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Drawing Strength
by Renee Valois, St Paul Pioneer Press, 2003

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Jim Robinson started the Art Academy because he felt art education wasn’t focused on teaching fundamentals and developing skills.

Jim Robinson vividly recalls the moment he decided to be an artist.

"I was in the middle of drawing the head of the second giraffe of Noah’s Ark, in first grade. I went home and told my parents I wanted to be a painter when I grew up."

They were supportive and took him to nearby classes at the Chicago Art Institute, but Robinson says, "No matter what I did, the teachers told me it was great. I knew what I needed to learn, but no one was willing to teach it."

In the ’60s and ‘70s, he says, art education stressed creativity instead of skill development. Even today, few classes teach the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Robinson thinks they should.

"A piano teacher doesn’t tell beginning students to just sit down at the piano and be creative," Robinson says. "First, they need to learn about the keys and notes. Creativity flows out of structure. Even Picasso learned the basics before moving on to create something new."

That’s why Robinson founded his school, The Art Academy – to provide those lessons in structure. It started modestly in the summer of 1992, when he began teaching a few classes at his home. He soon expanded. Now, the school, located on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, averages 250 students a quarter. There are weekly classes for 5 to 8 year olds, 9 to 18 year olds, and adults. Although the school has grown, its mission has not changed.

"Every child can learn to do math and read and write, barring disabilities, and I believe it’s the same with art," Robinson says. "Every child can learn to draw well. I just needed to figure out a process to teach it."

Robinson says he looked at some current art teaching philosophies, and then did the opposite. For instance, many children’s art classes focus on producing a lot of material, but Robinson believes that if children "slow down and take their time, they can produce work of higher quality." One the other hand, Robinson says, "I’ll be the first to say that the program is not for everybody."

Some parents don’t like a structured approach to art, and some children are not ready for the level of concentration required.

In their initial class, students begin by drawing a copy of a piece they like (such as a cartoon character) in pencil, pen and ink. Then they move on to ink and watercolor painting. After perfecting a couple of copies, children create an original piece. Eventually, many students progress to painting in oils.

Although encouragement is an important part of his approach, Robinson says there’s a hollowness to always telling a kid whatever they do is "great". He believes children are not fooled by false praise. They grow in confidence by growing in genuine capability.

"Children learn there's a hidden ability in them, that if they keep at something, they can do more than they ever dreamed possible."

Every year, many Art Academy students prove their skill by entering artwork in the State Fair and winning ribbons, frequently blue. Students have also earned valuable scholarships to art schools and created winning artwork for the Christmas Seals.

Although teachers expect students to do their best during the two hours they are in class, they also want then to have fun. On the last class of each quarter, there's a bubble gum blowing contest to see who can blow the most bubbles inside of a bubble (the record is 15).

One of the most beloved "teachers" at the school is Charlotti Biscotti, an affable dog who "studied painting at the famed Ecole des Bones-Arts in Paris under the great Leonardo dog Vinci."

Robinson’s teaching staff includes more than a dozen teen teachers, who are advanced students. Robinson says a camaraderie often develops between the children and the teachers, who are a key element of the program.

"To some kids, I’m just an old man, the authority figure. The teen teachers are terrific role models. They can sometimes be more effective than we can."

To the teachers, some of the greatest rewards of teaching at The Art Academy are letters from former students thanking them for the classes – and for changing their lives.

Robinson admits most of these kids won’t become artists. "But I want them to be happy adults, to know that they can do something with their lives if they just put in the effort."

Art Academy Mounts Extensive Show
by Staff Writer, Merriam Park Post, 1997

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On Sunday, June 22, many of Jim Robinson’s students and their parents came by Pangaea Coffee House to inaugurate a show of The Art Academy, which Robinson founded and now directs at the former Immaculate Heart of Mary school building on Summit Avenue near Snelling.

It’s the third coffee house show of student works he has mounted in as many years. The previous show in this area was at Trotter’s on Cleveland near Marshall, about three years ago. Robinson was up most of the previous night hanging some 300 separate drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings by students ranging in age from 5 to 18. Robinson doesn’t make soapbox speeches, but he has a view of art that could inspire them. In dance and music, he says, young students still start with "that solid training." But in art, for some reason, it’s ignored.

"Michelangelo copied Giotto when he was 14 years old," says Robinson. Charles Dana Gibson (who is responsible for the "Gibson Girl" from early in the 20th century) started very young making elaborate paper cutouts of various subjects.

Robinson doesn’t see many of his students going on to professional art careers, although some undoubtedly will. The idea is more to bring a tradition of basic skill building back to arts education, like the one that still exists in dance and music education.

The students’ works are finely detailed pictures of book illustrations. No computers are involved, says Robinson. A Chicago native, Robinson first taught in Excelsior, then out of his house. His student-faculty ratio is about 7:1. He has also taught adult students who work to become professional artists at the Atelier in Minneapolis.

Art Smart – Jim Robinson instructs youngsters on the ABC’s of learning to draw
by Sarah Barker, The Highland Villager, 1994

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Art teacher Jim Robinson likes to show his young students what American painter Winslow Homer was doing at age 14. He pulls out an example of Homer’s work at that tender age – a ludicrous pencil drawing of a stick figure with bad hair astride a pointy rocket blasting into outer space. The piece is seemingly devoid of any artistic talent whatsoever. Of course, then Robinson shows them "The Herring Net," a considerable improvement and one of the reasons that Homer is now well thought of in artistic circles.

"People usually only see the finished product," said Robinson. "It’s good for kids to see the process and to see that they can do things like this (the latter example of Homer’s work). Most of them come in and are encouraged because they think ‘Heck, I can already do something better than that (the first example).’"

Robinson would like to broadcast this message: "Any child can dramatically improve his or her drawing skill. Learning to draw is like learning the ABC’s – you learn about individual letters, then combinations, words and eventually whole sentences. It’s the same with art."

His point is well taken, especially by those who have seen his students’ artwork.

Parents and students alike are impressed, even amazed, at the control, proportion and sensitivity to design apparent in the work of these children, age 5 through 18.

Robinson is also proud of, but not unduly amazed at, his students’ achievements. "Too often kids are sold short," he said. "Adults assume they don’t have artistic talent or that they’re not old enough to produce something more than stick figures. They do have the talent. They need to know some basic skills and ways of looking at something. They need someone to believe in them. I encourage them. I believe in them. If they keep trying, they will achieve."

Robinson credits his parents for believing and encouraging his artistic exploration. "By the time I was 6, I knew I wanted to be an artist," said Robinson, who grew up in Morton Grove, Illinois. "My parents sent me to classes at the Art Institute, but they ended after 6 weeks or 10 weeks and there was nothing else. No follow-up or continuity. And they never addressed the basic skills of drawing logically or even how to hold a brush."

He later went on to receive a bachelor of fine arts degree from Columbia College in Chicago and began working as a textbook illustrator. "My first job was to go through a stack of some other artist’s illustrations and change the faces so there would be some with glasses, some Asians, some with curly hair," he said.

After nine years in that field, Robinson said he decided he needed a change. So he moved to Minnesota to study traditional drawing and painting at both Atelier LeSueur in Wayzata and Atelier Lack in Minneapolis. His schooling, which emphasized 19th-century academic and impressionist painting, and his study of art history and Italian Renaissance art helped shape his current teaching methods.

"I don’t get only talented kids," he said. "A lot of them are just trying out different things and that’s great. My only hope is that they’re open to learning."
Robinson has been teaching art classes to youngsters for five years – first in his home and for the past year out of the former Immaculate Heart of Mary school building at Summit and Snelling avenues. He decided to make the move because teaching in his home became a bit too hectic.

"I ask kids to copy a piece of art at first to see where they’re at," Robinson said, while explaining his teaching technique. "Most people draw piecemeal, paying too much attention to details. One of the first things we work on is trying to see the broader picture, identifying the major lines and shapes and then filling in detail."

His initial classes introduce two golden rules: draw lightly with the pencil and it’s OK to make mistakes. The program stresses fundamentals of line, shape, value, color and composition. And children are allowed to make freehand copies of other artist’s work to strengthen their ability to analyze, simplify and practice drawing and painting techniques.

"Some people think it squashes creativity to copy," Robinson said. "We use it to gain the skills to produce original drawings and paintings. It’s like training wheels. We use different helpers at first and gradually take them away when they’re no longer needed. I want kids to be independent."

Robinson uses thumbnail sketches, value studies and character designs to give students practice in quickly jotting down a mental image that might be the basis for original illustrations. The program progresses to work in watercolor and oil. The classes run 32 weeks a year and build on one another. Adult classes are offered, too. Information is available by calling 651-699-1573.

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