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Guide to Camps and Enrichment Programs, Minnesota Monthly, 2008

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Avoid hearing the dreaded “I’m bored!” this summer by finding a fun summer camp or class for your child, teenager, or even yourself.

At The Art Academy, located near Randolph Avenue in St. Paul, students can refine their artistic skills by enrolling in a painting and drawing Summer class or Camp. "Art is the greatest gift you can give children. It enriches every aspect of their lives." Says Jim Robinson, founder of The Art Academy. "Our goal is to improve students' drawing and painting abilities dramatically in a short period of time. We accomplish this by teaching time-honored methods in classes with very low student-teacher ratios."

Art Academy teachers create a positive atmosphere where students can relax and enjoy learning in a non-competitive Environment. A special Manga Class taught by professional comic book artists also provides instruction for children interested in Japanese Anime.

"I have yet to meet a child who isn't talented," says Robinson, "Our classes are specifically designed to unlock that talent. Everyone can draw and paint well if they're trained properly. The consistent quality of our students' artwork shows the success of our philosophy and methods."

An additional Adult Program based on Renaissance Principles helps adults master traditional drawing, watercolor and oil painting techniques.

Students are learning how to draw on Summit Avenue by following the steps of the Masters
by Carol Nigrelli, Avenues, 2005

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James Robinson is passionate about art – and about stoking that passion in young people and adults. "I have yet to meet a kid who isn't talented," he said. "Every child can draw and paint well if they’re trained how to do it. I'm a fanatic about that."

Some might chalk up such rhetoric as the natural thing for an art teacher to say. But one jaw dropping look around Robinson’s Art Academy dispels any doubts about his fanaticism. Robinson’s students practice what he preaches.

On long tables inside The Art Academy, which is located in the former Immaculate Heart of Mary School building at 1550 Summit Avenue, rest drawings and paintings of such detail, dimension and clarity that one would think the masters themselves had guided each child’s hand.

And, in a way, they did.

"Beginning students learn to draw by copying the work of famous painters," said Robinson, a Como Park resident and the father of two sons. Robinson then whipped out three books of the earliest known drawings of Michelangelo, Picasso, and Rubens.

"Michelangelo copied from a well-known artist of his day when he was young, and Picasso and Rubens did the same thing," he said, pointing to some not-so-remarkable pencil drawings. "Once they learned the basics, they developed their own style." Robinson stresses technique and structure over creativity to his students for a reason: He was never taught how to draw as a child.

"When I was 5 years old, I was sitting in class drawing Noah’s Ark," he recalled. "By the time I got to the second giraffe’s head, I just knew I wanted to be an artist."

His parents took him to the nearby Art Institute of Chicago for lessons. Anything Robinson did, the teachers told him was great. "It was the 60’s," he said. "The prevalent thinking was that training would destroy creativity. Unfortunately, the same attitude exists today."

In 1981, Robinson received a fine arts degree from Columbia College in Chicago without ever being taught the proper way to hold a brush. He spent the next decade pursuing art instruction both in this country and in Europe. Finally, after moving to Minnesota 15 years ago, he learned the fundamentals of drawing and painting he longed for from the artists at The Atelier, a highly selective art school in Minneapolis.

Robinson opened The Art Academy in 1993 to give "average, normal kids," as Robinson calls them, an opportunity to reach their full potential without having to endure the struggles he went through.

Classes at the Academy are held once a week for ages 5 – 8, 9 – 18 and adults. The school offers lessons quarterly, averaging 300 to 400 students per term.

The summer session will run June 20 though August 20. Though classes are held once a week, Robinson understands the scheduling complexities parents face today. Students are welcome to attend classes twice a week for a month, or four times a week for a couple of weeks – whatever works best. Some families come from as far away as Rochester, Minnesota, and Menomonie, Wisconsin, to attend classes at The Art Academy.

Over the years, the quiet, unassuming Robinson has reveled not only in the astonishingly high quality of work produced by his students, but in their love of the discipline.

"What I learned in his classes changed my life,’ said Michelle Martin, who started taking lessons from Robinson when she was 11. Poised to graduate in May from the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Connecticut, Martin credits the support and encouragement from Robinson for her life’s direction.

"Every week for years, I went to the Academy to work on a project," she said. "It was a constant in my life, a quiet time for me to focus on my work. Nothing was ever rushed."

Robinson employs about 20 teachers, many of whom he taught. Children learn at their own pace with a good deal of individual attention. The student – faculty ratio is about seven-to-one, and it shows. Every August, Art Academy students of all ages enter artwork in the Minnesota State Fair and come away with ribbons, mostly blue.

"Art is the greatest gift you can give children," said Robinson, who has taught thousands of them over the years. "It improves every other aspect of their life."

The Talent Inside: A Classic Approach Fosters Artistic Growth
by Katharina Gadow, Minnesota Parent, 2013

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"I think it is hard to take a first art class because you think other people will expect you to be really gifted and talented right from the beginning," says Jan Selby, mother of three. This common thought is exactly what founder, director, and instructor James Robinson of The Art Academy is St. Paul has been trying to help people avoid.

"One of the things that we do at The Art Academy is balance creativity with projects that stress skill development. Ideally, you want the two to advance together," he says.

Robinson states that current studies on artistic development show that kids around the age of 12 become much more aware of their surroundings. Unfortunately, they can also be self-conscious about their art skills.

"For example, kids could be in a classroom where they have an assignment to sketch a portrait of Abraham Lincoln," says Robinson. "They’ll see a student at an adjoining desk that is drawing well. Then they’ll look at their own picture and think, ‘mine isn’t good by comparison, I’m not good at art, so they’ll just quit believing in themselves artistically."

At The Art Academy, however, Robinson can officially say that he and his staff have been stopping artistic self-consciousness for two decades.

The master-apprentice approach

Growing up in Chicago, Jim Robinson discovered at a young age that he wanted to be an artist. He spent a lot of time at different schools taking weekend classes and ended up studying at a traditional drawing school in Minnesota called Atelier Lack. Throughout his time at the school, Robinson discovered that teaching artistic skills had more or less fallen to the wayside to make way for creativity. He began to wonder what sort of abilities an average kid could pssess if given right instruction and tools.

"I started thinking, if kids can do math well, and can learn how to read and write well, they most probably have the skills inside them to draw and paint well."

The trick was to develop the right tools and instruction to help them realize those abilities. Only when he had immersed himself in art history books did he come up with a solution: the teaching practices of the Italian Renaissance.

During this cultural movement, children as young as 11 were slotted into career choices. They would go into a master’s studio with the expectation that within four to seven years they would be trained well enough to support their families. This is known as the master-apprentice approach, which Robinson adapted and made his own.

"The emphasis of the instruction was to teach kids how to draw and paint proficiently. It was believed that if you taught young artists those skills their creativity would blossom."

Not long after, Robinson forged ahead with the idea for a school that would welcome children of all ages and skill levels, with the Renaissance and master-apprentice principles guiding the way.

"We really believe in our students. Because of the skills we see inside them, all self-consciousness about inadequate artistic abilities disappears. Our students feel confident in what they do," he says.

"I love Jim’s philosophy," Jan Selby says. All three of her children, and Selby herself, have taken classes at the Academy. "It is less important if you have been born with a gift and it is more important that you are willing to work hard and practice and learn . . . anyone can really become an artist."

Inspiration everywhere

This in no way means that Robinson sacrifices creativity for artistic training. The Academy encourages students to try their hands at painting or drawing by using an already existing piece of art for inspiration, whether that inspiration comes from horses, Monet, or even Selby’s son’s choice – ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ comics. It doesn’t matter: Robinson welcomes them all.

"The kids have tons of freedom in what they do,’ he says. "Our idea is that aesthetic taste improves with time naturally if kids are in an artistic environment."

Selby agrees: "They get individual support when they need it and there is an experienced instructor keeping an eye on what they are doing, but they are working in their own way and at their own pace."

In the age five to eight level 1 camp session, the freedom of the students is paired with an end goal: to create a book. Five illustrations and one self-portrait build upon each other to become more pictorially complex as the students progress through the camp.

"Every page has a lesson associated with it," Robinson says. "The first project would be a simple drawing of a scene with a prominent center of interest – or focal point – for a viewer to look at. But down the road, the fifth illustration would have a lot going on. There would be a horizon line, overlapping shapes, an understanding of near and far, and a sense of color progression in the picture."

After three hours a day and five days a week, students have created a lovely keepsake that is tailored to their unique tastes and personality.

Robinson himself worked in children’s book illustration for 12 years, but that is not the only thing he brings to the Academy. Robinson has helped to form meaningful relationships and a community through The Art Academy, something that is recognized by all.

"What keeps us going as teachers are the bonds that we form with these kids. They end up being so dear to us. There is a real depth to these relationships that doesn’t end when our students go off to college. So often they come back and visit with us," Robinson says. "We have kids who are still coming back who have graduated from college years and years ago. We have developed really wonderful bonds to our community."

Selby’s family is no exception. Even now as a freshman at the University of Cincinnati studying industrial design, her daughter Jenna continues to return to the school, but not as a student, as an instructor.

"We’ve had such a wonderful experience there," Selby says. "I really felt like Jim and the staff got to know my children as unique personalities and really respected their individuality."

"Not many teachers have this opportunity, to really see kids grow up the way we get to do," Robinson says.

In the summer of 1993, the Academy had around 30 students. As of summer 2012 that number grew to about 600. Given that 2013 marks the 20-year anniversary, you could say Robinson has accomplished what he set out to do.

"My original question," says Robinson, "which was how talented are average kids when it comes to drawing and painting, was answered fairly quickly. It became very evident that all kids have a natural ability to draw exceptionally well. Twenty years later our school is still based on that one premise: That everyone who comes to us is bursting with potential. We are the guides who nurture these kids in thoughtful ways to bring that talent out."

Academy marks 20 years of inspiring young artists
by James McKenzie, Villager, 2013

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Jim Robinson’s two decades of teaching art at The Art Academy in St. Paul have only confirmed his belief in the soundness of his methods.

"Almost any child can learn to draw and paint, said Robinson, who offers classes for ages 5 through adult throughout the year as well as summer camps for children and teens. "Suzuki proved it with violins, and it’s q quite similar process. It’s not remarkable, really. Most children don’t arrive at school knowing soccer or math either: they’re taught. A very select few individuals become DaVincis or Einsteins, but except in the case of serious learning disabilities, 95 percent of kids can learn to draw and paint."

The remarkable success of The Art Academy’s students – winning blue ribbons at the State Fair year after year, going on to art schools around the country, sometimes publishing their own books – would seem to bear out Robinson’s claims.

"The truth is, most kids have these abilities," he said, "but first you have to believe that. Most people think it’s genius or a mysterious, God-given gift. Or a kid looks over his shoulder in class, sees what his neighbor has done, says ‘I can’t do that,’ and gives up. But we at The Art Academy know differently."

Robinson’s teaching philosophy has resulted in methods that received a U.S. patent in 2011, though it was a long journey to those teaching discoveries.

"I had to go all the way back to the Renaissance and its apprenticeship methods before I found the proper model," Robinson said. His search included a 1981 fine arts degree, extensive European study and museum visits, and nine years in children’s textbook illustration and design, all of which led him to studying and teaching with the Atelier fine arts program in Minnesota and to founding The Art Academy in 1993.

Over the years, the Academy has turned thousands of students into skilled artists by stressing "practice over talent." As with Renaissance apprentices, many Art Academy students spend time as teachers, working with younger learners.

"I’m not even the best teacher at this school," Robinson said. "The great teachers are the young men and women who’ve been through the program, love the younger kids and know form their own experience how the academy system works. Their young students get that immediately. I’m the overseer. I set a standard. I don’t teach that much any longer, but I have a lot of fun with the teachers. It’s about community. For a lot of them this is a king of second home."

Andrew Carr – one of four brothers, all of whom, like their parents, took classes at The Art Academy – echoes Robinson’s enthusiasm. "Teaching is really fun, though originally it was terrifying,’ Carr said. "One of the great things is many of the teachers are college age. The younger kids respond to them, maybe because of the closeness in age."

An English and philosophy major at the University of St. Thomas, Carr will teach at The Art Academy again this summer. He said he finds surprising connections between what he learned about drawing and painting and his current college studies.

"Any good novelist is going to be jealous of painters," he said, paraphrasing what he recently read by Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. "Writing is so visual. Once you have a different way of seeing things, the change is fundamental. It changes your life."

Carr’s remark underscored an observation Robinson made about color: how a single trip to a Target store exposes one to more shades of color than a person from the 16th century would have seen in a lifetime. "And how to see color can be taught," Robinson said.

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