Stingrays, Sharks and Art

Enter the Kansas City Zoo’s new Stingray Bay, and you’ll be fascinated by the ethereal stingrays gracefully gliding, almost flying, through a warm saltwater pool. You’ll sit on the edge of the touch tank, reach your hand in to pet one and a small, shy, spotted “cat shark” might swim by. Look around the room and something else will catch your eye — a gigantic, 13′-by-45′ tropical-colored mural that takes up the entire back wall. The Caribbean-inspired underwater scene was designed by Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) Illustration junior Vaughn Parish.

The project is part of KCAI’s MICRO Agency class, which gives students real-life experience in designing and pitching ideas to clients. The process mimics what would happen in an agency setting. At the kick-off, Zoo representatives provided some parameters — they wanted a tropical feel to the mural and to showcase the species in the touch tank. After a few weeks of designing and critiques from fellow students and faculty, seven students presented their ideas to the Zoo.

It’s easy to see the value MICRO assignments bring to students. They learn to work collaboratively, to listen to a client’s needs and challenges, to take constructive criticism and present their ideas and solutions. For clients, the benefits are exponential — they have a group of highly talented young artists to bring a fresh, creative approach to their projects.

“Each project at the Zoo is unique, and we enjoy being able to collaborate with local partners when we can. Working with the Kansas City Art Institute allows us to showcase the talent we have here in Kansas City and enhance the Stingray Bay exhibit in the process,” said Randy Wisthoff, Kansas City Zoo executive director/CEO.

Giving students a way to impact the Kansas City community and polish their professional skills is exactly why Assistant Professor of Illustration David Terrill started the MICRO Agency. In addition to being a full-time faculty member, he is a part-time creative director at C3, a family and kids marketing and design agency that specializes in the restaurant, hospitality and retail industries. He has first-hand experience with working with clients and he’s teaching his students important design skills and how to sell their concepts.

“You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t help someone envision it, it’s not going to go anywhere. I want students to get comfortable talking about their work. Whether they freelance or work in an agency, this is going to be key to their success. Building presentation skills will help them walk out of school and get a job,” he said.

MICRO Agency is open to students as an elective class across majors, where students from Illustration, Animation, Graphic Design and Fiber have worked together to solve creative problems for Kansas City businesses. They have designed medical illustrations for Children’s Mercy, posters for the Coterie Theater, American Jazz Museum and the KC Streetcar, artwork for Capitol Federal’s offices, a corporate history display for Labconco and many other projects.

Knowing that up to a million people a year will see the mural is exciting for a young artist like Parish. “This is the most amazing opportunity I’ve ever had. If it wasn’t for the MICRO, I would never have my work shown in such a hugely popular place. I’m so grateful for this experience and can’t wait for what comes next,” Parish said.

If your business could benefit from the creativity of KCAI students, contact Randy Williams at 816.802.3527 or

About The Author: Contributing Writer


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