It’s only a small step from the sophomore still life painting class, with its enticing linseed-oil aroma, to a balcony overlooking a palmetto-lined bayou, where manatees swim by from time to time. The Ringling College of Art and Design occupies a diverse group of Spanish-style buildings on its 35 acre campus in Sarasota, along the Gulf Coast of Florida. The school is still growing, actively acquiring new land, new degree programs and new students.
“We’re about destroying the myth of the starving artist,” college president Dr. Larry Thompson told me. Alumni polled a few years after graduation revealed that ninety percent were working in their field of interest. The school gives each student a fully loaded PowerMac Pro as they enter. According to Dr. Johnson, the two-to-one student to computer ratio rivals some of the top engineering schools. “Ringling is the MIT of colleges of art and design,” he said, reeling off a list of companies—Pixar, Lucasfilm, Dreamworks, American Greetings, and Electronic Arts—whose recruiters regularly lure away graduates.
Ringling offers a comprehensive program in computer animation and interactive game design, the latter using the latest CryENGINE 2 software tools. The new five-storey Ulla Searing Center is lined with framed posters from movies that Ringling graduates have worked on. Seniors in the animation department were hard at work in air-conditioned computer rooms refining their long-range assignments, which includes storyboarding, designing, sculpting, rigging, animating, and lighting their own short films.
But the school is not all high tech and corporate. Old-fashioned animation tables donated by the defunct Disney animation studios are still in use for teaching the traditional methods. The library has a huge collection of art books. I was impressed that when one of the librarians in Ringling’s library saw the listing of recommended art instruction books on this blog she got right to work tracking them down.
Department chairman Tom Casmer, himself an accomplished children’s book illustrator, supervises 400 students in the illustration major, almost a third of the 1200 member student body. “We focus on the basics of painting, drawing, and thinking,” he said. “We push drawing for the first two years of study.” At heart, he said, illustrators are storytellers, and “the narrative aspect permeates all majors.” He wants illustration majors to be “scholar-practitioners.” Art can’t just be an end in itself. It has to be founded on primary research, timeless ideas and clear communication.
I met the students one by one as I signed books for two and a half hours after my Dinotopia presentation and was struck with their friendliness, their intense focus and their enthusiasm for art. Most of them were carrying sketchbooks and doodling in them. Illustration senior Andrew Wright regularly paints en plein air with a group of his classmates and with teacher George Pratt.
Jeanette and I regretted having to take off so soon for the long nighttime drive across the state, because we knew we’d have to miss the opportunity to join the Ringling students for a painting session. But we were happy to think of all of our new friends working so hard in such a beautiful environment, with such bright prospects before them.