Imagine this: an art class assignment titled “Still Life Self-Portrait,” in which young artists assemble objects that reflect their personalities and values, interests, and experiences. Students arrange and photograph the objects, then create a monochrome drawing based on the photo.
Once complete, the drawing is digitized and artists move on to 21st century tools, using the same software tools familiar to professionals in the field to color the image.
Inside Denny O’Laughlin’s commercial art studio at the Crawford County Career and Technical Center (CTC), 15 pencil-wielding students seated at drafting tables worked on such an assignment Thursday. Across the room, rows of oversized computer screens stood ready for the next step.
Around them, the walls displayed paintings, drawings and illustrations of all kinds, some the work of current students, most created by more than two decades of former students: a futuristic and provocative sports car in one corner, the cover of a recent graduate novel graphic in another, a gaping mouth revealing the darkness within as she peered from the wall behind the students.
The images, by many of the best students in a program that has historically produced competition- and scholarship-winning graduates, might intimidate some 11th graders entering the program, whispering behind their backs: “Look at the masterpieces of your predecessors.
But in the environment O’Laughlin has nurtured since he took over the program in 2000, the message proves inspiring rather than intimidating, telling them, “Look at the kind of work you’re capable of.
“It’s completely changed my life,” Saegertown High senior Marlea Ferguson said of O’Laughlin’s class, where she’s spent half of every school day since entering the program. “I had no idea what I was doing with my future.”
Now Ferguson has a plan: After graduating in June, she’ll head to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, one of the nation’s leading art schools and a place where CLC alumni have become a presence. familiar over the past two decades.
Ferguson will be joined by Meadville Area Senior High senior Madison Blood, who worked the table next to her on Thursday. The two girls received nearly $100,000 in scholarships from the school, O’Laughlin said, adding to the millions in scholarships accumulated by participants in the commercial art program over the years.
“There’s so much you wouldn’t think you could learn in your homeschool,” Blood said, comparing the studio in a corner of CTC’s top floor to a “regular” school. “It’s really exciting to be here.”
Blood and Ferguson are among the latest group of Crawford County students to experience the excitement. O’Laughlin is scheduled to retire in June, and the commercial art program will be retired with him. The committee that oversees the school, made up of school board members from the Conneaut, Crawford Central and PENNCREST school boards, voted in December to shut down the program and replace it with another, as yet undetermined, curriculum.
The school is mandated to meet job demands in its area, according to principal Kevin Sprong, and there simply aren’t enough jobs in graphic design, commercial art and related fields to warrant his pursuit.
For O’Laughlin, 65, retirement will come at the end of what have been three of the most difficult and, at times, frustrating years of his teaching career. Pandemic-related challenges across the educational spectrum have affected vocational and technical schools just as much, if not more, than other schools.
Imagine, O’Laughlin said, trying to deliver classes designed as half-day hands-on work experiences when your students are attending via video conference without access to the equipment they normally have.
Although frustrating, the experience reinforced O’Laughlin’s confidence in the importance and effectiveness of career education. It is a format, it is believed, that benefits students whether or not they continue in the particular field they are studying – a claim confirmed by the resumes of some of its most notable graduates.
These resumes list colleges such as Parsons School of Design, Ringling College of Art, and other top art schools. Current occupations include owners and creative directors of national and international marketing companies, video game designers and automobiles. But the list also includes a special agent in the FBI’s forensic art unit, a software development engineer at Amazon, a National Park Service ranger, and even a tournament operations manager for a golf course. Florida golf consistently ranked among the best in the country.
“Most of these kids won’t become designers,” O’Laughlin said of students in his commercial art program. “A lot of what we do is have them experience the demands of the real world – what is life going to be like? What do you expect from yourself? What do employers expect of you?
“Can we teach them about the world? ” he added.
Since O’Laughlin started at CTC, the answer for students in the Commercial Art program has been a resounding yes.
“A great instructor usually ends up with a great program,” said Sprong, the director of CTC. “Speech generally travels quickly with students.”
Word among O’Laughlin’s students has been both positive and consistent. Brenna Thummler, now the author of the critically acclaimed graphic novels “Sheets” and “Delicates,” is a decade away from her time at CLC, but she vividly recalled the family feeling of O’Laughlin’s class and when class members come together. out on the pitch for their last day, “wishing the program never ends”.
Like current CTC student Ferguson, Thummler said commercial art with “Mr. O” changed his life.
“I have never known a teacher, or even an adult, who was so open and honest with teenagers, trusting us with inspiring personal stories and challenging us to become more aware of ourselves as artists and humans,” she said in an email. “While the program probably required him to simply teach us to draw and use Photoshop, he taught us to see, to think creatively, to push boundaries, and to overcome defeat.”
Looking around the classroom last week, it was easy to see the equipment, both traditional and digital, the art on the walls and more hidden behind every corner, the hanging plants, the rows of tables at drawing and workstations as elements in O’Laughlin’s own still life self-portrait, 20 years in the making.
But the real masterpiece wasn’t the studio and the things that filled it, it was the students who brought it to life each year. And while he was very much at home, O’Laughlin’s center of attention remained where it always had been.
He easily rattled off the names and accomplishments of the artists whose work spans the walls – artists whose careers began within these walls and who, in many cases, remain in contact with their former instructor for years, even decades, after graduation. The goal, O’Laughlin said, was to create an expectation of excellence.
“The kids who got up,” he said, “they bought to train themselves, to educate themselves, to care about their own future. I think that’s what career education should be.
Mentally, he’s ready for retirement, but that comes with mixed feelings that were evident as he rummaged through his office for a framed newspaper article documenting the statewide art competition won by some of his first students.
Two decades later, he was still excited, remembering his first call to the Tribune – the type of call he won’t make again. It was a call to brag about the achievements of the winning students, but also to ask a question he always asks of anyone who listens: “Can we let the community know how great their kids are?” »
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at [email protected]