I visited my alma mater last week in Chicago, the American Academy of Art. Man, has it changed. When I went there from 1964 to 1966, it was a small commercial art school dedicated to the practical side of art (that is, how to make money). It offered a two or three year course and a frame-able certificate upon completion. It was on the corner of Wabash and Adams streets in the Loop. The first year was about teaching fundamentals and the second and third year was about specialties: illustration, oil painting, watercolor, layout, design and so on and was geared to industry demand for artists. It had no cartoon course, so in the middle of my second year when I decided I wanted to become a cartoonist, my fundamentals teacher, Mr. Staake, designed a course for me. He had me drawing greeting cards and anything he could think of that might sharpen my skills as a budding cartoonist. One of my assignments was to draw a political cartoon. I drew it in the style of Bill Mauldin who was my favorite political cartoonist at the time.
The greeting card assignment led to work as a freelance greeting card cartoonist that paid for my first house and my second one, too. The political cartoon became a sample I used to get a job in the art department of The Chicago Herald American. It also inspired me to draw my first political cartoon for the paper shortly after it changed its name to Chicago Today.
The story: a KKK cell was discovered in the Chicago Police Department. The art director of the paper had given me permission to publish an occasional political cartoon on Mondays when the regular political cartoonists, Vaughn Shoemaker and Wayne Stayskal were off. I was walking across the Michigan Avenue Bridge when a gust of wind blew a woman’s skirt and the idea popped in to my brain.
I’m happy to say the academy still delivers a practical education in art. I won’t tell you what the tuition was back in 1964 because it would break your heart. Today, the tuition is comparable to a four-year private college, which is what most art schools are. The academy is now on Michigan Ave. It has student housing and offers nine bachelors of fine arts degrees in traditional areas of art such as painting and drawing but also in 3-D modeling, digital illustration, art direction and more.
A number of famous and successful alumni are making a nice living in comic books, posters, painting, sculpture, design, advertising and graphic arts but the most famous is Kanye West. I talked to Kanye’s teacher and he said Kanye was a talented artist. The teacher told him he could have a fine career as an artist, but Kanye said he had this music thing he wanted to try.
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