For the first half of June, the University of Alaska Fairbanks art department is abuzz with pre-teens and teens finding new ways to express their creativity.

The Visual Art Academy has been teaching students fashion design, painting, ceramics, metalsmithing, cartooning, photography, computer art and more for 15 years. Todd Sherman, an artist and dean of the UAF College of Liberal Arts, started the academy after the demise of the long lived UAF Summer Fine Arts Camp. “Its discontinuation left a large void in our community,” he said.

Sherman designed the academy so students would have hands-on experiences creating studio and digital art in the university’s art studios. “They are taught by professional artists,” he said. “I want the students to be safe and feel comfortable making art in a variety of media. This is an intense two weeks of art making.”

Professional cartoonist Jamie Smith is a fixture at the visual art academy. “It’s like boot camp,” he said. “You skip a rock across the surface of the basics. My hope is they get inspired.”

Smith said students who draw every day are bound to improve. “We have some extremely talented individuals,” he said. He teaches character development, materials and technique, and the students learn to create single panels and comic strips. The kids learn to work together on collaborative projects and participate in timed exercises to get the creative juices flowing.

Max Gieser looked up from working on a cartoon to say, “This class is everything comics. It’s really cool.” Attending art camp makes Gieser feel more like an adult. “I’m taken seriously. Sometimes art gets brushed off but here it matters.”

In the metalsmithing class, instructor Patty Carlson said she loves to get people started as young as possible. “If they start pre-high school or in high school, when they come to college they’re so much better prepared.”

Working with metal can be intimidating because of the equipment required, such as torches, hammers and saw blades, but Carlson said the students accomplish a lot during the camp. “They do phenomenal work.”

River Ebbesson has attended the art academy for three summers. “I get to express myself,” she said. Pausing while making a bracelet, she said, “It’s opened my eyes to so much and I get to be around inspirational people.”

Animation instructor Naomi Hutchens said, “It’s interesting to see how the kids can learn complicated computer programs. “Even the 11-year-olds; I can tell them once and they run with it.”

Hutchens said she learns from her students through figuring out how to explain things to them. “Animation is such a slow process,” she said. “You compile the images, then eventually you see the hard work come together. You have to have patience but there’s a large payoff at the end and I really want them to see that patience pays off.”

In the printmaking studio, Hollin Priday keeps returning to the camp because she can make art that she can’t make at home. “The instructors are so skilled. We are able to get better at various art forms. This camp exposes teens to art forms they might not be aware of and inspires us to make art we wouldn’t have made before.”

Ceramics instructor Sara Hensel said this particular age group is crucial to reach. “Their critical voice is setting in and keeping their hands in clay is powerful.”

Hensel loves seeing the students learn coordination during the two weeks. “This is like art school. We open the fire house on them and they produce more in two weeks than college students do in a semester.”

Student Hanna Rose Mason enjoys taking classes she’s never tried before. She’s studied ceramics, metalsmithing, painting and fashion design. “I’m branching out and having fun,” she said. “We have the opportunity to learn different types of disciplines in one camp and we have quality teachers. It’s opened my eyes in a big way.”

Sherman is especially proud of the art academy’s teachers. “We are very fortunate to have instructors who include UAF art faculty, recent art degree graduates and current advanced art students. They all are doing professional work in their respective fields.” Two summers ago, former UAF art student Eddie Rosas, who was an assistant director and storyboard artist for “The Simpsons,” taught animation. “Our instructors are accomplished artists and teachers,” Sherman said.

He added that the responses he gets from students and their parents are overwhelmingly positive. “We have had students continue on in their artistic studies into UAF’s art program as well as into other art schools nationally,” he said. “Students have used the skills they learned here to open doors for possible job opportunities. Several of Jamie Smith’s students have gone on to publish their artwork in graphic novels and online comic websites.”

The camp culminates in an art show held in the UAF art gallery. During that final evening, the room vibrates with excitement as students proudly show off their artwork to loved ones.

“It’s inspiring and exciting to see so much being created in such a short period of time,” Sherman said.

To learn more about the art academy visit

Nancy Tarnai is a freelance writer covering Interior Alaska lifestyles since 1995. She can be contacted a