Laying an Artistic Foundation

KCAI’s groundbreaking immersive program for freshmen is about to break ground on an even brighter future.

Isaac Lee felt confident in his future as an illustrator when he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) a couple of years ago. Now he’s not so sure — animation, for instance, is on his mind these days. Digital art, too. Even sculpture.

Yet this diversification of Lee’s curiosity — owed, he says, to his experience in KCAI’s immersive program for freshmen, Foundation — hasn’t confused the 20-year-old. (He still loves illustration.) In fact, he’s more self-assured than ever. He knows he won’t just be an illustrator. He’ll be an artist.

“If Foundation is pivotal for students, it’s because of the expanded horizon,” says Caleb Taylor, assistant professor and the chair of KCAI Foundation, who holds an M.F.A. in painting from Montana State University-Bozeman and was a Joan Mitchell Foundation artist-in-residence last year. Even the most ambitious and talented 18-year-old, he points out, won’t necessarily have contemplated just how rigorously their interest in art will test them. That’s where Foundation comes in.

“We engage them in processes they haven’t ever done,” Taylor says. “The department greets students in the fall with a mentorship that happens between one faculty member and 20 students. Unlike most Foundation programs in the United States, students work closely with one faculty member for an entire semester.

Soon, KCAI’s Foundation will further separate itself from its educational peers. Later this year, the school will begin construction on a 250-bed living center for freshmen, alongside a new Foundation studios building at 44th Street and Oak.

A campus that grows to become more competitive represents a new avenue toward success. “It’s going to grow the size of the Foundation program,” Taylor says. “It will bring new voices to the table.”

Among the new voices already present on the eve of an expanded Foundation footprint is that of Fatimah Tuggar, a KCAI alumna who is now an associate professor in the Foundation program. She says it was the combination of familiarity and challenge that brought her back to Kansas City. Having taught at six other institutions over the past decade and a half (and studied and exhibited her multimedia works all over the world), the Nigeria-born artist exemplifies the program’s rigors and elasticity.

“My work explores the impact of technology on culture,” she says of her own art. “I use it as a metaphor for power dynamics. My materials are whatever serves the idea best: objects, images, media works.”

Tuggar goes on: “As somebody who doesn’t work in a single medium, I like the challenge of working with multiple media with students. When 18-year-olds come here, I want to teach them formal aesthetics, but also critical and cultural studies, so they become well-rounded not just as makers but as thinkers.”

Taylor says there’s practical value in such an approach. “We give them skills applicable to many disciplines, beyond simply the fine arts,” he says. “We show them that medium and process do not mean career. Just because you study ceramics doesn’t mean you’ll work with clay your whole life. We spend a lot of time talking with students about communication skills and critique strategies because they have to learn relevant real-life skills.”

None of this is lost on Lee, the illustration major who last year undertook numerous unexpected projects in Foundation. In a conversation on a recent spring day, he sounds like an ideal product of the program: thoughtful, hardworking and upbeat to the point of contagious cheer about his education.

“It was overwhelming in a great way,” Lee says of his Foundation year. “I’m an international student who came to Kansas City my sophomore year in high school. Before then, I was in Kurdistan and Afghanistan, and I was born in Scotland. My decision to come to KCAI was the best decision I’ve ever made. A lot of the concepts and ways of thinking and materials that professors exposed us to [in Foundation] made me realize how much there was for me to experience.”

And, of course, there are more experiences to come. Lee might change majors, pushing his passion for visual storytelling into a different medium. That broadness of horizon remains Foundation’s hallmark.

“I would hope,” Taylor says, “they all become something different.”

–Scott Wilson

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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