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Illustrating the Talent of an Extraordinary Teacher

Society of Illustrators Distinguished Educator in the Arts award to be presented to Chuck Pyle this May

Chuck Pyle, director of the School of Illustration at Academy of Art University. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

When Chuck Pyle arrived at Academy of Art in 1972, he had no intention of staying longer than a semester. He was an 18-year-old with big plans: All he needed was a few more techniques for his artist’s arsenal and he’d be off to New York to become a great political cartoonist and bring down President Nixon.

But his New York plans got derailed—permanently—thanks to an instructor named Barbara Bradley. She recognized Pyle’s talent amid a population of some 520 students, and offered him a bit of unsolicited advice: “Try illustration, you might like it.”

Without Bradley, Pyle acknowledges, it’s unlikely he’d have become the longtime Director of the School of Illustration (it was at her urging that he returned to his alma mater to teach in the late 1970s), nor the recipient of the Society of Illustrators Distinguished Educator in the Arts award, announced late March.

 

The award was established nearly 20 years ago to “highlight and honor the extraordinary teachers who have touched our lives” and will be presented to Pyle at a ceremony in New York on May 8.

In his typical droll style, Pyle rattled off a few clichés about the honor. “I’m humbled, shocked and flattered,” but then grew serious, calling it “a validation of the continuous searching for how to better access and train each illustration student.”

Ask Pyle’s current and former students to describe him, and they’ll go on at length about his devotion to teaching and how he has inspired them on a deep level, referring to him as “hilarious,” “self-deprecating,” “nurturing” and “fiercely dedicated.”  

Pyle, who has served as Director of the School of Illustration since 2003, uses the Rubik’s Cube as an analogy for the differences in each student’s way of learning. He emphasizes that he constantly reassesses and reinvents his teaching techniques to make those rows line up to fit with the myriad learning styles he encounters.

On a recent morning in his tranquil teaching studio, Bradley Hall, Pyle gathered students around a renaissance pirate, the day’s model for the Clothed Figure 3 class. As he stood before an easel doing a demo sketch, then moved closer to the model and repositioned two strobe lights, Pyle’s students silently studied his motions. “Pay attention to the shadow shifts, ways to edit the shapes of the drawing,” he lectured.

“Look for new ways of saying things, people,” he advised in a playful, yet parental, tone.

And then he let them get to work, sketching to the soundtrack of jazz pianist Bud Powell playing in the background.

“I don’t want cookie cutter graduates. I want strong individuals who are adapting and have a clear idea of who they are and where they’re going,” he said.

Pyle is warm and accessible to students, engaging with them in the classroom and online through social media. And yet, he also has the dignified air of an old-world professor. He dresses impeccably (even under the artist’s smock he dons when teaching), speaks eloquently and nonchalantly makes cultural references that hint at his intelligence (mindboggling) and age (61).

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One of Pyle’s demos from his clothed figure drawing class. Courtesy of Chuck Pyle.

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Pyle’s illustration on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Courtesy of Chuck Pyle.

Pyle remembers his own carefree student days with striking clarity. He would commute to San Francisco from his parents’ home in Benicia in a 1955 Volkswagen bug, park at the top of Broadway (street parking was free and plentiful back then), and take a cable car down to the school at 625 Sutter Street.

Inevitably, talk about his student days, as well as his early days as an instructor, leads back to Bradley, whom he calls a “goddess.” She was the one who set the tone for everything the School of Illustration aspires to today, he said. When she received the Society of Illustrators Distinguished Educator award in 2007, the year before her death, it was Pyle who wrote a tribute to her. And so it’s fitting that every time Pyle enters the namesake Bradley Hall, he stops to touch the nose on a bronze bust of Bradley that guards the doorway.

Like many artists, Pyle admits that he took up drawing as a child to shield himself from the world. He lost his younger brother to leukemia and, mid-way through high school, was begrudgingly uprooted from his Southern California home during his parents’ job relocations. During the hard times, he busied himself with his caricatures and comic strips, infused with social commentary.

Today, he has a robust professional illustration career, key to maintaining what he calls “street cred.”  He’s represented by Lindgren & Smith in New York, and depending on the client’s need, his work ranges from dreamy, all-American Norman Rockwell-esque scenes to slightly naughty noir images for crime novels.  

But you’re more likely to hear Pyle promoting his students’ successes than his own.  

Valerio Fabbretti (B.F.A. 2014), a concept art intern at Disney Interactive in Los Angeles, gushed about his former instructor.  

“Chuck Pyle has always been and always will be to me more than the genius director of the School of Illustration, more than an incredibly passionate and patient teacher, more than an amazingly talented draftsman and lover of the folds, gestures and lines. He has been to me what Professor Dumbledore is to Harry,” Fabbretti said.

“I’m not even surprised that he’s won such a prestigious award,” said alum Aubrey Williams (B.F.A. 2014).

“He works tirelessly to inspire us, to challenge us and to make sure we have every resource imaginable to be the best that we can be. Like, does he even sleep?”

Williams, who is currently doing illustration for video games, added: “I’m even getting emotional just thinking about it, because if it weren’t for his efforts, I wouldn’t nearly be where I am in my career, he’s just been that influential.”

Over the years Pyle’s students have gone on to successful careers at companies like DC Comics and Pixar, as well as countless publishing firms and game design companies.

“They’re doing better art than I do—that means I’ve totally done my job,” he said.

What’s more, he added: “They’ll pay it forward for the next generation.”

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Illustration by Academy of Art University student Dylan Vermeul.