The Early Years Part 1: Downtown San Diego
Many of my current students often ask or are curious as to how the present incarnation of my art school came about. When a student comes in today it may seem like the school runs as a well oiled machine, and I am happy to say most of the time that is the case. However, when I started the school or Atelier as we now refer to it, it was anything but.
I grew up with an artist father who had attended Art Center on 3rd St. in Los Angeles and Pratt Institute in New York. He grew up in Iowa, and later found himself raising his 3 kids in San Diego. He left school a few terms short of a degree, and decided to start a freelance career in San Diego where we were all born and still reside to this day. My father was a great influence on me growing up and still is. I watched his career in illustration grow, and learned so much without even realizing it by simply being exposed to the life of a professional artist during my early years.
It was not until my late teens that I seriously contemplated starting my education toward becoming a professional artist. My father kept in touch with friends from his L.A. days and was president of the Society of Illustrators in San Diego. One night we went out to dinner with a very accomplished illustrator by the name of Thomas Blackshear, and I asked him where he would have attended school if he could go to any school in the world. He mentioned a small school on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley that he had seen some incredibly talented artists coming out of. He did not know the name but that was enough information for my father to find what was to be the California Art Institute in Calabasas, California. It was a very humble school run by an eccentric artist by the name of Fred Fixler. You can look him up and find a plethora of information on him as he was very influential in training some of today’s most proficient illustrators and fine artists.
Upon visiting the small art school (I was 18 at the time) it took no more than seeing the student work on the walls to know this was where I wanted to train. Now keep in mind this was a non-accredited school that was based solely on the premise that artistic skill alone would be adequate enough to support a successful career as a fine artist or illustrator. My father was instrumental in allowing me to attend as he would be paying for it, and I started the long and arduous road to proficiency in the traditional arts. I spent about two and half years full time at the school absorbing as much information as I could. At the time Fred had just stepped down and a young protégé by the name of Glen Orbik took over teaching the majority of the classes I attended. Another talented student teacher by the name of Andrew Burward-Hoy proved instrumental in my training as well. Mark Westermoe, Neil Boyle and Norm Mason should also be noted as teachers of merit while I attended. I gained amazing insight at that school, mostly as to just how much I did not know and how long a path it was going to be.
After two and a half years at the school I decided to move back to San Diego with my father and study some subjects that were not really touched on at the Institute. As money was tight at the time it was either work in the movie industry, which I had started doing, or move back in with my folks and continue intense study on my own. I chose the later after about a year of freelance in L.A. following my studies at the Institute. I found upon returning to San Diego that I was completely disillusioned with the instruction, or lack thereof. I could not find any proficient programs in the area. The teachers at the local colleges did not seem to be skilled enough to help at my level, the programs where fraught with bureaucracy and incompetence, many of the students had amazing and unjustified egos that went unchecked. There seemed to be a false understanding that unique pseudo intellectual banter about terrible execution would somehow suffice in the professional arena. After a short guest teacher stint at Palomar College over the summer I had to move on. Unable to secure a permanent position due to the fact I had no degree, I decided rather that rant and rave about it I would simply start a small workshop of my own to continue studying the way I knew best. Now remember, at this time I am about 21 years old and have no prior experience running anything. I did however have a very intense background in competitive athletics and was confident I could design some sort of training regimen similar to what I was accustomed to that would accomplish similar results. I have always enjoyed helping others and I too have always felt myself a bit of an underdog. So with this I set out to change the art education topography in San Diego. I did not have a lot of competition and was able to bumble my way through on good old horse sense and good intentions.
At this time I met the woman who would later become my wife, Krista Elgie, and I was bar tending at night and trying to teach during the days. It was a most humbling situation. I had about 6 students and the room was tiny. I had to come out to see Krista when she would visit as it was too small to fit myself, the 6 students, a model and her all at the same time. It was as humbling of an environment as you could imagine. Unfortunately I did not take photos of this room as it was not much to speak of. In spite of all of this it was still an amazing time. My personal and artistic growth was incredible yet the challenges inherent in running every aspect of the school became quite overwhelming and I began to get a bit disillusioned. I began thinking of packing it up and moving on when the tenants across from my space, which was ironically rented by San Diego Comic Con, decided to move out and offered me their spot. It was in my opinion the first real studio for my teaching career. It had a nice ambiance and was quite a bit larger. I could now fit about 10 to 15 students. The images sprinkled throughout this blog post are of this room. I really had no intention of it ever turning it into a full- fledged Atelier. I simply wanted a place to continue studying and the camaraderie I remembered from the school I studied at. It is so ironic that in order to have a group of friends with which to interact I would need to build an environment and teach them what I knew. Honestly in the beginning I wasn’t the best teacher but no one had anyone with which to compare. I was after all only 22. It was a very innocent time and I have to say sometimes ignorance is definitely a blessing. If I had known how difficult and arduous the path I was to take would be I probably would have thought twice and never pursued a career in teaching. It was a steep learning curve but I slowly began to realize one of my true strengths was my love of training and the ability to multitask and prioritize the countless skill sets one must master on the way to proficiency in the arts.
As the school matured I slowly started to see potential students that shared a similar enthusiasm for the craft. It was at this time that I started to realize if I was to teach more advanced classes I would need to be able to free up some time by training one of my understudies to teach the more fundamental classes while I went on to create a new tier of more advanced drawing and painting classes. The conundrum was that it took about 3 to 5 years to get a student proficient enough to possibly teach and then another 2 or 3 of assistant teaching before they could carry a class with a similar style and proficiency. Luckily I was young and had the time to invest heavily in the few students that seemed to have potential. The unfortunate part I would later realize was that skill was only a part of the equation and personality and other more subtle attributes would ultimately prove instrumental in the overall success of the fledgling schools teachers. I was now in my mid twenties and Krista was starting to take on the accounting and graphic design duties which also were quite demanding. I was working as a freelance illustrator, aspiring fine artist and teaching and running the school full time. Again lucky to be young and full of vigor!
It was at this time that I got married and had to begin to think about my future course of action. I was still living with my parents and I needed to move out and start my life. I had to decide to either keep the school running, which was barely profitable, or to move back to L.A. and take a job opportunity at DreamWorks as a visual development artist. It was at this time that I booked a trip to Morocco to shoot reference for what was to be my first one man gallery show. I had a lawyer working out the particulars with DreamWorks and was to sign a contract when I returned. I had been working on this deal for over a year and decided it would be best for Krista and I. The money would be phenomenal but I would have to be in L.A. and DreamWorks would own everything I did even outside of studio work . The school would need to be closed.
To make a long story short while I was in Morocco I happened into a small local shop in Marrakesh where some young artisans where spinning vases and as they were spinning they would paint the most amazingly intricate patterns on them. I was amazed at their dexterity. When asked how much they made they answered about a dollar a day and that was all they could expect. I thought to myself if only they could attend an art school like the one I was running at home what amazing talents they would become. This was a real game changer for me. I had, waiting at home, a job that was starting at 150K and also the opportunity to do almost anything I wanted. Upon returning I called up the lawyer and much to his dismay told him I was going to decline the position and would not be moving to L.A. He thought I was crazy but also said he respected me greatly for the decision. So many of the students at this time did not know how close I had come to closing up shop and moving on. I have to think fate played some role in all of this. I try not to get too carried away with this kind of thinking but sometimes the irony of life seems just a little too uncanny. Fate would again intervene shortly after this decision as I received the news that my rent would be tripling. I decided the only option would be to move the school up North to Encinitas where Krista and I were now residing.
Stay tuned for Chapter 2 sometime next month…