When you are pursuing a degree in the visual arts, there is often a degree of naivety to your pursuit. As I was working my way toward a BFA at Wash U I found that something vital was missing. I had AMAZING teachers that taught me how to produce great work and also taught me critical thinking skills that have proven invaluable. What I lacked, however, was a grasp of the big picture. Anxiety and fear about what was going to happen after my graduation constantly hampered me in my studies and despite the assurances of my peers and mentors I could not shake the unease I felt. School is like a bubble, and as I entered my junior year the bubble felt like it was about to pop.
I had made the decision early in the year that my pursuit in life would be to make it as a freelance illustrator. Toward that end I tried to find a number of paths to my end goal. My guide in this early stage was the incredible John Hendrix. John could see my frustration in class and understood that I needed a calming agent for my building stress and frustration. The bulk of our work junior year was design-based, and being the drawer I am I was getting increasingly frustrated with my inability to craft communicative and illustrative images. A graduate of the Academy himself, John suggested I look into the program. After some research and a series of phone calls with the program's director John English I found myself in Sarasota Florida for the summer session.
It was a complete 180 degree shift from school. Instead of being one of a few illustration geeks in a 40 person major, I found myself surrounded by a collective of 30 some-odd like-minded folks who all wanted to learn how to be the best artist they could be. I could go on for hours about the skills I learned, the amazing instructors, the bevy of good times and the intense acceleration of my skills over the 7 week period. I could tell you all about that, but I won't. Instead, I'll tell you about what I found to be the most important things I gained from the academy.
The three main things I got from the academy that changed my life were: community, confidence, and inspiration. I'll explain each in turn.
Community: I have never been the best at keeping in touch with folks. I moved around so much as a kid that it just proved too difficult. As a result it's always been one of my big handicaps in adult life. I can say that outside of my major, the main professional group of folks I have kept up with over time have been from the academy. Here's an example: when I decided to go back last year for the lecture week I ended up not having a place to stay. I was panicked because, as usual, I had slacked off in keeping in touch. Within days of sending out messages to guys I hadn't spoken to in months I had two folks willing to put me up for a week. This was incredible to me. I have never felt so welcome by a group. When you leave school, it is amazing how quickly you can become isolated, especially as an illustrator. If it was not for the contacts I have from the academy I would have a great deal less contact with illustrators at my own stage of development. They are invaluable to my work and growth as an illustrator.
Confidence in my Skill Development: I think this can be best illustrated with visual examples. here is a sample of work from my junior year:
This is a piece I did near the end of stay at the academy:
This is a piece that was published last month in St. Louis Magazine.
Inspiration: Starting a small business is one of the most terrifying and daunting exercises ever invented and performed by man. On the eve of my graduation from Wash U I felt like I was on the cusp of a gaping black hole. Every single stereotype you could think of based on an art degree popped into my head. Being an illustrator isn't like being an accountant or an engineer. There is no giant corporation for you to latch onto and settle into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle at first (well there are some, but thanks to the economy a lot of doors were shut). I could have given up and sought a "real" job at this point but I didn't. I didn't because I remembered the stories that folks like Jon Foster and C.F. Payne told us about the first couple of years after art school. I learned from them the importance of sticking to your goals and dreams and accepting the fact that the path to your goals isn't always going to be a cake walk. I was inspired by the fortitude and work ethic they showed (and continue to show) early in their careers, when clients weren't calling. It gave me hope that I wasn't pursuing a fool's quest in trying to draw for a living. This inspiration, above all else, has been a rock for me on my first year out of school.
There are hundreds of people that I can never thank enough for helping me throughout my academic and budding professional life. Today though, I want to put a spotlight on the Academy and encourage any student reading this blog to take a look at their various programs and offerings. I assure you, if you have the drive, they will not disappoint!
You can check out the academy here.