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Alumni Build Businesses in Maryland

MICA's talented, well-educated artists and designers add to the state's economy

Posted 04.01.11 by MICA communications

Cover of John Legend and The Roots' album "Wake Up!" done by Post Typography

Though Ethel Kessler '71 and Bruce Willen '02 went into business for themselves more than 25 years apart, they use the same word to describe the decision: "scary."

And while they are at different points in their careers--Kessler has been in business for 30 years and Willen, along with partner Nolen Strals '01, is in the fourth year of their joint venture--both have a portfolio of award-winning projects and represent high-profile clients nationwide. Both also represent a vital resource that MICA offers to the state of Maryland--a pool of talented, well-educated artists and designers whose skills, hard work, and entrepreneurship are adding to the state's economy.

The importance of the arts in the state is well-documented. A Maryland State Arts Council survey found that Marylanders are actively engaged in the arts, with 84% creating art either professionally or in their spare time, 70% purchasing something handmade by an artist or craftsperson, and 90% stating that the state's vibrant arts community makes the state a better place to live.

Being Your Own Boss

Jordan Faye Block '05 has seen this interest in arts and arts-related businesses firsthand. "I opened my gallery, Jordan Faye Contemporary, in 2006. Seventeen months ago, I was able to move the gallery into a larger space. It's been a great move," she said.

Block describes herself as both curator and artist, and the gallery's success has enabled her to focus on both interests.

"Opening the gallery was a long-held dream. I really enjoy connecting people to art they love and to new artists. I would have a hard time working alone in a studio because of that," she said. "At the same time, I love artmaking. Running this business and having employees make it easier to create my own art."

A wealth of opportunities inspired Maryland-based Willen and Strals to incorporate their design studio, Post Typography.

"It was the perfect time," Willen explained. "We had other jobs that were paying our bills, but we were getting so many offers for freelance work that we decided to try working for ourselves full time."

Since then, the two have worked for clients that include The New York Times, WIRED Magazine, and Business Week, as well as the U.S. Green Building Council and Sony Music Entertainment. A recent project included designing the CD cover for Wake Up!, a collaboration between Grammy Award-winning recording artist John Legend and the hip-hop, neo-soul band The Roots, which was turned into a stage set by Spike Lee.

Seizing Opportunities

Cynthia Blake Sanders '85, an intellectual property and entertainment attorney at Baltimore's Ober|Kaler, reflected on the opportunities brought about by changes in the way information is shared in the 21st century.

"The demarcation between traditional advertising and news, for example, is gone," Sanders explained. "Almost any kind of art practice can be a commercial product--like artists being hired to create video games. It's a wonderful time to practice in this area because of the many opportunities these new media outlets have created for people with nontraditional backgrounds."

MICA graduates have a history of seizing opportunities in the market, turning their talents into successful, entrepreneurial endeavors. Betty Cooke '46, considered one of America's leading designers of modernist jewelry, showcases her creations at her popular Baltimore shop, The Store Ltd., which also features decorating items, watches, toys, and artisan-made women's clothing. Kevin Sherry '04 saw room in the market for cartoon-inspired graphic T-shirts. He took his passion for illustration and co-founded SquidFire, a Maryland-based clothing brand with global reach. When Kyle Van Horn '03 saw a missing service in Baltimore, he started a print shop, Baltimore Print Studios, that offers affordable printing and machine rental and serves as an educational resource.

Ethel Kessler ’71 has led the design of more than 250 U.S. Postal Service stamps (photo by Mark Gail, Washington Post).Finding Success

Kessler, who is president and creative director of one of the state's leading woman-owned design communication firms, the Kessler Design Group, Ltd., in Bethesda, has thrived despite a dramatic change in her field. She noted, "When I started in 1981, all you needed to open shop was a drawing table, T-square, and a cup of coffee. It's so radically different over these past 15 years that it doesn't seem like the same profession."

Her most notable work--for the U.S. Postal Service--was created during that time. As one of only four art directors for the organization, Kessler has led the design of more than 250 stamps since 1997.

"I'm fortunate because more people have seen this work more than any other kind of work I've done. I get to work with amazing illustrators, designers, and photographers," she said. "In early February, my stamp celebrating the centennial of Ronald Reagan came out; and, in March, a sheet called Latin Music Legends came out." She has also teamed with MFA in Illustration Practice Director Whitney Sherman '71 on a breast cancer awareness stamp that has raised more than $70 million for research. The new MFA program trains artists to do similar, applicable illustration work.

She continued, "Starting my own company was frightening, but I knew people who had done the same thing. Someone told me, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.' I've endured since then. I've had some fabulous clients and have done work that I'm incredibly proud of. I'm also thrilled about MICA's new business of art and design program. It's really great how far the College has come and how they will help a new generation of creative entrepreneurs."

Sanders, who turned to the legal profession after a career that included work as a jewelry designer and an administrator at MICA, said, "The thing that has benefited me throughout my career is that MICA gave me a problem-solving education that taught me to think outside the box. My practice is very busy; I have clients all over the country and quite a few in this area. I'm doing well enough to send my own child to art school. It's a crazy time to be alive, but a great time for my profession."

Kyle Van Horn '03 and Kim Bentley '08 of Baltimore Print Studios (photo by Matthew Yake '07).


Photo captions (from top to bottom): Cover of John Legend and The Roots' album Wake Up! done by Post Typography; Ethel Kessler '71 has led the design of more than 250 U.S. Postal Service stamps (photo by Mark Gail, Washington Post); Kyle Van Horn '03 and Kim Bentley '08 of Baltimore Print Studios, which offers print press rental and educational opportunities (photo by Matthew Yake '07).