A few years ago, visual effects artist Josh Cardenas was offered the opportunity to run visuals for two well known turntablists, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, tasked with devising a multi-camera setup able to seamlessly and unobtrusively capture the musicians’ eight simultaneously spinning turntables playing old 45s. Josh shared details of the MIDI Camera Control system he came up with, as well as a lower-budget maker version on the pages of MAKE Volume 19.
Josh’s latest project, in collaboration with his partner Jennifer Fry, is starting the Art Reactor digital arts school. We recently chatted with him to find out more about the details and challenges of starting a learning center. Interspersed are examples of student-produced artwork as well as pictures of Josh and Jennifer teaching in the school studio.
1. In a nutshell, what is Art Reactor? Art Reactor is a digital art school for middle and high school students and adults located in a high-tech, customized studio in Corte Madera, California. We teach students how to be artists, not just computer users. By learning the basic principles of art and how to create with digital tools, students can produce amazing, original work!
We’re not just talking about making funny pics in Photoshop, but things you’ve maybe never seen before like virtual 3D sculpture, vector art, interactive virtual worlds, projection mapping, VJing, and more. We want our students to become independent, self-directed artists with enough technical skills to express their creative vision. Our instructors are real, working digital artists and experienced art teachers. They push creativity and they take the time to give every student artist the attention they need.
2. What inspired you to start Art Reactor? Art Reactor began about a year ago very simply: we, owners Josh Cardenas and Jennifer Fry, are passionate about digital art and felt that we could bring our professional expertise and love of teaching together to create a business that would fill an unmet need in the community. We believe that arts education is a powerful force to foster creative problem-solving, critical thinking, keen observation, innovation, and visual communication skills. While we are artists and believe in the arts as a foundation of culture, we also believe that providing a project-based arts education improves a student’s ability to learn in all aspects of his or her life.
Further, we see digital art as a medium for self-expression, as we do a pencil, paintbrush, clay, or any other art tool. We also see digital art as an important form of literacy in the 21st century. Current middle and high school students have to prepare for jobs that may not even exist right now, and one thing’s for certain: they will need to be excellent at visual communication through digital media if they want to be successful.
The classes offered at Art Reactor help students develop stronger visual communication skills, as well as the technical knowledge necessary to realize their visual ideas. In general, schools don’t have the resources to provide the technology and level of instruction we offer at our studio, and yet these things are incredibly valuable to our children’s future.
3. What types of classes have you offered so far? We offer a project-based curriculum that stems from our students’ unique interests. Our classes are not specifically focused on software, but rather, helping our students learn the strengths and weaknesses of each program, so that they can use the right tool to create their artwork. Some classes we’ve offered so far: Fine Art with Photoshop, 3D Modeling and Animation, 2D Animation, Digital Painting and Illustration, Graphic Design, Real-time Interactive Media, Vector Drawing, Motion Graphics, and a survey class that covers an overview of each of these topics.
4. How has Art Reactor been received by the community? The students who have come through our doors, as well as their parents, are huge supporters of our program. The percentage of students who return to take multiple classes is high, letting us know that what we’re teaching is engaging and fun as well as educational. And the quality of artwork our students produce continues to amaze us. Better yet, we’ll allow some of our customers to speak for us:
“This class has opened [my son’s] eyes to a much wider digital art universe. He would come home from class and sketch out his art projects for the next day. The instructors made him feel right at home, despite his naturally reserved nature, and the small class size ensured him lots of personal attention.“
“My son created some amazing projects and built confidence in an area where he didn’t have a lot. Art Reactor provides a great opportunity to learn a skill that is not easily found in school or elsewhere.”
“I want you to know what a difference you have made in at least one kid’s perception of what art is and can be — and that it can be awesome.”
“With so many parents wanting to find ways to harness their kids energy and enthusiasm for the computer and turn it into something creative, educational and productive I can’t think of a better option than the Art Reactor. With the craze of Minecraft I should think your class would appeal to so many of those kids who are really into building or creating using technology as the canvas.”
5. Describe the types of students you’ve gotten so far and who you hope to target (i.e. age range, background, interest). Our program is designed for middle and high school students, ages 11 and up. We’ve found that students younger than age 11 are generally not developmentally ready to apply complex technical skills with art creation, which is why we target our classes to teens. We look for kids who already love art and are comfortable with technology, and who want to learn to use digital tools to create awesome artwork. We’ve been fortunate in that these are exactly the types of students we’ve attracted and retained since our program began.
We try to clearly describe our program as absolutely arts-focused, so if a student isn’t interested in art, then Art Reactor classes are probably not for him or her. Students also need to be motivated and willing to try new things. Sometimes we get kids who come in wanting to make a video game, for instance, but don’t understand the level of technical and artistic skill, nor the amount of work involved with developing something as complex as a video game. We start out all of students with the fundamentals: drawing, painting, color, composition, shape, line, etc. If a student is only focused on one particular project or technique, that typically isn’t a good fit with our program.
The average age of student we’ve had has been about 13-14, but we’ve had kids as young as 9 and as old as 19. We also offer adult classes that tend to have a more pragmatic focus, such as Graphic Design for your Business.
6. Tell us about yourself and your cofounder Jennifer Fry. What are your backgrounds and areas of specialty? I have a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Sonoma State University, and have worked professionally as a visual effects artist for movies and commercials. I’m widely skilled in studio art, digital art, and hands-on construction, and my personal artistic focus is on kinetic, audio-visual sculptural installations.
Jennifer is a credentialed art teacher with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from San Diego State University. In addition to working as a professional web and graphic designer, she has taught visual and digital art at public and private schools in Marin County for the past seven years. Her artistic explorations include ambient digital pieces that incorporate photography, motion graphics, video, and sound.
7. What is your long-term vision for Art Reactor and how do you hope to grow it? We’d love to see our studio grow, so we can offer even more cutting-edge learning experiences to kids and adults. Our goal is to become the ultimate creative learning center — where people of all ages can come and learn how to turn their dreams into art, then take it one step further and build those visuals into real, tangible objects and interactive experiences, all using the latest digital tools and technologies. And just as we are all about sharing our skills with others, we want to encourage the growth of a community where people learn and share what they’ve learned with everyone else. Open source learning and making!
Unfortunately, Art Reactor is having a difficult time in this early growth stage. Summer brought many new students through our doors and we could feel the momentum building. We met so many motivated and talented kids — it was a dream come true. However, once school went back into session, we discovered the realities of competing with homework, sports, and other after-school commitments. We had a handful of dedicated students, but not enough to support our overhead costs.
As of January 1, 2013, we will be closing the doors and moving out of our studio space located at 402 Tamal Plaza in Corte Madera, California, and we will no longer be able to offer our digital art classes. However, there is still a chance to save our studio! We’ve started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to pre-sell classes for the winter and spring sessions, among other things. If, through this campaign, we can raise enough money to cover our expenses until our busy summer season, we think that will be enough time for our digital art classes to finally become self-sustaining.