Honorary Doctorate Recipient: Chuck Pyle
Self-portrait courtesy of Chuck Pyle..
Witty and articulate, it’s hard to imagine Chuck Pyle, director of the School of Illustration at Academy of Art University, ever being a painfully shy child. But that’s how Pyle described himself in a video that paid tribute to his impressive career when he received an honorary doctorate on May 10. After accepting his degree from Academy President Dr. Elisa Stephens at the morning M.F.A. Spring 2017 Commencement ceremony, Pyle—who said his love of coloring and the praise he received for it helped him come out of his shell—gave an eloquent speech infused with passion for teaching and the Academy.
“Today, after 40 years of working, and to my utter amazement, I have been granted a doctorate for my contributions as an illustrator, teacher and department director at this university,” Pyle told the audience. “I am honored and deeply, deeply humbled.”
Pyle’s long history with the university dates back to 1972 when he enrolled in what was then Academy of Art College as a student. “I wanted to be a political cartoonist and bring down Richard Nixon,” he said. “But Barbara Bradley (former legendary teacher and long-time director of the illustration program) told me to try illustration instead.”
Pyle joked that Bradley didn’t speak to him again for two years. When she finally did, she didn’t gush over his work as he’d hoped she would. “Looks like an alligator bit him,” Bradley quipped, pointing to the sleeve folds he’d painstakingly drawn in his subject’s elbow.
“It was incredibly embarrassing, but it meant she knew I was alive and it made me up my game substantially,” said Pyle.
Thanks to the training and encouragement he received from Bradley and other Academy instructors, he was confident he had what it took to succeed as a professional illustrator when he graduated in 1976. He did. Soon, Pyle’s realistic style and storytelling ability—inspired by the likes of Norman Rockwell, NC Wyeth and others—landed him steady freelance work. Early on in his career, he also returned to the Academy to teach, once again training under Bradley.
Over the years, Pyle’s illustrations and cartoons have been featured in numerous prestigious publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, Politico, Atlantic Monthly and The Boston Globe. He’s also done work for corporations such as AT&T and United Airlines. And his paintings have been widely exhibited and can be found in private and institutional collections.
Honorary doctorate recipient Chuck Pyle and Dr. Elisa Stephens. Photo by Bob Toy.
Among the career highlights Pyle cherishes, he cited illustrating a cover for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. And after almost turning down an offer to provide the paper with illustrations similar to those in “Dick and Jane” reading primers, he said accepting that work “made me delighted beyond words.” He called the opportunity to create a series of dark covers for Hard Case Crime pulp fiction novels a “wonderful release” from assignments that required him to mimic wholesome Norman Rockwell.
Pyle was also thrilled when he got a call in 2015 informing him he’d won the Society of Illustrators’ Distinguished Educator in the Arts award. “It was a darn good thing I was sitting on the floor of my studio, because I could have fallen down and injured myself,” he remarked.
Being asked by Dr. Elisa Stephens to accept the position of director of the School of Illustration, a role he’s held for the past 13 and a half years, was another pivotal moment in his career. Reflecting on what it meant to him to be honored for his contributions to the Academy, Pyle said he believes it is a by-product of simply doing the work in front of him.
“It’s a validation of the effort, care and concern of doing the work, and holding yourself accountable for that work,” he explained. “And as a teacher, holding others accountable for what they’re doing, and working like crazy to ignite that fire in them, so that everyone who comes here has the potential to be stellar at what they do.”
The theme of helping to light a spark in each student, then stepping back once it becomes a flame, permeated his speech. As a teacher and department director, he takes that responsibility very seriously. But he also enjoys the process and seeing the different ways a spark can turn into a flame in different students.
“Sometimes, it’s as if you flip a switch and everything just clicks,” he said. “Other times, you try to help little bits of light burn toward each other until they become one unified flame.”
Toward the end of his speech, Pyle reiterated his pride in being an Academy alum, illustrator and director of the School of Illustration. “I am though, much prouder of the paths taken by our alums as they forge new careers, often in industries barely in existence but a few years ago,” he said. “Many have already topped any of my achievements in their younger years, and it makes me so happy to be a witness.”