Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Finalist Spotlight: Andrew Kuhar

Andrew (right) stands next to his art at the AICUO Awards reception
with former president of The Cleveland Institute of Art, David Deming.

Last year’s contestant, Andrew Kuhar, was an obvious choice for the AICUO Art Awards finalists group. As a senior in the Cleveland Institute of Art’s T.I.M.E. (Technology Integrated Media Environment) program, Andrew caught the judges’ eyes with his stunning and practical designs, which included game designs, posters, and 3-D modeling. His professional experiences in college led him to a current position at software developing company, Sideways, in Cleveland, Ohio.

I recently had the pleasure to ask Andrew some questions via email to see what he’s been up to, and his answers sure were impressive! Read below to see how his hard work and inspiration led him through the finals of the 2010 AICUO Art Award and onto the path of a promising career.

What made you choose art as your field of study?
I didn't really know it at the time, but there was a very subtle difference between what I truly enjoyed about art and the kinds of art that satisfied it. They were forms of expression that were more familiar to me: music, drawing, story-telling, etc.

Originally I thought I was going to be a draftsman or an illustrator because I was really drawn in by cartoons, comic books, and illustrated novels. Then again, I used to build train tracks with toy models as a toddler, so maybe I would've built railroads if super-heroes in print hadn't saved me from that bizarre fate.

Somehow that all cascaded down and fed my obsession with computer games growing up. I noticed some deep roots shared between my adolescent art practices and games when they began telling stories that were meaningful to me, or provided experiences I could share with people who were already meaningful to me. I knew that I really wanted to share my own stories and experiences through such an engaging and layered medium. I just had no idea how.

So, I picked a starting point (my drawing skills) and went to The Cleveland Institute of Art to better hone them. I figured I had a lot to learn about art and design in general in order to get really good at communicating with aesthetics more broadly, and that I'd learn to specify the end result over time. This goes for any medium too, not just game development, but painting, performance art and even sound pieces. It's a very liberating and fulfilling thought to have, and any opportunity to pursue it professionally is what drove me to stick with art all this time.

What advice would you give student artists about pursuing a career in the arts?

I highly recommend students to embrace collaboration and reach out to other artists and individuals. It broadens your knowledge and enriches your process. I have had a lot of unexpected opportunities in my field, even as a writer for instance, come up because I learned to reach out and keep a pulse on games seriously as both an industry and a medium. It's a useful habit to develop.

Every artist has their habits, but sometimes this gets confused with having an authentic “style”. If I could offer one critical piece of advice, I'd say that artists shouldn't force themselves to change what they're interested in contextually, but they should try to explore different ways of investigating and communicating those interests. Style only projects each individual message better or worse, and remaining patient for the best of them to present themselves often pays off.

It's important to build a foundation of concept and thought, and to pave the road to them with your aesthetics - not the other way around. This is where many college art programs eventually steer you towards, and learning to work with it will make your college career more playful, and your work much more mature and interesting.

Do your own thing, but remember that you don't always have to do it alone. This, in and of itself, is how I've better defined myself as an artist: by the people I work with.

Name one or more positive experiences that stick out in your mind from your time at CIA.

It was a particularly exciting and rewarding experience to present a game project I contributed on to developers at Electronic Arts. Being able to stand with your colleagues and friends and be proud of the work you accomplished together, and to have that recognized by leaders in your field, is not something you get to experience in every college career.

Witnessing someone playing a game you made, and “getting it” is probably the top of the list for me. When working on my thesis, Bloomed., I often found myself being very stressed out by the workload I set for myself, and I also became a little depressed when my prototypes weren't conveying the ideas or emotions I was intending. Bloomed. was a game about being ephemeral and how games, which are very persistent and re-creatable experiences, can try to explore this feeling with tools they already have available to them.

When I finally finished the project and had it installed at the institute during the BFA Exhibit Week, I'd check up on the game to make sure it was still running and that none of the hardware was tampered with or damaged. On one occasion, I walked in on someone that I never met playing the game. They had a very positive experience with Bloomed., and really understood and appreciated what I was trying to do with it. Even with all the flaws I knew it had to improve on, being able to share the spirit of my idea when I was both present and not present, and then hold a meaningful conversation with a person about it, was nothing short of incredible.

What went through your mind when you realized you had been selected as one of CIA’s nominees for the AICUO Award?

I was very surprised, but most of all I felt very honored. As a student, there are a lot of things to aim for and actively seek out. So, when I was actually approached by my mentors with this opportunity, it gave me a very warm feeling. The more I looked into the history of the AICUO Award, the more this feeling increased over time.

Being so busy with thesis work, it was difficult to take on another sizable responsibility with participating in everything that comes with the AICUO Award process, but it was certainly worth it.

What unexpected benefits did you gain from participating in the AICUO Award?

This is somewhat of a personal gain, but I found great benefits in forcing myself to sit down and write out all those artist statements for the work we had to submit! I had such a healthy distance from the projects I included in my portfolio, most of which were from the past year, that it was nice to reflect on how to describe these projects accurately, yet economically as a writing exercise.

Believe it or not, communicating ideas about your work, as much as the work communicates its own ideas, becomes a meaningful part of any artist’s career sooner or later. Going through the awards process reminded me of that.

How has your participation in the AICUO Award affected your post-college career?

I'd say it built my confidence--probably when I needed it most too. Like many artists might express, we're all very self-conscious of our own work. As time goes on without outside input or feedback, that sentiment has the potential to grow exponentially. You know, “This could blow up in my face any minute, and I'm pouring over every detail, but... for what?”

That always feels like a dangerous question to ask yourself during the creative process, the second-guessing, but it's very real and worth answering. You can only do so much of that on your own before you need a thumbs up/down from someone else. To have a group of people very much outside of the college environment I was a part of recognize what I was doing as significant, besides my strictly academic concerns, was hugely gratifying.

As an artist my main concern is whether or not the work moves anybody. So, to have that touched on in a positive way was a push I needed at the time to restore some motivation, which keeps me doing the work I am now. It's a quiet result of the experience, but it does ripple down to my present situation.

Have you made any useful connections from participating in the competition?

It was helpful to meet unfamiliar artists, to see their work and hear them talk about it. It helps culture you as an artist and a person, socially and creatively. So from that perspective it was useful, absolutely.

What are you doing now? Where are you working? Do you like it there?

Currently, I'm a designer at Sideways--we develop applications for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and now iPad in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. I'm responsible for a variety of design-oriented tasks, but lately I've been doing a lot of user-interface design and sound engineering. Aside from that, I've also gotten the chance to do some writing and article/layout design. This past summer, I was interning there as a game designer and artist on a temporary project which led to being offered the full-time position I have now.

There's something to really appreciate about the environment of a startup company because you get to deal with a lot of creative responsibilities right away. On top of that, the communication between my colleagues and me feels very natural and approachable. They quickly made me feel welcomed, so while the workload is often heavy, having good-natured people to work through it with makes the tougher days not only tolerable, but also enjoyable.

Are you happy with the major you chose, and how effective was it in helping you pursue your career goals?

I'm very glad I chose to join the T.I.M.E. (Technology Integrated Media Environment) department at CIA. Opposite of landing me a specific job by doing specific things leading up to it, T.I.M.E. provided the space and tools to explore a lot of creative ventures in the digital space, and that led to me finding opportunity in a number of professional environments relative to my studies. If anything, my major choice showed how many options you can really make for yourself, which takes patience but is truly an ideal situation to be in for finding your career.

The best part of the whole experience in T.I.M.E. was the time spent in our studio with my peers and friends. Beyond the social climate being infectious, they were an incredibly constructive and intelligent group of people to work around. Having people with valued opinions and suggestions on hand beside or behind you at any given moment is truly invaluable. I'll never forget how supportive my studio mates were to each other and to me.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your experience that you haven’t mentioned yet?

Yes, the visit to the Denison University campus for the awards reception was a real treat. The entire place looked and felt incredible to be around. I'd never been there before, but I certainly would love to visit again someday. Maybe it was being in a very new place, but I felt genuinely inspired after the trip. I'll let the campus and the other finalists share the credit on that one.

Check out these links to see more of Andrew’s work:

Portfolio: http://andrewkuhar.com

Personal Design Blog: http://digitalchemy.wordpress.com

Podcast: http://thescaperoute.wordpress.com/category/the-modcast/

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