The author in cap and gown as he graduates from the Art Institute of Portland, with fellow students close behind.

Goodbye, Alma Mater

In 2018, the Art Institute of Portland’s latest owners decided to close its doors. It had operated in some form since 1963.

As an alumnus of the school, a former adjunct professor and an employer of designers, I had mixed feelings about the news. For several reasons and despite the best efforts of many dedicated faculty and staff, I hadn’t recommended the school in some time.

But it would be disingenuous of me to over-analyze what went wrong. The more I’ve reflected on my time there, the more I realize how positive and unusual it really was.

Researching colleges was challenging for me. My parallel interests in art and technology seemed more relevant than ever to the world at large, yet completely at odds with art school curriculums of the time. Admissions staff and department directors at some highly respected schools reacted to my work with bewildered interest at best and complete indifference at worst. The process was discouraging, especially for a kid who already felt out of place and thought college might be different.

Two panels from one of the “infinite canvas” webcomics I made in high school.

The Art Institute was my “Plan B,” and I had reservations about visiting. They had a negative reputation and were spoken of dismissively, even by some of my high school teachers. The student work they promoted was uneven… some of it was great, some of it not so great. They advertised during daytime talk shows.

But I’d exhausted my other options, and my parents insisted. So we went.

Finally, Some Enthusiasm

Immediately, the vibe was different. They’d clearly looked at my portfolio ahead of time. The department heads had discussed it. One of them wanted to meet and convince me that I’d be perfect for their new “Interactive Media Design” program.

I was skeptical. I liked HTML and CSS, but mostly as a vehicle for presenting other things. But this was in the midst of Flash’s ascendance, and the work they showed really blew me away. Interfaces with animation and sound effects! On-screen characters reacting to the mouse cursor! Interactive comics, games and video! Basically everything I loved all at once. It was mind-blowing. I couldn’t wait to start.

They encouraged me to apply for a scholarship. I got one, which meant a lot. It wasn’t just a sales pitch: They believed in me and what I could accomplish there.

Finding My Tribe

The program was unique in that every student was required to learn the design and technical aspects of the work, even if they imagined themselves as primarily a designer or developer. Just as furniture designers study carpentry or graphic designers practice printmaking, we would benefit from an end-to-end knowledge of our craft.

As anyone hiring designer-developers can attest, finding these “unicorns” can be tricky. So even though the program boasted the school’s highest average starting salary for graduates, it also had the lowest enrollment. Students frequently dropped out or changed majors. Of the 20+ students who started the program with me, barely a handful made it to graduation.

Fellow student Matt Lohkamp (right) visits Peter Wooley and I at Stumptown Comics Fest, where we were showing off an independent study project.

But those remaining few who stuck with it had a lot in common. We were the multidisciplinary oddballs, the ones who liked critiquing animation and arguing about web standards. We’d email each other our works in progress; collaborate in open labs between classes; discuss anything and everything over the cheapest pizza we could find.

It’s hard to overstate the impact the people I met at college had on my life. Many became friends. Some became coworkers. Peter got me my first job out of school. Tram introduced me to the woman I’d eventually marry.

A Perfect Convergence of Misfortune

In hindsight I’ve realized that the quality of my instructors had a lot to do with timing: Great timing for me, poor timing for them.

The Art Institutes pride themselves on their staff of adjunct professors that teach part-time while actively working in the field. One benefit of this approach is that instructors are likelier to have up-to-date, real-world knowledge of their subject matter. One drawback is that qualified professionals are harder to hire when their industry is booming.

So while the dot-com crash and ousting of Will Vinton from his own company were devastating to many, their loss was students’ gain as many experienced web designers and animators became available to teach.

One of my student projects, a promotional website for Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and an excuse to blend my interests in web design, games and animation.

Now I’d be lying if I said every instructor was great… some were not. But it truly felt like magic to walk from a typography class taught by a hybrid artist-programmer to a storyboarding class taught by an animator who’d worked on one of my favorite holiday specials.

That environment of cross-pollination made for some of the most fun and creative years of my life. It helped lay the foundation for my career.

Not For Everyone, Not Forever

The open-endedness of the program that benefited me so greatly wasn’t for everyone. The pool of adjunct professors was still too shallow to serve those with more focused interests. And the school’s open admissions policy meant that many students were never discouraged from majors they weren’t suited for, requiring a lot of painful course correction later on.

I returned to the school several times after graduation. I taught some classes, spoke on a couple of panels, recruited at their portfolio shows. I saw some of my favorite instructors become administrators, struggling to improve enrollment without losing what made the program special. I met some incredibly talented students with the same spark my friends and I had, but dealing with challenges I didn’t recognize.

The Interactive Media Design program was renamed, renamed again, bisected into design and development “focuses,” and finally absorbed by the more popular Graphic Design program until the school’s closure.

A Question of Degree

Recently one of our clients at Cloud Four requested education background checks on all of its vendors. My bachelor’s degree was flagged: The Art Institute of Portland no longer existed. They needed more proof.

As my wife and I ransacked our apartment looking for my diploma, I felt a greater sense of loss than when I’d heard the school was closing. My college experience had been so formative, so important to me, and now the only acceptable evidence of it was some 8½ by 11 inch sheet of blackletter type and hasty signatures?

But of course that’s nonsense. Parents will always bemoan their kids’ emphasis on “the college experience” over grades and diplomas, but that cliché exists for a reason. Some of my favorite memories have nothing to do with any assignment: Wandering Portland with a friend between morning and evening classes, running into Will Vinton in a hallway and having him critique my sketchbook, reserving the school’s recording studio under academic pretenses so my requisite college band could use it.

In the end, it was never about the institution or the diploma (which we eventually found). It was about being in the right place at the right time with the right people to learn what kind of professional I wanted to be and what kind of stuff I wanted to make.

I’m forever grateful for the experience, and sad for those searching who’ve yet to find it.