Yesterday I returned to my old school. The Art Center College of Design is now located on extensive acreage above Pasadena, California. It’s a long, black, state-of-the-art building bridging a gully–a Darth Vader presence in a sylvan setting. Generations of successful pros attest to the value of the place. Worldwide, no corner of automotive and product design has not felt its influence. The cars we drive have the Art Center touch. The school is hard to get into and easy to get kicked out of. I was one who unceremoniously left after three years. It’s not your average art school.
Many among the star-studded faculty are actually part time and have extensive careers in the real world. Vitality is also maintained with the very latest equipment — computers, laser cutters, shop tools, etc. Apart from the rabid contagion of imagination, the school is a technological marvel. Benefactors such as Ford, GM, Nokia, Toyota, Honda, Samsung and Hewlett-Packard assist the bottom line.
Discipline is big at Art Center. This is no place for the sloppy. A poster outside one of the workshops shows the dress code for female students: hair up, no dangling clothes, no shorts or skirts, no open-toed shoes. This sort of attire is suitable only for shopping, the poster suggests. In my experience there was no time for shopping anyway. I went months without a date. The place just about killed me.
Art Center takes only those with talent or suspected potential. Then it sets students on a round of disciplines that would make the average Sunday painter’s head spin. Registering in Industrial Design, with boyhood confidence brought on by high school art projects, I soon found I had a lot to learn. I was defective in drawing, painting, lettering and designing. I didn’t have a clue about colour. I was soon called into the registrar’s office and told I was “on probation.” Some of my mates got the same treatment. Being too proud to let on, we put our heads down and went back to work.
Make it tough, grind them down, squeeze the good juice out of the best, discard the others. Looking back, I’d say it’s not a bad system. Facility and imagination often come from sweat.
PS: “The future may be unknowable, but it’s not unthinkable.” (Richard Koshalek, President, Art Center College of Design)
Esoterica: When I was at Art Center, there was a wave of nostalgia and respect for tradition. This is still true today. I watched the redesign of a classic Bugatti. In inventing the future we also look back. Sometimes it takes the fresh eyes and the keenness of an outsider. When I was in Industrial Design, I was the only foreigner–except for a couple of Japanese boys. These guys said little, worked hard, graduated nicely and went somewhere East. The rest is history. Nowadays, a world of students attend Art Center, reinventing the American Dream.
Examples of recent student work from the Art Center College of Design
Destructive automotive transport
by Nicholas Williams, Victoria, BC, Canada
I would rather not have to live in a world designed by these people. And you make it sound like this is a good thing?! No wonder we have car-culture shoved down our throats at every turn if this is the kind of institution that needs to justify its existence to its corporate overlords. Would also explain why the cars are so ugly too, coming out of that environment. Cars are obsolete technology anyway and are killing the planet. Pretty soon we are going to not have proper landscapes to paint because of them — think about it. Sure I’m an old-school elitist and believe in hard work and hard study, but the Art Center sounds like all that is sick in our society crammed into one ugly building, very imperialistic and reductive. The juice that gets squeezed out goes to fuel the corporate machine and maintain a destructive, exploitive hegemony of power.
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
You were fortunate to attend an illustrious art school and I am sure such an experience would be invaluable. Being humbled, by more experienced and perhaps more talented people, is a great way to grow in your own abilities. It wouldn’t be for everybody though, and I am sure there have been legions of future professionals like your self who were eager to get out of the place. My art school experience was different. My instructor told me the best thing he could do for me was to get out of my way and let me continue to experiment. He gave me a key to the building and told me he would answer any questions I had for him. Looking back on it, it was rather ideal. This was his strategy for highly motivated students and there were just three or four of us there! Before a demo I gave the other day, I had some time to kill and leafed through a few older books that had been donated to this organization. They were packed with information compared to art books nowadays. It occurred to me that my art education mostly consisted of thumbing through such books and looking at hundreds of paintings. It is ironic that younger students are dependent on grizzled veterans like my self to teach them basic ideas I got through this informal method. I am afraid many artists are not products of fine educations.
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
This sounds similar to my alma mater, the United States Marine Corps (boot camp). Add in there an average of 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night, running 3-5 miles every morning, losing 15 lbs. when you were already slim and in shape, sunburn, hunger, dehydration, confusion, perfection…ok I’ll stop now. It is funny looking back at how we are able to handle these things when we are younger, in my case I was 19. I couldn’t do it now, that’s for sure. I wonder if these experiences help us as artists.
Learning to create
by Beth Deuble, San Diego, CA, USA
A beloved professor of mine once said that the piano student practices, practices, practices. He plays his scales day in and day out to the point of monotony. But it is when he knows the nuances of every key, every scale, and every note that he can stop practicing and he is then free to begin creating; so true. We must know our instrument and then in living, we can become the artist. I wonder now, which is the instrument: the person, or the paintbrush, or the guitar, or the pen?
Memories of the Art Center
by William Marvin, Skokie, IL, USA
It brought back fond memories of weekly all-nighters, devastating critiques, and mind-stretching challenges that were seldom equaled after graduation. I loved it and hated it but still hold it as a high point in my career. I graduated in 1974 from the old campus where you could spill paint on the floors and sit in a sunny courtyard and argue art and design. The architectural mockups for the new campus were being developed at that time and we were all envious of the new space that was to come. When I visited Pasadena years later I was very impressed with the school and still blown away at the professional level of student work. You’ve really traveled far since Industrial Design and your column continues to be an inspiration for all of us emerging artists. Thanks for your Art Center effort.
The mess at Chouinard
by Mary Carter, Placitas, NM, USA
I am married to an Art Center graduate. His was class of 1967. Marrying my husband was as close to Art Center as I got. I had yearned to go there back in the early sixties and pored over the catalog for endless hours planning imaginary courses of study. I did, however, major in art at a university and I attended Chouinard for one year in ’68. Actually, looking back, I liked the mess at Chouinard better than the neatness at Art Center.
by Dallyn Zundel, Orem, UT, USA
I graduated from Art Center in December of 1992 with Honors in illustration. It was the hardest most grueling and demanding three years of my life. It was also the most enjoyable and exciting time of my life too. I had just gotten married seven months before I started classes and that was the best thing I could have done to get me through. The support at home from someone who cares was invaluable. I heard it said that the divorce rate at Art Center was somewhere in the high 50 – 60%. This may be true. It’s tough to get through, but it is well worth it! I’d put my education up against anyone in the country!
The importance of discipline
by Jason Lockwood, Columbia, MO, USA
It is that learned discipline that has carried me through tough times, big and small. It is discipline that gets me in front of my palette when I do not feel like painting, or to pick up a pencil when I am tired. It is that discipline that makes you believe that you can make art, and that your art matters. Either a demanding Art school or the Marine Corps; I’d agree with you, it’s not a bad system and interestingly enough, it seems they teach some of the same values.
Light is law
by Dave Robinson, Seattle, WA, USA
Isn’t it interesting how the most difficult things can be the most rewarding? I remember Art Center when it was located in Los Angeles, housed in an old series of buildings with a long sweeping horse shoe driveway. How impressed I was when one of my instructors, a retired multi-millionaire New York photographer, pulled up in his Porsche to pick up some papers from his office. His passenger looked like a high fashion model. He was the one who used to sail sub standard photo prints across the classroom at me and say, “Do it again.” He was the one who made me do an assignment four times until I got so mad that I did it right. He’s the one I thank each time I come across a difficult concept and have him to thank for making me think of things that no one else has thought of. How can I forget my very first class on my very first day at Art Center when Charlie Potts, then head of the photography department, walked in carrying a large stack of papers that he dropped unceremoniously and with a resounding thud on the desk. He took attendance and then paused for the longest time to look deeply into each of our eyes, searching for strength and conviction. Seeing none in our eager, expectant upturned faces he whispered, almost inaudibly, “Light is law!” He then gathered up the pile of papers, which served as a most effective prop, and strode forcefully out of the room. We all were speechless for the remainder of the class. “What did he say?” one student whispered. “Something about light and law” ventured another. Wow, I’ve never been taught so much with so few words.
Art Center – Reality and Myth
by Wayne Hunt, Pasadena, CA, USA
Last week I started my 30th! year as an instructor at Art Center College of Design. I am an Adjunct Professor in the Graphic Design department. But like many Art Center faculty I teach one day per week and practice what I teach the other four days. This is the ‘professionals who teach’ model that ACCD founder Tink Adams created in 1931 and that has been emulated by many top art and design schools. In spite of some issues I have with the school (nothing’s perfect), I consider it a privilege to be there and be a part of what is arguably (still) the top design school in the world.
Sure, I’ve seen my share of blood on the floor and tears in students’ eyes. Fear and loathing seem to go with highly disciplined activities, especially in the early stages. It is tough to stay up for four days straight and then get a scalding critique. But that was then. The days of screaming and yelling, locking out tardy students, lighting mediocre work with a cigarette lighter and other bad teacher behavior are long gone. Its still a tough place, but time and societal changes have humanized Art Center a bit. I had, in the early days, a big ‘ol rubber stamp of the word No! and I would bust it out and stamp red ink No!s all over the first roughs of the first project of the term for each student. Ah, the good olds days. Technology has also had a big effect on the school. My own field is way more complex than in the 70s, but we still teach it in eight trimesters, so we’re squeezing even more into the curricula — more to learn, more to do, more to integrate. Also, we now try to cross disciplines with our classes, difficult but wholly appropriate for the complex world.
While Craig Elwood’s 1975 masterpiece remains an a iconic architectural ‘brand’ for the school, the facility is of a time and is not all that efficient for today’s technology and teaching/learning styles. We all love/hate the building. I do an informal tour and know the building’s history, anecdotes and good/bad points as well as any part-timer. Frank Gehry
is at work on a new library and research center on the site that looks like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. If it gets funded, the towering glass design will be a crazy contrast to the Elwood structure. We opened a second campus in southern Pasadena three years ago, near the old power plant, designed by a terrific architect, Daly Genik. It is really five or so industrial buildings ‘welded’ together to form a very interesting urban campus, near a Gold Line station. In it is the Wind Tunnel, one of the largest art exhibition spaces in the West. The public is welcome, almost any time.
ACCD is now about 40% Asian nationals – from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China, Indonesia, Singapore, etc., so teaching requires a kind of cross-cultural understanding and ability. I always make an informal passport count in my class – the most variety I’ve had is seven (out of fourteen). The students still work unbelievably hard, sleep little and want to get to the finish line. I wish they got out more and went to gallery’s, exhibits, lectures, films, visited the new buildings, etc,. but time is always a problem.
I see ACCD as a somewhat neutral, high performance training and skill center with a huge dose of design and art leadership added. We really believe we are teaching those who will design our future world. Art Center has a strong green initiative now and more culturally and socially relevant content and classes than ever. The car guys are not just designing Audis, they’re working on mass transit. Still, it is up to the graduates to blaze their own trail.
encaustic painting by Joan Heiden, Santa Fe, NM, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Claudia Lorenz of Saanich, BC, Canada who wrote, “A pedagogical philosophy of ‘squeeze the best, discard the rest’ is to my mind the recipe for destroying the creative impulse in all but the most aggressive and competitive individuals.”
And also Dena Crain of Nakuru, Kenya who wrote, “What good can possibly come from the destruction of the creative spirit? I would like to think that I completely misunderstood you.”
And also Kristine Paton who wrote, “What a crock! Is there a poster showing the dress code for male students?”
And also Dorothy Wagner of Capac, MI, USA who wrote, “At the time I was in the Art Center College, I was the only female product design student.”
And also Jace Iversen who wrote, “An art school with a dress code? One of the things so expressive in an artist is the freedom to depart from conforming norms in every area of life.”
And also Gerten Basom who wrote, “You might enjoy Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life.”
And also Paul Burns who wrote, “Picasso said that to break the rules, you have to know the rules! And there are so many rules in the game of art.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Alma Mater…