Baltimore Academy of Illustration: Affordable Education for All Classes

Baltimore Academy of Illustration: Affordable Education for All Classes

Alex Fine, Baltimore illustrator and MICA adjunct professor, is taking on quite a few feats right now: a few portrait projects with 50 individual pieces an assignment, getting ready for the start of teaching his sophomore illustration class at MICA for its 3rd year, and perhaps the most challenging of all: starting an illustration academy with Greg Houston and Scott Fuqua.

All three illustrators—Fine, Houston and Fuqua—have a combined net resume of 70 years of illustration experience, 33 years teaching experience, and they have worked with clients ranging from Time Magazine to Marvel Comics. But despite those decades and obvious success in the industry, Fine still has one last obstacle dragging him down: his college loans.

I still owe about $45,000, and I consider myself a fairly successful illustrator, Fine explains, a reality too common in todays pool of college grads. But even more stifling is the interest on that debt that continues to grow. The thing is with that debt, that interest just keeps going up, and you feel like you’re never going to get out of that.

While the national average for student debt has breached $30,000 in six states, the grand total has already maxed out the $1 trillion mark. The sheer magnitude of student loans has so many recent grads drowning in their post-collegiate quicksand often with no way out. Affording a college education is becoming more and more out of reach, especially for those in the middle and lower classes. In many industries—especially those art-focused—the cost to benefit ratio of taking on the student debt is far from balanced, and for many its a no brainer: its not worth it, if not entirely out of reach.

There has to be some kind of alternative, Fine says, otherwise we’re going to have people going to college based on their class level.

Despite this crippling debt, society continues to aggressively market the necessity of a degree from a 4-year school—regardless of its value to each individual student. College is considered the next step after high school for every 17 or 18 year old whos handed a diploma, but this rarely accounts for those of lower-income brackets who are often left without any options for higher education. As time progresses, college is becoming exceedingly beyond the majority of this countrys means.

Ive been an illustrator for 11 years and no one has ever asked me if I even went to college,” Fine admits, highlighting how your body of work is far more valued than a diploma in creative fields. That’s not to say that the college education is not valuable, but is it practical for everybody? Hailing from a less than financially virtuous background, Fine understands how much a college education, despite its intentions, can be a really tough burden to live with. When facing the should I go to college or should I continue in my 4-year school life decision, the best thing you can have is options—even more so when artistic concentrations are concerned. If I had an alternative I probably would’ve taken it, Fine says.

Luckily the education field is continuing to progress. If emigrating to one of those European countries with free universities is also out of your price range and youre looking to gain real-world experience in the illustrating field, Alex Fine, Greg Houston, and Scott Fuqua have created a pretty awesome solution: The Baltimore Academy of Illustration.

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The Baltimore Academy of Illustrations mission is to provide accessible and affordable education to all classes, while giving their students real life knowledge and experience so they can ultimately make a living off of their art. At $500 a class, BAI averages about 90% cheaper than most other higher education opportunities, creating a far more equal playing field than the mainstream market. We don’t want people to miss out on such a fun profession and way to make a living just because they didn’t have the funds to invest in it early on. I’m not even going to minimize $500 a class because even that’s a lot to so many people, Fine admits. I would never say we’re offering cheap education because we still have to maintain the school and keep up our facilities. Even so, $500 as opposed to $1-3,000 for a single credit adds up, and it adds up quickly when degrees require over 100 credits for completion. If I could’ve spent $3,000 on college to learn everything I needed to know for the field I was going into, I could have learned the other things on my own time, at my own pace, and saved a lot of money.

BAI is designed much like a trade-school, offering a more focused curriculum for students who desire an education without the side-classes and cost of some junior colleges and most 4-year schools. Instead, requirements that may distract some students from their focus, the Academy will provide an a-la-cart set of classes for students, giving them the ability to craft their own education. With the guidance of BAIs three founders and instructors, each students class enrollment is based upon their individual needs as they see them, not those of a large-scale university in a competitive market. And while BAI cant send you a fancy piece of paper after you complete your classes, We can offer the same high-level education. One of our main goals is to say college shouldn’t just be for people who have privilege.

This isnt to say that the expansive education a junior or 4 year college can provide doesnt have its benefits. I love western philosophy, Fine confides, but that doesn’t help me get jobs. For an illustrator, I would suggest taking academics on the side, in the long run it is good to maybe go to a junior college to save some money—take some classes on your own because having a better understanding of the world will make you a better illustrator.

BAIs Fall semester consists of six classes with plans to expand to nine (including an online class with Fine himself, depending on enrollment) for the Spring Semester. From Editorial Illustration with Fine, to Book Illustration with Fuqua, and Illustration II: Electric Bugaloo with Greg Houston, all of BAIs courses are also individualized to their professor, who have no board or administrators telling them how to craft their coursework. There’s only three of us, no administration Fine explains. We think simplicity will really push a better experience for the teachers and the students. We’re working illustrators, we know the field, we know what art directors are looking for so we know what to tell our students.

We believe that students should be paying less, and teachers should be getting paid more, Fine says, and I think our model for this school will do that.

Cost aside, the value of education carries a much heavier meaning at the Academy. Throughout his teachings and career, Fine found that one of the most rewarding aspects of his encounters was mentoring younger illustrators on how to make a career out of their art. Fine began partaking in these informal mentor-ships and realized he could provide better and more beneficial help in a more organized environment.

I think this every person for themselves attitude is going to ruin the industry, Fine says, wanting to share as much of his wisdom to the next generation of illustrators as he can. We figure that in a lot of creative fields, you don’t have to present degrees. You don’t have to present transcripts or even resumes to be honest—you just need to show your portfolio, Fine says, and he wants to help his students craft the best portfolios they can. This mentality in mind, at BAI grades do not exist and the emphasis on a practical learning takes on two meanings. Firstly, students will receive real-life advice for application outside of the classroom, and secondly, students will receive instruction from working illustrators, and in Fines class, theyll have to complete assignments from art directors who will give actual assignments.

Our whole mission is just to make successful illustrators, Fine says, and its obvious how important helping these talented, young minds is to him and the rest of the BAI crew. We think all teachers should make more money, of course, but this more of a labor of love to help provide options to students so that when they graduate from school they hopefully won’t be in a ton of debt. Fine, Houston and Fuqua hope that no matter what path their students start down after taking BAI courses, the academy will help them get work or scholarships to other art schools, depending on their individual plans. But what BAI comes down to, is as simple as the Academys mission: At the Baltimore Academy of Illustration we believe in teaching our students how to compete for real jobs in the real world.

All we care about is providing eduction. For us, teaching isn’t our main job—we’re all illustrators—but we figure that we could give our experience to other people for a lot less money and a more focused environment on just illustration.

Originally published on What Weekly in August of 2015.

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