Commercial art program to end with instructor's retirement

·7 min read

Jan. 17—Picture this: An art class assignment called "Self-portrait still life," in which young artists assemble objects that capture their personalities and values, their interests and experiences. The students arrange and photograph the objects, then create a monochromatic drawing based on the photo.

Once completed, the drawing is digitally scanned, and the artists switch to 21st-century tools, using the same software tools familiar to professionals in the field to color the image.

Inside Denny O'Laughlin's commercial art studio at the Crawford County Career and Technical Center (CTC), 15 pencil-wielding students seated at drafting tables worked on such an assignment Thursday. On the other side of the room, rows of oversized computer screens stood ready for the next stage.

Surrounding them, the walls displayed paintings, drawings and illustrations of all sorts, some the work of current students, most created by more than two decades' worth of previous students: a futuristically provocative sports car in one corner, the cover of a recent graphic novel by a graduate in another, a gaping mouth revealing darkness within as it stared from the wall behind the students.

The images, by many of the best students in a program that has consistently produced contest- and scholarship-winning graduates, might intimidate some 11th-graders entering the program, whispering behind their backs, "Look at the masterpieces of your predecessors."

But in the environment nurtured by O'Laughlin since taking over the program in 2000, the message proves inspiring rather than intimidating, telling them, "Look at the kind of work you are capable of."

"It has completely changed my life," Saegertown High senior Marlea Ferguson said of O'Laughlin's class, where she has spent half of each school day since entering the program. "I had no clue what I was doing with my future."

Now Ferguson has a plan: After graduating in June, she'll head to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, one of the nation's leading art schools and a place where CTC alumni have become a familiar presence over the past two decades.

Ferguson will be joined by Meadville Area Senior High senior Madison Blood, who worked at the table next to her on Thursday. Both girls have received close to $100,000 in scholarship aid from the school, O'Laughlin said, adding to the millions in scholarships accumulated by commercial art program participants over the years.

"There are so many things you wouldn't think you'd be able to learn at your home school," Blood said, contrasting the studio housed in a corner of the CTC's top floor with a "regular" school. "It's really exciting to be here."

Blood and Ferguson are among the last group of Crawford County students to experience that excitement. O'Laughlin is set to retire in June and the commercial art program will be retired with him. The committee that oversees the school, made up of school board members from Conneaut, Crawford Central and PENNCREST school boards, voted in December to close the program and replace it with another as-yet-undetermined course of study.

The school is mandated to serve the employment demands of its region, according to Director Kevin Sprong, and there simply aren't enough jobs in graphic design, commercial art and related fields to justify its continuation.

For O'Laughlin, 65, the retirement will come at the end of what have been three of the most challenging and, at times, frustrating years of his teaching career. The pandemic-related challenges experienced across the educational spectrum have affected career and technical schools every bit as much, and perhaps more, than other schools.

Imagine, O'Laughlin said, trying to conduct classes designed as half-day hands-on work experiences when your students are attending via videoconference without access to the equipment they would normally have.

While frustrating, the experience has reinforced O'Laughlin's faith in the importance and effectiveness of career education. It's a format, be believes, that benefits students regardless of whether they continue in the particular field that they study — a contention borne out by the resumes of some his more noteworthy graduates.

Those resumes list colleges such as Parsons School of Design, Ringling College of Art and other leading art schools. Current occupations include owners and creative directors for national and international marketing firms, video game and automobile designers. But the list also includes a special agent in the FBI's forensic art unit, a software development engineer with Amazon, a National Park Service park ranger, even a director of tournament operations for a Florida golf course consistently ranked among the best in the country.

"Most of these kids won't become designers," O'Laughlin said of the students in his commercial art program. "A whole lot of what we do is to have them experience the demands of the real world — what is life going to be like? What are you expected to do? What do employers want from you?

"Can we teach them about the world?" he added.

Since O'Laughlin started at the CTC, the answer for students in the commercial art program has been a resounding yes.

"A great instructor usually ends up with a great program," said Sprong, the CTC director. "Word usually travels quickly with students."

The word among O'Laughlin's students has been both positive and consistent. Brenna Thummler, now the author of the critically acclaimed graphic novels "Sheets" and "Delicates," is a decade removed from her time at the CTC, but she vividly recalled the family feeling of O'Laughlin's class and the moment when class members gathered outside on the lawn for their last day, "wishing the program would never end."

Like current CTC student Ferguson, Thummler said that commercial art with "Mr. O" changed her life.

"I never knew a teacher, or even an adult, who was so open and honest with teenagers, trusting us with personal inspirational stories and daring us to grow more self-aware as both artists and humans," she said in an email. "While the syllabus likely mandated that he simply teach us to draw and use Photoshop, he taught us to see, to think creatively, to push boundaries, and to overcome defeat."

Looking around the classroom last week, it was easy to see the equipment, both traditional and digital, the art on the walls and more stashed away behind every corner, the hanging plants, the rows of drafting tables and workstations as elements in O'Laughlin's own still life self-portrait, 20 years in the making.

But the real masterpiece wasn't the studio and the things that filled it, it was the students who have brought it to life each year. And while he was very much at home, O'Laughlin's center of attention remained where it has always been.

He easily rattled off the names and accomplishments of the artists whose work covers the walls — artists whose careers started between those walls and who in many cases remain in touch with their former instructor years, even decades, past graduation. The goal, O'Laughlin said, was to create an expectation of excellence.

Looking around his studio last week, it was easy to see the equipment, both traditional and digital, the art on the walls and more stashed away behind every corner, the hanging plants, the rows of drafting tables and workstations as O'Laughlin's own still life self-portrait, 20 years in the making. But while he was very much at home, the center of attention remained where it has always been.

O'Laughlin easily rattled off the names and accomplishments of the artists whose work covers the walls — artists whose careers started between those walls and who in many cases remain in touch with their former instructor years, even decades, past graduation. His goal, he said, had been to create an expectation of excellence.

"The kids that have risen up," he said, "they bought into training themselves, educating themselves, caring about their own futures. I think that's what career education should be about."

Mentally, he's ready for retirement, but it comes with mixed feelings that were evident as he dug through his office for a framed newspaper story documenting the statewide art competition won by some of his earliest students.

Two decades later, he was still excited, remembering his first call to the Tribune — the type of call he won't be making anymore. It was to a call to tout the accomplishments of the winning students but also to pose a question he is still asking to anyone who'll listen: "Can we let the community know how amazing their kids are?"

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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