Baltimore Academy of Illustration instructor Greg Houston shows off the school’s new student portfolio website. Photo by Ethan McLeod.
Baltimore Academy of Illustration instructor Greg Houston shows off the school’s new student portfolio website. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

In a nondescript two-story building in North Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood, two professional illustrators are busily building – literally, cutting pieces of a door frame and drywall – for a new classroom. When they’ve finished construction, their long space will be divided into classrooms A and B.

“It’ll look more like a school and less like a studio,” says Greg Houston, alongside Scott Fuqua, both of their clothes covered in drywall dust.

“I think it’s actually going to add a lot to the school,” Fuqua says.

The two artists are among just over a dozen faculty members teaching at the Baltimore Academy of Illustration, which opened in the building’s second floor in 2015. They co-founded the school with Alex Fine (formerly of City Paper) for Baltimore’s hopeful illustrators without the means to pay for art school. An estimated 300 students have come through their doors over three years seeking to learn, refresh or refine their illustration skills with professional guidance.

Fuqua and Houston, both former MICA instructors with decades of industry experience, describe their operation as a “functioning illustration department without a college.” That’s by design.

“Art directors don’t look at diplomas, they look at portfolios,” Houston says.

Among the 15 course options for the spring 2018 semester: “Book Illustration,” “Foundation Drawing,” “Hand Lettering” and an introduction to 3D modeling.

At $550 per course, a three-hour, 14-week illustration class costs roughly a tenth as much as a three-credit course at MICA. Students who complete a course leave with a certificate and illustrations to add to their portfolio, though starting in the fall, Fuqua says, they’ll be able to earn course credit in an arrangement with the University of Baltimore.

But as Houston suggested, their primary goal is to give each student professional-quality samples, and hopefully some industry exposure. This semester, they’ve launched a website where illustrations by every student, including past pupils, will be posted for public view. The instructors say they hope to connect students with publishers and other businesses seeking to hire illustrators on a project basis.

Their approach has worked so far, even without the website. A former student who attended MICA and preferred to draw animals — something she was discouraged from doing in art school, Fuqua says — has been paid to illustrate for the National Aquarium, and last summer got a book deal drawing dolphins. Another recently had his illustration published in Newsweek, and others have sold their work to alt-weeklies and The Washington Post.

A poster depicting students’ work.
A poster depicting students’ work.

A core piece of the academy’s philosophy is to avoid teaching with any so-called house style, in which art school professors guide students to pursue an industry trend, rather than their own tastes. Houston points to a common theme in today’s illustrations to make his case: a “coloring book” style with flat hues and bountiful space between lines (he calls out the cartoon “Adventure Time” as an example).

Art school faculty may teach with a house style because they know employers will want work in a similar vein, and students, therefore, stand a better chance of finding work upon graduation if their portfolios match the trend, Houston says.

“The problem, simply, is that if that style doesn’t stay around forever, and you can’t do anything else, how do you sustain that career momentum?” he poses.

“And it never stays around forever,” Fuqua adds.

Fuqua says former students from MICA and others from highly regarded institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design and Savannah College of Art and Design have taken classes at the academy to break the mold they were taught and instead pursue their own interests. Others are mid-career professionals, such as a master electrician in his 50’s who used to draw comic books, or a scientist at Johns Hopkins University pursuing an artistic dream.

“We really try to work with the student where they’re at, and really make their style that much stronger,” Fuqua says.

They also teach students how to market themselves, a skill the instructors argue is often skipped over in art school curricula. “We pride ourselves on that in every class – how do you become a professional?” Fuqua says.

Some of that is knowing how to self-brand. It also includes expecting rejection.

“I always tell them, don’t go in thinking you’re gonna sit down with somebody, shake hands and leave with an $8,000 to $20,000 job,” he notes. “As with books, even the best books, writers, even those individuals are constantly rejected. We try to prepare them for that.”

Greg Houston (left) holds a piece of wood for a door frame as Jonathon Scott Fuqua saws. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

As an upstart venture going on its third year, the Baltimore Academy of Illustration doesn’t have a marketing budget. Most students learn of it by word of mouth or occasionally from posters, flyers or social media, according to Houston.

But they’re optimistic. Enrollment has climbed from fall-to-fall and spring-to-spring over five semesters (except last spring, which Houston attributes to low morale and economic uncertainty among students following the 2016 presidential election).

The dream is for BAI to expand to other artistic disciplines like animation and digital production. They would work with partner institutions using an outsourced credit, similar to the partnership being arranged with the University of Baltimore.

Houston argues there’s plenty of talent in and around Baltimore that could benefit from a lower-cost alternative to art school: “Baltimore is filled with super talented people who, for whatever reason, are not being served.”

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...