“I think it is hard to take a first art class because you think other people will expect you to be really gifted and talented right from the beginning,” says Jan Selby, mother of three.
This common thought is exactly what founder, director, and instructor James Robinson of The Art Academy in St. Paul has been trying to help people avoid.
“One of the things that we do at The Art Academy is balance creativity with projects that stress skill development. Ideally, you want the two to advance together,” he says.
Robinson states that current studies on artistic development show that kids around age 12 become much more aware of their surroundings. Unfortunately, they can also be self-consciousness about their art skills.
“For example, kids could be in a classroom where they have an assignment to sketch a portrait of Abraham Lincoln,” says Robinson. “They’ll see a student at an adjoining desk that is drawing well. Then they’ll look at their own picture and think, ‘mine isn’t good by comparison, I’m not good at art’ so they’ll just quit believing in themselves artistically.”
At The Art Academy, however, Robinson can officially say that he and his staff have been stopping artistic self-consciousness for two decades.
The master-apprentice approach
Growing up in Chicago, Jim Robinson discovered at a young age that he wanted to be an artist. He spent a lot of time at different schools taking weekend classes and ended up studying at a traditional drawing school in Minnesota called Atelier Lack. Throughout his time at the school, Robinson discovered that teaching artistic skills had more or less fallen to the wayside to make way for creativity. He began to wonder what sort of abilities an average kid could possess if given the right instruction and tools.
“I started thinking, if kids can do math well, and can learn how to read and write well, they most probably have the skills inside them to draw and paint well.”
The trick was to develop the right tools and instruction to help them realize those abilities. Only when he had immersed himself in art history books did he come up with a solution: the teaching practices of the Italian Renaissance.
During this cultural movement, children as young as 11 were slotted into career choices. They would go into a master’s studio with the expectation that within four to seven years they would be trained well enough to support their families. This is known as the master-apprentice approach, which Robinson adapted and made his own.
“The emphasis of the instruction was to teach kids how to draw and paint proficiently. It was believed that if you taught young artists those skills their creativity would blossom.”
Not long after, Robinson forged ahead with the idea for a school that would welcome children of all ages and skill levels, with the Renaissance and master apprentice principles guiding the way.
“We really believe in our students. Because of the skills we see inside them, all self-consciousness about inadequate artistic abilities disappears. Our students feel confident in what they do,” he says.
“I love Jim’s philosophy,” Jan Selby says. All three of her children, and Selby herself, have taken classes at the Academy. “It is less important if you have been born with a gift and it is more important that you are willing to work hard and practice and learn… anyone can really become an artist.”.
This in no way means that Robinson sacrifices creativity for artistic training. The Academy encourages students to try their hands at painting or drawing by using an already existing piece of art for inspiration, whether that inspiration comes from horses, Monet, or even Selby’s son’s choice—“Calvin and Hobbes” comics. It doesn’t matter; Robinson welcomes it all.
“The kids have tons of freedom in what they do,” he says. “Our idea is that aesthetic taste improves with time naturally if kids are in an artistic environment.”
Selby agrees: “They get individual support when they need it and there is an experienced instructor keeping an eye on what they are doing, but they are working in their own way and at their own pace.”
In the ages five to eight level 1 camp session, the freedom of the students is paired with an end goal: to create a book. Five illustrations and one self-portrait build upon each other to become more pictorially complex as the students progress through the camp.
“Every page has a lesson associated with it,” Robinson says. “The first project would be a simple drawing of a scene with a prominent center of interest—or focal point—for a viewer to look at. But down the road, the fifth illustration would have a lot going on. There would be a horizon line, overlapping shapes, an understanding of near and far, and a sense of color progression in the picture.”
After three hours a day and five days a week, students have created a lovely keepsake that is tailored to their unique tastes and personality.
Robinson himself worked in children’s book illustration for almost 12 years, but that is not the only thing he brings to the Academy. Robinson has helped to form meaningful relationships and a community through The Art Academy, something that is recognized by all.
“What keeps us going as teachers are the bonds that we form with these kids. They end up being so dear to us. There is a real depth to these relationships that doesn’t end when our students go off to college. So often they come back and visit with us,” Robinson says. “We have kids who are still coming back who have graduated from college years and years ago. We have developed really wonderful bonds to our community.”
Selby’s family is no exception. Even now as a freshman at the University of Cincinnati studying industrial design, her daughter Jenna continues to return to the school, but not as a student, as an instructor.
“We’ve had such a wonderful experience there,” Selby says. “I really felt like Jim and the staff got to know my children as unique personalities and really respected their individuality.”
“Not many teachers have this opportunity, to really see kids grow up the way we get to do,” Robinson says.
In the first summer of 1993, the Academy had around 30 students. As of summer 2012 that number grew to about 600. Given that 2013 marks the 20-year anniversary, you could say Robinson has accomplished what he set out to do.
“My original question,” says Robinson, “which was how talented are average kids when it comes to drawing and painting was answered fairly quickly. It became very evident that all kids have a natural ability to draw exceptionally well. Twenty years later our school is still based on that one premise: That everyone who comes to us is bursting with potential. We are the guides who nurture these kids in thoughtful ways to bring that talent out.”
Katharina Gadow is a former Minnesota Parent intern, now a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently working on her M.S. in Publishing at NYU.