Correspondence Course Creativity

"Draw Me," squeaks the severed head. You're flipping through the TV Guide, or Seventeen magazine, or lying on a couch in the living room, staring through a fever at the TV screen. Tippy the Turtle, Cubby the Bear, or Pudgy the Pig is winking at you.It's a personal invitation. Give it a try. You could be a famous artist! Or maybe you'll win an art scholarship. Just sketch that disembodied, smiling head. It's fun and easy. When you mail in your masterpiece, you'll see a Minnesota address. Tippy's a Twin Citian!Tippy and his beheaded brethren have been familiar figures since the Bureau of Engraving opened the Art Instruction Schools in 1914. The school was founded to train designers for the Bureau, which needed line art for advertising and labels. Today, the cinderblock fortress in Northeast Minneapolis employs people dressed in white lab coats and safety glasses, who make bar codes and computer parts, while the small art school it spawned camps in the belly of the corporate beast.For a couple thousand bucks, anyone with a modicum of skill can follow in the footsteps of the school's most-famous alumni, Charles Schulz. The Peanuts creator enrolled as a student of the correspondence-only program, before being hired as an instructor at the school, which was located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourth Street in downtown Minneapolis. Schulz based several of his Peanuts characters on people from the Art Instruction Schools office. Charlie Brown was an instructor, as was Linus."There was this woman in the office named Frieda, and she had naturally curly hair, made quite a fuss about it, always petting it and talking about it," says Ken Kobliska, an instructor, whose sweet old voice could be Tippy's. "Well, she got a postcard from [Schulz] telling her to look for a surprise, and then one day there she was, in the strip. Oh, but she was thrilled! He dropped the character after a while, you know. He just couldn't think of anything else to make her say."Kobliska, who plans to retire next year, has been an instructor with the school since the 1950s. By the time he had been hired, Schulz had sold his strip and had stopped working as an instructor. Schulz maintained a studio in the building, however, and was a well-liked presence in the office."In the old days, people would quite often get to work early and have breakfast together, and he would join us. We went to the old 424 Cafeteria or the Little Wagon on the corner. Those were really fun times."Kobliska remembers a busy office with 27 full-time art instructors. Now, the school has just five, and two part-time instructors who work from home. A student enrolled in the program might work with all of them; while the school bills its program as "one-on-one training," assignments end up in random piles and instructors pushing to meet quotas spend less than 10 minutes with each student's assignment.The system has changed little over the years. The instructors are white men, and the secretaries, who sort the assignments, are women. The school seems to have exchanged the high-spirited, fun days Kobliska remembers for a corporate presence that is paranoid about its image. While the school can (and does) boast of Schulz, that was 40 years ago. More recently, the Draw Me heads have been spoofed in comic strips and the target of jokes on the Tonight Show.Mitch Hine, head instructor, has been with the school for seven years. He is a cartoonist and watercolorist whose work has been shown in Seattle and at the now-closed Fat Cat Gallery in Minneapolis."I was single and pissed off and needed a change, and came up here without any job lined up," Hine says. "I found this listing at the state job office, applied, and was hired just like that. Later, I went back to my hotel room and called to make sure they really meant it = I just couldn't believe it had happened that way," he says. "It's nearly impossible for an artist to make a living without going to an animation studio, so this is great."Hine takes student assignments and draws corrections over them on tissue overlays. At the end of the day, he is not only tired of drawing, but of drawing the same thing. "I have to keep telling myself that for the students, each lesson is a first time, even though for me, it's the thousandth time."Students have a rigid set of assignments, copying a collection of outdated, mostly corny drawings of Victorian houses, tropical scenes, simpering animals wearing clothing, cute hobos, a "big city policeman" and a "sexy movie star." Creativity is discouraged. "If the assignment was the big city policeman or the sexy movie star and the student drew Daffy Duck, we just couldn't accept it," Hine says. "But most people copy things when they start out drawing, so they like to have us provide them with the ideas." With a few notable exceptions."I got this letter from a high-school kid in California who went on and on about how this wasn't 'real art,' and how the program doesn't allow for freedom of expression," says Roger Luteyn, the school's newest instructor. "But if he wants that then he should sign up for a college class. We're not here to define real art. We're just teaching people how to draw. It's a very basic course that gives you start-up skills and some direction and that's exactly what a lot of people want."Luteyn, a political cartoonist and artist whose work has appeared in comic books, zines and local newspapers (including the Reader), describes himself as "a doodle monkey, you know = the skinny kid who always stayed home and drew." He says working for Tippy is an "artist's dream day job.""Last fall I was living in a warehouse with five people. I was unemployed and watching TV, and the Draw Me commercial came on at about 3 in the morning. It's such an amazing piece of pop culture, one of those things you see all your life. So I called and got the test, took it, but never sent it in. Then I heard about an opening, and now I work here," he says. "After being the proverbial starving artist, it's nice having a job where I am treated with respect and can utilize my talents. I'm in the union, I have health insurance and I going to get my teeth cleaned for the first time in years."Luteyn describes his students as "people with a lot of time on their hands, grandparents, kids. Pretty much everyone who takes the test gets in, although they do weed out the ones that really stink. If you have a pulse, you can take that test."I came across one guy who seemed a bit beyond the course, he just had an amazing, really great style. I went on and on in my comments, told him it was wonderful work," Luteyn says. "Periodically, the student will write you. We get some really sweet letters from kids. Like, 'That was so fun drawing the puppy! I'm sorry it's late, but I went to the Grand Canyon with my family.'"Luteyn, too, wearies of seeing the same drawings again and again. "I'll get to work and say to myself, 'Oh, the cartoon golfer again. And the angle's off.' Everyone makes the same mistakes, and the drawings are just so outdated and cheesy. But a lot of people still love that stuff. They open their kit and say, 'Ohhhh, how adorable!' But they are probably the kind of people who think Cathy is funny."As is the nature of a true artist, the instructors live for the time when they can do their own work. Luteyn works a four-day week so he can have more time to draw, and Kobliska is anxious to get back to his painting when he retires next year."The executive types think we instructors are all a bit strange. They aren't crazy about our own art, that's for sure. They definitely don't want the stuff we do on our own to be associated with the school," Luteyn says. "One of the instructors is an amazing, brilliant artist. But they would die if they saw his work. They probably couldn't handle it. They don't want to see it. There's a 'don't ask-don't tell' policy about our work."Until they syndicate a comic strip, that is.


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