On Saturday, Donna Gray, campus manager at the Illinois Institute of Art at Tinley Park, sported a serious, but friendly expression, modern silver jewelry, and a pirate tattoo.
She moved quickly throughout the building at 18670 Graphic Drive, updating staff and greeting parents there to see high schoolers receive a certificate from the campus' first Summer Studio program.
The staff in the largely empty building outnumbered the nine young participants—understandable since the institute only opened its doors last January. The smell of new carpet still permeates the building.
"It's very exciting, and you'd be so surprised at what (students) do," said Gray, who joined the staff in February following a 14-year-old career at Career Education Corporation, where she was senior vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer.
Gray said her schedule doesn't leave much time for hobbies or outside activities, except for spending time with her adult twin daughters, Janet and Susie, and Susie's daughter, Paige, and son, Mason.
Turns out, Gray's prominent pirate tattoo was from a grandchild's birthday party. But she wore it with pride. After all, the vibe at an arts' college is a bit less conservative.
She's lived and worked around the U.S. and England, but said she enjoys Park.
"People are very friendly here, very willing to help you," she said. "And the thing I've really noted is that the high schools are very focused on the arts, with really good art programs."
Practical Arts Degrees Highly Marketable
Although some parents still quail at the idea of a son or daughter entering the arts, the institute's focus on practical skills and applied technologies is meant to make them highly marketable, Gray said.
"The first thing I would tell them is don't ever think that it (art) couldn't be a career," she said. "The kids come in and love art, the parents wonder, but they could be a graphic designer, design store windows, there are many careers in art."
Mochael SaintLuke-Robinson, associate dean of academic affairs, agrees with Gray's assessment. While parents fear an art degree will doom their child to starving in a garret on an unrelenting diet of Ramen noodles, the reality for an applied arts degree is much rosier, SaintLuke-Robinson said.
"What we're trying to get parents to understand is that this is not a fine arts program, it's a commercial and career arts school," he said.
Who Designs Tony the Tiger?
"I tell the parents, you see Tony the Tiger on the cereal box? People decide in five seconds whether to take that cereal box off the shelf, and that's because of the package design," SaintLuke-Robinson said.
The curriculum at the Illinois Institute of Art campuses is updated to reflect demand for specific design skills, he said.
"We have PAC meetings where people in the field and industry gather twice a year, and we'll learn things like, the industry is moving away from QuarkExpress and toward Indesign."
He said that information will be used revamp the coursework.
"So Quark is still out there, they'll still get Quark, but we're teaching them InDesign."
Furthermore, instructors like Samantha Van Deman often exhibit their own work and can offer practical insights. The campus is also working on establishing relationships with area businesses as part of its internship program.
Drawing Nudes Still Rite of Passage
Touring the building, prospective students will note the Library center, with a row of Macs, or the PC room, necessary for the AutoCAD software used in interior design or animation.
There's also the studio where new students will undergo the art school rite of passage, sketching studies of nude models.
SaintLuke-Robinson noted that in the era of laptop design, students still must learn to sketch by hand, because many of the vocabulary terms and concepts are rooted in the traditional arts.
Currently, just 36 students are enrolled at this Tinley Park campus, with plans to move toward an enrollment of 1,000 students seeking associates or four-year-degrees, he said.
SaintLuke-Robinson, 51, who lives in Richton Park, said he's enjoyed getting to know the Tinley Park community.
"The area is very affluent, very open, very welcoming," he said. "I like Tinley Park itself, and I'm looking to move here. The community has welcomed us with open arms."