KCAI Graphic Design Students Jazz Up Folly Posters

With headphones on, eyes closed and body swaying to the music, Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) Graphic Design junior Kelsey Mack listens carefully to jazz riffs. Every few minutes she opens her eyes and writes down notes on the paper in front of her. Was the music calm and smooth or frenetic and sharp? Which shapes does she think of as she listens? Her research is the first step in the design of six posters for the Folly Theater’s 35th Anniversary Jazz Series.

For nine years KCAI Graphic Design students have been collaborating with the Folly to create posters for their jazz series. Before that they were designed in-house, and as Folly Executive Director Gale Tallis readily admits, “they needed an upgrade.”

“Working with the Art Institute benefits us in so many ways. It helps financially because the students are donating their work and it helps our image because the designs are much more polished. When people drive down the street, their heads turn to see the beautiful posters in the theater windows,” she said.

Sixteen junior Graphic Design students are creating posters for this year’s series. They kicked-off the project at the beginning of the fall semester by taking a Folly tour and hearing all about its colorful history. Tallis told stories of the glory days, when Al Jolson and Gypsy Rose Lee performed on stage and how after decades of neglect and disrepair, the theater was restored to a world-class venue. The students were inspired by the display of posters designed in years past. Then, they began their research into each artist’s music and started the design process. Their assignment was to create a series of six posters that reflect the individual artist’s sound but have a common theme.

“How do you translate sound to visual art? How do you take something that you can only hear and not see and turn it into something you can only see but not hear? That’s the ultimate challenge for our students working on this project,” said Chair of Graphic Design Tyler Galloway.

Junior Kelsey Mack works in her studio on posters for the Folly Theater’s 35th Anniversary Jazz Series.

The posters are designed, critiqued by students and faculty, and tweaked many times over a six-week period. Then each student presents their work and explains their inspiration to a panel of Folly judges. For many of the students, it’s the first time they have presented their work to a client.

“Up to this point in their education, most of the students have only done work that has been assigned and critiqued by instructors. This is their initial experience in communicating someone else’s message out into the public. Serving clients is a great training ground for internships, interviewing and ultimately their professional practice,” said Galloway.

After the judges choose six posters, one for each jazz performance in the series, they are used in promotional materials and hung in the marquee outside the theater. The students are given tickets to the concerts and are often introduced during a performance. The jazz artists are amazed by the quality of the students’ designs and have been known to walk out of the venue with a poster rolled up under their arm.

“The chance to have your poster displayed downtown and the opportunity to get real-world experience with clients is so exciting,” said Kelsey Mack. “In the past, some jazz artists have reached out to the students to do additional design work.”

The professional and educational value of the Folly collaboration is far-reaching, but according to Galloway, the project has even bigger meaning.

“It’s so important for students to interact with other arts organizations like the Folly. Part of what we are teaching our students is the power of giving back and the importance of being civically engaged,” he said.

–Kathy St. Clair (images courtesy Kansas City Art Institute)

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