Drive by Whittier Elementary School in Kansas City’s historic Northeast neighborhood around 8 a.m. any weekday and you’ll see a crowd of backpack carrying students of many nationalities walking on the sidewalk past brightly colored murals. These striking panels, adorned with collages of international landmarks and imagery that represent the students’ culturally diverse identities, have become a source of joy for everyone at Whittier Elementary. Before juniors in the Illustration program at the Kansas City Art Institute started creating the murals last fall, the school walls were covered with graffiti and gang symbols.
Projects like this encourage the social responsibility embraced by KCAI students and faculty. This is the second Kansas City, Missouri, school beautification project KCAI Illustration students have undertaken. Last spring, students completed a mural project at the shuttered Scarritt Elementary School.
The mural projects have been created as part of the US class, which focuses on the collaborative nature of art. “As a visual artist, you usually don’t get to see how your art affects people,” said Assistant Professor Hector Casanova. “This project shows students what it is like to work together with an organization to bring about positive change. We want them to embrace the power that comes from using artwork to benefit the community.”
US is just one course in a robust curriculum designed to prepare the contemporary illustrator to innovate, investigate and discover. Other classes like ME explore self-initiated projects and the entrepreneurial side of art. The Illustration program was totally revamped about eight years ago when the Charlie Sosland Chair in Illustration Steve Mayse and his faculty redesigned it to help prepare students for an illustration career in a rapidly changing world.
“We identified the skills that every illustrator needs to be successful in their career. Then we developed a program that takes students on a journey of self-archeology and builds on their interests. We don’t focus on one individual medium, but on helping students find solutions for abstract visual communication problems,” says Mayse.
Mayse is an award-winning designer and illustrator with 25 years of KCAI teaching experience. He is the first Charlie Sosland Chair in Illustration, which was recently named and endowed by the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation in honor of former KCAI Board Trustee Charlie Sosland. Mayse has worked on projects for McDonald’s, Sports Illustrated, Cessna Corporation and Arthur Anderson, among many others. His commitment to his craft and to finding the right faculty members with a wide range of experience has drawn students from throughout the world to study at KCAI. Illustration is now the largest major at the college, with almost 100 students enrolled in the program .
The talented Illustration faculty is a huge draw for students. They bring authenticity, process and diversity in the four main areas of illustration — Corporate, Advertising, Editorial and Institutional. The full-time faculty, all working artists with experience at Hallmark, ad agencies and the Kansas City Star, include Hector Casanova, Maura Cluthe, John Ferry and David Terrill. The newest faculty member, Il Sung Na, is an acclaimed author and illustrator of children’s books including A Book of Sleep, Welcome Home Bear, The Opposite Zoo and Bird Balloon Bear. He’s also a ceramicist known for his whimsical lamps.
Together, the faculty has created a department that encourages exploration of new processes and techniques. Although Illustration has traditionally been about drawing and painting, KCAI offers students a variety of ways to create their art. They have access to shop tools, presses, sewing machines and digital tools. They also collaborate with other disciplines at the David T. Beals III Studios for Arts and Technology.
The Illustration department at KCAI is an incubator, a creative place to explore and find the next trend. “We encourage our students to innovate, not duplicate. We want them to invent their own form and embrace it. Their future employers are always looking for that next new talent, the next big thing, and our students can start that movement,” said Mayse.