Arscott said. "To help get me up to speed, I went to California during several summers and took classes from the American Society of Cinematography to learn professional techniques."

According to Arscott, careers in the film industry are unique. "There's no on-the-job training in this field," he said. "In order to break into the industry, you must know the language and have experience. There's no standing around on set and waiting for someone to teach you what to do."

And Arscott's students get plenty of experience. "We're very hands-on. Our students use cameras and equipment within two weeks of starting the initial course," he said.

Many of Arscott's former students remember him for the "legendary" art appreciation classes he taught starting in the late 1960s and into the '90s. These classes routinely enrolled more than 500 students a semester and are referred to by many alumni as their favorite SFA course taught by their favorite SFA professor.

Today, Arscott spends most of his time on campus in a former boarding house on East Starr Avenue that has been converted into the home of the School of Art's filmmaking program. He shares an office with one of his most-famous former students, two-time Emmy-Award nominee Brad Maule, who portrayed Dr. Tony Jones on the daytime soap opera General Hospital for 20 years.

Together, the two colleagues spend hundreds of hours a year working alongside undergraduate and graduate students teaching them filmmaking, cinematography and production design.

For more than 14 years, the program has offered a summer course in which graduate students produce an independent full-length feature film.

"The students are responsible for every detail of the process," Arscott said. "They secure much of the finances to produce the film, cast the production, film it and handle the post production."

A testament to the program's commitment to graduating "camera-ready" professionals, Arscott said about 90 percent of the program's graduates are employed in the industry. "They leave us with the skills they need to excel."

Arscott said his two favorite Hollywood films are Fried Green Tomatoes and Driving Miss Daisy because they are movies with a message. "Movies should showcase the preciousness, value and uniqueness of life," he said. "Movies for me are an art form and not just entertainment. When they are approached with an artistic viewpoint, I believe they are more enjoyable to the audience."

As for his longevity at teaching, Arscott said one thing he's always tried to do is adapt to changing technology.

The professor's teaching abilities are reflected in the awards he's received at SFA throughout the years, including being named a Regents Professor in 1984 and the SFA Alumni Association's Distinguished Professor in 1986.

His proudest moment though came when Dr. Baker Pattillo, SFA president, recognized Arscott in August 2013 for his 50 years of service to SFA. "Dr. Pattillo presented me with a plaque proclaiming Aug. 22, 2013, 'William E. Arscott Day' at SFA," Arscott recalled.

Unbeknownst to Arscott, his children were on hand to share this special moment with their dad. "I was overjoyed to see my family in attendance, and the room was filled with my SFA colleagues and friends," he said. "It was a very emotional moment for me as the crowd gave me a standing ovation."