A “My Life in Comics” Side Trip
I’ve been thinking about my years at the Art institute of Pittsburgh since I wrote the last installment of “My Life in Comics” (which you can read by clicking here). I attended AIP from March 1974 through March 1976. Beyond an Associates Degree in Applied Something-or-Other (I graduated from the school’s “Visual Communications” department, which was just a fancier way to say Graphic Design … they eventually went back to the latter as the department name), I gained a love for the city of Pittsburgh, met a whole mess of fellow comics enthusiasts in the Pittsburgh Comix Club, found one of my first loves (alas, not to be), and decided I didn’t have what it takes to be a comic book artist … but I had decent design skills, and that’s pretty much how I made my living ever since, including three years at my hometown newspaper, almost twenty as a TV news graphic designer in Pittsburgh and later San Diego, and an additional twenty at Comic-Con International: San Diego, the last twelve or so as Director of Print and Publications and editor-in-chief and designer of the Comic-Con website.
But art school was a trip, especially for a shy, small-town teen who had never spent any time away from his family. Pittsburgh was about six hours away from my hometown of Tamaqua, which was nestled in the coal regions on the eastern side of Pennsylvania. The ‘Burgh was about as far west as you could go in PA without falling off the edge into that vast wasteland known as the Midwest. I was just far enough away to be far enough away, but close enough to be home in the same day if something happened, Greyhound’s bus schedule willing.
My parents and I went out and visited the school in the fall of 1973. Unlike a lot of my high school peers, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after graduation. I knew far better what I didn’t want to do: I never wanted to take another math or science class. I never wanted to partake in enforced physical education or have to play football/basketball/volleyball as some kind of weird team sports torture under the guise of government-mandated exercise, taught by men and women who were really only hired to be coaches and cared about nothing other than the teams they coached or the health or phys-ed classes they begrudgingly taught.
In my mid-teens I started to draw, and that led me—very tentatively—to the idea of a possible career in art. It started as an ambition to become a comic book artist. Comics were a large part of my life from about the age of 5 on and I was passionate about them. In my teen years, I started to go to comics conventions, and I really started to learn about the history of comics through fanzines and the growing amount of books about the medium. The 1970s introduced a lot of artists who were among the first generation who grew up wanting to be comic book artists, not just something their art talent led them to in order to make a living to support a family. Artists such as Frank Brunner, Jim Starlin, Barry Windsor-Smith, Berni Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, and George Perez all started out in the ‘70s.
During that fall 1973 visit, I was wooed a bit. They took me to meet their cartooning teacher, Bob Sallows. I met the Director of Education, John Barclay, and he insisted I meet the president of the school, John Johns, a noted Pittsburgh area cartoonist and caricaturist and bowtie wearer. I was somewhat charmed, my parents less so, but they signed the papers and I moved to Pittsburgh in March of 1974 to start my “college” career. My parents moved me out, turned around and drove home, spending over ten hours on the road. At that point in time, the AIP students who weren’t local stayed in the dorms at Duquesne University, about a mile from the downtown location of the art school. I had a parade of roommates over the two-year timespan, only really hitting it off with two of them. One was a great painter from Ohio by the name of Dino, the other was named Bob, a quiet farm boy from the middle of Pennsylvania.
The Art Institute was located about a mile from Duquesne, which was situated on a bluff overlooking downtown Pittsburgh. That mile was quite a haul back and forth, especially carrying a large portfolio and the art supplies you got when you joined AIP: A large wooden drawing board, a T-square and triangle, an 18” metal ruler, and various drawing implements, paints, and inks. I bought a huge black vinyl portfolio and a plastic tool chest to house everything and make it all “easier” to transport. And on Pittsburgh winter days, that mile each way to school and back was an endurance test, through rain, sleet, snow, and wind. Those large portfolios had a mind of their own on windy days, no matter how much you weighed them down with stuff inside.
My first weekend there I took a walk from Duquesne down to the school, just to get my bearings straight for my first day of class the following Monday. Along the way I reached a fork in the road, where Forbes Avenue split off right before Downtown. On this particular Sunday, a rather warm one for early March, a man was set up with a very weird tripod, balancing a drawing board on top of it, sketching the fork in the road and the building that straddled both sides. He was small and had a hard time keeping the tripod/drawing board upright in the wind. I watched him for a little while, never suspecting he would become one of my most memorable teachers at the Art Institute, a man named Henry Koerner.
AIP was located in downtown Pittsburgh in a nine- or ten-story building on Penn Avenue, just west of Heinz Hall, the famous home of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The first floor of the building contained the main entrance and the school’s gallery, bisected by a coffee shop/restaurant called BG (a local chain, if memory serves me right), which was always packed with smoking students drinking cup after cup of coffee (free refills!). You got to your classes on the upper floors either by taking the steps at the back of the gallery or one of the two elevators off the main entrance, both of which still had actual white-gloved elevator operators. There was also an ever-present security guard named Sam Lane, who had an office (really a broom closet) labeled “Sam Lane Department.”
We went to class from around 8:30 AM until 3:30 PM, just like elementary, junior and high school (soon after I graduated, AIP went to two classes per day, with one shift from 8:30-12:30, and another completely different group of students from 1:00-5:00 … I certainly got my money’s worth). There were morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, during which everyone piled into the hallways to sit and smoke (I didn’t, I promise). I had quite a collection of classmates over my two years there, from Ginny and Kay (I had huge crushes on both of them), to Ron and Wren (whose sexual chemistry you could cut with a knife, but both had significant others elsewhere), to Don and Denise, who looked like they stepped out of an IZOD catalog photo shoot (they eventually married). There was a crazy guy named Steve, who painted like he was possessed and spoke some kind of language all his own, when he showed up for classes. There was Earl, whose design work was based entirely on the little shapes template he bought at the art store. There was Darlene, a late addition to my class schedule, tall and voluptuous, who would sit and smoke the occasional cigar in the hallway and epitomized the word bombshell. There was Taz, a wired skeleton of a guy, who did the occasional impression of a car, like he was still a gearhead back in high school. I had a separate set of dining friends who I ate with at Duquesne: Kim and Dave, who lived across the hall from me. Kim was really into action movies and spent all his time doing photo-realistic paintings of his heroes Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. Dave was a short, intense blonde who had a girlfriend named Sharon who looked like his twin sister. She had a page-boy haircut and big black-framed glasses and I had a huge crush on her, too. At one point, she told me I was her “back-up plan” for Dave. Sharon had a friend who was cute and quiet and once asked me “Do you CUT your hair like that?” since my battle with male-pattern baldness was in full swing and my Beatles bangs were getting pretty sparse. That unnamed friend also ate like there was no tomorrow, not so much in volume but in speed. Someone once told her to slow down at the dinner table, and she replied that she had eight brothers and sisters and at home, if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat.
But the teachers were an even bigger bunch of characters. A lot of them were older men who had worked in various graphic design positions in Pittsburgh throughout the years, doing creative—and not-so creative—jobs such as merchandise art for newspaper ads, airbrushing, design and mechanicals (paste-up of ads and editorial material) and photography. The Visual Communications curriculum was such that we got a little bit of everything over the two-year program, including drawing and painting, cartooning, illustration, package design, and portfolio preparation classes. Here is, to the best of my recollection, a list of some of the more memorable teachers I had at AIP from 1974-76. None of the names have been changed to protect the innocent, so if you’re still alive and reading this, dear teachers, you have my abject apologies.
John Johns was a 1940 graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the school’s president from 1970 to 1982. He was a bit of a Pittsburgh legend, regularly contributing covers to the Pittsburgh Press’s weekly TV Graphic magazine. In fact, he was a staff artist at the newspaper and he also made one contribution to MAD magazine in 1970 (all this info comes from artist/caricaturist Drew Friedman’s excellent blog post on Johns … click here to read it). He was also a huge friend to the Pittsburgh Comix Club and drew caricatures of all the current members present at Pittcon in 1979 … including the guests, like Len Wein, Marie Severin, and Jim Shooter. That’s a self-caricature of Johns up top, alongside a sullen-looking 24-year-old that he also drew. Johns had a system for caricature he taught to students, to help them earn extra money by appearing at parties and events. Sadly, I didn’t know that existed while I was at AIP.
Bob Sallows was the cartooning teacher I met when I first visited the school. Easygoing and avuncular, I seem to recall him being out for a good portion of my first quarter due to a heart attack or some other medical thing. I remember he told me that one of his students had just gotten a job with Marvel Comics and had his first story coming out soon. That person turned out to be Paul Gulacy, whose first Marvel job was on Morbius the Vampire, a character from Amazing Spider-Man who got his own feature in Adventures into Fear. Gulacy went on to become one of my favorite comics artists, especially with his work on Master of Kung Fu with writer Doug Moench (MoKF is the basis for the upcoming Marvel movie Shang Chi.) Sallows’s brand of cartooning was far removed from comic book art, and consisted mainly of cute cartoon characters. I believe he was famous for doing one of those illustrated cartoon maps of Pittsburgh. He also taught basic animation techniques. One of the projects I worked on in his class revolved around redesigning classic children’s literature characters. I picked the Wizard of Oz (shown above). Sallows was amazed when I colored photostats of my original art with Dr. Martin’s Dyes, a liquid watercolor known for its intensity and used to color comic books. I used Q-Tips to apply the dyes on the slippery stats (I guess they were cheaper than sable watercolor brushes). I got an A on that one!
Helen Webster was a hippie-esque lettering teacher, not much older than her students. She was very effusive and animated and gave us great assignments. For one of them, I created a portrait of W.C. Fields wearing a top hat (from the 1935 movie David Copperfield) and hand-lettered a quote from Fields on the hat. She loved it and told me she appreciated how much I got into it, but it would have been much better if the lettering matched the curvature of the hat. She was right.
Mr. Edmunds (I don’t recall his first name) was a painting teacher who taught egg tempera and oils. I never quite mastered this particular—or any—form of painting, but Edmunds was a master, producing photo-realistic paintings of objects. His passion was sailing ships and he had this huge painting he was forever working on that involved a commercial ship that you could book to sail around the world with a crew. The painting was a poster for the company and had all these tiny flags around the edges, each a port-of-call for the ship. He wanted so badly for them to use this as their advertising poster, so he could sail around the world as payment. He allowed us to bring records into his class to play while we painted, and I made the mistake one day of bringing in Billy Joel’s first big album, Piano Man, which got me soundly booed out of the record rotation. I redeemed myself later with The Who’s Quadrophenia.
One day, Mr. Edmunds showed up with his face all bandaged and a student asked what had happened. It seemed he lived above a strip club bar and spent his evenings downstairs. “I defended one of the young lady’s honor,” he replied to the student’s question and calmly took a drag off his ever-present cigarette. I don’t think Mr. Edmunds ever sailed around the world on his poster.
Ann Hernstrom was probably the one teacher who had the most influence on me. She was a drawing and painting teacher, but she had us keep a sketchbook that we had to both draw and write in. I think she was a tad voyeuristic to be honest, but I enjoyed playing to her audience because I had such a huge crush on her (HEY! I was a horny teenager, okay?), and she showed me a lot of attention. She inspired in me a love of journaling, that—I suppose—continues to this day with this blog that you’re reading right now. The above spread shows a drawing of Maria Muldaur, a favorite singer of mine at the time, and some absolutely mindless writing on the left, undoubtedly calculated to impress Ms. Hernstrom with my worldly intelligence. Below are some of my sketchbook journal grades from her … I like to think I made a dent in her smart, quiet demeanor.
Flavia Zortea was a much-beloved drawing and painting teacher who I never quite got. I was not a part of the cult of personality that seemed to follow her around the building. She once gave us an abstract painting assignment, at which I failed miserably. I did some kind of green-tinged science fiction background looking thing. She took one look at it and said “This is not a painting you would do, it’s not you.” I asked her what my name was and she couldn’t answer me, so I asked how did she know it wasn’t me. But she was right. It wasn’t me. And I hated the fact that she knew it.
Tom Helwig taught merchandising art, still a valid thing in the world of 1970s art school, long before Apple computers and Photoshop. The art of merchandising involved rendering everyday objects, such as blenders, pots and pans, and appliances in ink wash for reproduction in newspaper ads. It also included marker renderings in color and black and white. Helwig was an old-school artist who worked for years in this specialized field, and used to like to tell us how black with soot Pittsburgh was during World War II, when you’d have to bring a spare white shirt to work to change into mid-day from all the steel production for the war effort. I liked his class and took pretty well to the rendering style. Years later, after I graduated, I did a series of marker renderings for a job interview at an ad agency. They gave me oddly specific instructions: A person skiing, a sports car, a fashion model. I did them all within a couple of days and went back for a second interview, was told they were great, and was asked “Could we just hang on to them for a few days to show around and we’ll call you back.” They never called and I never saw the art again, even though I called numerous times and tried to get it back. Mr. Helwig taught me how to do the marker renderings, but he didn’t teach me how unscrupulous some agencies could be.
Kyle Rislow was an Oscar Wilde-looking guy who was also a drawing and painting teacher and who had all the girls (and, I’m sure, some of the guys) swooning. He came from the Ringling College of Art in Florida and had a bit of a Southern twang to his voice, a Prince Valiant haircut, and always wore black clothes and skinny ties. He once had our class draw a paper bag in heavy shadow and told me that I drew like I never made love to a woman. He was right, too, at least at that point in my life, but how he knew that by how I drew that scrunched-up paper bag is beyond me. (I think he and Ms. Hernstrom might have been showing each other their etchings, to borrow an old and tired pick-up line.)
Thomas Kouris was this wiry little guy who taught figure drawing. The most annoying thing about him was his grading system. He would give out grades like B Plus Minus, which was not quite good enough to be a B Plus but just a little bit better than a B. He insisted we start each figure drawing (from a live model) by lightly sketching in the shape and form of the head and body, and by using our pencil as a measuring tool to gauge the distance between head, torso, legs, etc. He gave us extra credit if we added other sketches we did on our own to our pages. Once I knocked out a quick head shot and when asked I told him it was something I just did and got back “NO, NO, NO, you don’t just draw from memory, you have to draw from a model!” And when I said, well, he does look like my dad, that was fine and I got a higher grade. Kouris was known for sketching the people around him on his trolley rides to and from class each day, sometimes giving his fellow commuters the actual sketches. He was 180 degrees in his teaching technique from Henry Koerner.
Henry Koerner was the most famous teacher at AIP and the person I saw drawing on Forbes Avenue while wrestling his tripod and board on my first weekend in Pittsburgh. Koerner had an amazing life, leaving Vienna ahead of the Nazis and losing his entire family in the concentration camps during WWII. He went on to become a portrait artist for TIME magazine and painted numerous covers from 1955 to 1967. He taught at AIP from the 1960s through the 1980s. Almost never without his beloved chihuahua, Piglet, Koerner was also a master of the swear word. One time a young student complained about his constant swearing in class to the director of education and Koerner came into class one day and launched into an apology, never mentioning the young woman’s name. Unfortunately that apology was just a springboard for an obscenity-laced rant that basically said he didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought of him, and propelled the young woman from the room sobbing loudly, never to return to his class (and if memory serves me right, the school itself). Koerner had a bad habit of not knowing anyone’s name, but he called every woman “Sweetie Pussy.” It’s fair to assume he wouldn’t last a week as a teacher today, despite his name as a famous artist.
Koerner’s way of teaching was counter-intuitive. He did not believe in sketching in the form first and then adding and detailing the drawing on top of that, ala Kouris … if he saw you do that, he’d have you stop, throw away the art and start over. His way was to start with the eye, IN INK, and draw that eye completely, fully rendered, down to the eyelashes, and then move on to the other eye and then the nose, etc. His class was an all-day one, once a week for an entire quarter, and in the morning we had a nude model (he had a thing for large, busty, black women). We would draw the model on the page without a background and then after lunch go out into the world and add the background image (like the artists are doing in the photo at the top of this post, from the cover of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh book; photo from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), at places like the Sixth Street Bridge, or by the gas works on North Side, or the old train station on the South Side. My favorite was Market Square, at the time, a run-down piece of downtown Pittsburgh that contained a Pennsylvania State Liquor Store and attracted—shall we say—a certain “clientele” around it, waiting for some opportunity to go in and get a bottle of cheap wine or whisky. They would watch us finish our drawings of the nude models from the morning and say, “When was SHE here?” and Koerner would say in his quiet German accent, “Oh, she vas here this morning, you just mist her.”
In the end, Koerner’s way of teaching was his way of making us learn how to observe better. By concentrating on detailed drawing instead of sketching, we learned to look more closely at the subjects we were drawing and our skills became more observational. I preferred Koerner’s way to Kouris’s.
One day, Koerner came to school without Piglet, and a class member asked him, “Where’s Piglet?” And he said in a very sad voice, “Oh. We went to the park the other day, and Piglet became another dog’s lunch.” The photo above shows Koerner with one of his classes on a downtown Pittsburgh bridge and Piglet is in the basket on the rear of Koerner’s ever-present bike, his main mode of transportation around town. That photo was taken in the 1980s and I had Koerner as a teacher in the 1970s, so my guess is that Piglet didn’t die … or he did and Koerner got a new chihuahua and named him Piglet, too. Either way, that little dog was one mean son of a bitch. Koerner died on a trip back to his native Austria in 1991. He was hit by a car while riding his bike by a hit-and-run driver. He never recovered from his injuries and died in hospital.
The Art Institute of Pittsburgh eventually outgrew it’s Penn Avenue location and moved elsewhere. An independent school founded by area artist Willis Shook in the early 1920s. In the 2000s, it was sold to a large firm that managed various similar schools around the country. That company went into federal receivership in 2019 and AIP closed. Over 55,000 artists of all walks of life graduated from the school. I’m proud to be one of them. My two years at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh were among the most formative of my life. It got me out of my small town and into a mid-sized city and had me experience things I never would have if I stayed at home. It showed me the way to my eventual career path. After I graduated AIP, I tried to stay in Pittsburgh, but I couldn’t find a job at first. I ended up moving back to Tamaqua where I became Art Director of a weekly newspaper, The Tamaqua Paper, for a little over two years. After that, I tried Pittsburgh again in 1980 and ended up as a graphic designer at KDKA-TV for over 18 years. But that’s a story for another time. I treasure my art school years and can’t imagine my life without them. I still have that battered sketchbook from Ms. Hernstrom’s class, and while it’s a bit cringe-worthy at times, I’m glad I have it. It’s an artifact from a significant part of my life, a time-worn relic from long ago and far away.
If you’re interested in the history of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, there is a book from Arcadia Publishing called (duh) The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It’s one of those black-and-white photo and caption-filled tomes that Arcadia publishes based on local history, this one part of their “Campus History Series.” It’s available on Amazon or ArcadiaPublishing.com. Some of the photos above were taken from this book.