The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts supports embedded arts research through critical exchange

COLUMN: Portrait of the Art Institute

Located along an idyllic, tree-lined lane in Westlake Village, the California Art Institute occupies a single, unassuming building, and judging from its modest outer appearance, you might never guess the myriad works of art and staggering talent housed inside. For 28 years, the Institute has weathered changes in location, changes in ownership and the ups and downs of the economy, and come out thriving. Offering classes in illustration, painting, drawing, sculpture and animation, the Institute has earned a glowing reputation among art appreciators, instructors and students.


With approximately 300 students taught by 19 working professionals, the California Art Institute (which is not affiliated with nearby Cal Arts in Santa Clarita) is home to an impressive gallery of more than 200 works of art. It was established in 1983 by famed artist Fred Fixler, who illustrated for the likes of MGM, Coca Cola and Continental Airlines. Buddy Shuman, who has served as owner and director since 1989, explains that the Institute operates on the philosophy that “art is learned, rather than a talent one is born with.” In that vein, the Institute seeks to “teach the basics of drawing and painting techniques,” which will provide a solid foundation for the student.


Sean Cohen is a recent college graduate who has been practicing drawing for four years; he’s been at the Institute for little more than a year, and he reports he has seen a “vast” improvement in his art in a short amount of time. “I feel more confident [drawing] the figure and the head; it actually looks like the person, and that’s always a good thing,” he jokes. Since coming to the Institute, he feels he has more tools in his tool belt.


Cohen, who intends to use his skills to create a comic book, explains that he chose this school because of its adherence to the basics of drawing. “Compared to other schools, I really like how they stick with the basics and fundamentals. I think now a lot of art schools don’t look at the fundamentals and only look at expression.”


Instructor Tim Gula, who has illustrated for comics such as Batman, Spiderman and Judge Dredd and cartoons, including The Smurfs, has been teaching at the Institute for five years, specializing in “quick sketch” and gesture drawings, which emphasize bodies in action and activity. He echoes Cohen’s praise of the school, describing the Institute as “disciplined” and “unpretentious” and the students as “genuine” and “committed to development.” He adds that the school is a diamond in the rough. “Really highly trained teachers and good classes can be found here; you’d never guess by just its humble appearance, but you come inside and meet the instructors and you’re in for a big surprise — a pleasant one.”


Gula is right; the list of instructors is impressive, as are some of the students who have graduated from the Institute. One name that certainly stands out is teacher Glen Orbik, whom Shuman calls an “instructor’s instructor.” Orbik, who is a protégé of Fixler, is an established American artist whose illustrations have been featured as paperback cover art and in DC and Marvel comics. Early on, Orbik also was a student at the Institute.


George Paliotto is another notable teacher and painter, recently named a finalist in the 2011 American Impressionist Society National Show. Fellow painter and teacher Johanna Spinks is a recipient of the Daler Rowney Award for Painting Excellence and her work has been featured in The New York Times. These are just a few of the Institute’s esteemed professionals.


Among the Institute’s graduates, Shuman highlights Morgan Weistling as a great success. His work is consistently shown in galleries and featured in magazines, and he is the recipient of many awards, including Autry National Heritage Museum’s Patron’s Choice Award in 2010 and 2011. There’s also Greg Pro, who is wildly succesful in his creation of movie, commercial and theme-park artwork; he currently works for Disney Imagineering. Jeremy Litking, another graduate of the Institute, has gone on to show his work in notable galleries across the country. Shuman reports Litking sells his paintings to collectors for upward of $60,000.


Many current students at the Institute aspire to reach the artistic heights of role models such as Orbik, Pro, Paliotto, Spinks, Weistling and Litking; the Institute is home to serious students, dedicated to their craft and taking multiple classes a week. There are also a host of recreational students who take a single class and love every minute of it. Students range in age from 12 to 70, but they are all like-minded in their passion for art.


The Institute is one of Ventura County’s treasures, going strong for nearly 30 years. In addition to its work of producing great artists and art, the Institute also gives back to the community by offering seven annual scholarships and hosting art demonstrations at high schools and community centers throughout the year.


Published in Ventura County Reporter. 

Posted in: News