Transforming the culture

Jeff Pike leads changes, from curriculum to construction, in the School of Art

Jeff Pike was about to meet the police when he made a terrible realization. Pike, now the dean of the School of Art, was then a junior at the Kansas City Art Institute and had been assigned to the Kansas City Police Department for a class on community graphic design. A week prior, detectives had asked him to storyboard a series of television announcements touting public outreach programs.

“I said, ‘OK, sure, whatever you want me to do,'” Pike recalls. “Then I went back to the art institute and asked my instructor, ‘What’s a storyboard?'”

Jeff Pike (center), dean of the School of Art, talks shop with Arny Nadler (left), assistant professor of art, and sophomore Juan Tejedor. In more than 20 years at the University, Pike has helped make the School of Art a national destination for students who are passionate about art and academics.
Jeff Pike (center), dean of the School of Art, talks shop with Arny Nadler (left), assistant professor of art, and sophomore Juan Tejedor. In more than 20 years at the University, Pike has helped make the School of Art a national destination for students who are passionate about art and academics.

The instructor introduced Pike to a friend who wrote copy for a downtown ad agency. A storyboard, he learned, was simply a cartoon-strip-like outline of what happens in a film or commercial.

The two roughed out a series of 30-second spots promoting citizen ride-alongs, home security checks, the availability of officers to speak with community groups and other initiatives.

However, as Pike prepared to present the campaign to police officials, he realized he’d forgotten one critical element: a title.

“On the bus ride over, I took out a piece of paper and sketched ‘COPS: Community Oriented Police Services,'” Pike recalls with a slight smile. “And they said, ‘Great, we love it, we’ve got money to do this. Can you film them?’ And I said, ‘OK, sure … ‘”

“Jeff Pike knows how to stay calm in a crisis,” says Associate Dean Sarah Spurr, a friend and colleague of more than 20 years.

Spurr, who has worked with Pike on projects for Anheuser-Busch, Southwestern Bell and others, says she’s seen that quality at work in both the boardroom and the classroom.

“He’s cool and logical and never loses his temper, whatever the situation,” Spurr says.

“Plus, he’s the only dean I know who can hit the high notes to Roy Orbison songs on a road trip.”

Thirst for knowledge

Pike was born in the small town of Oxford (population 448), Wis., and raised in nearby Fond du Lac (population 37,757), where his father worked for a life insurance company. Pike credits his early interest in art to his mother and his maternal grandfather, who was a linesman at Wisconsin Power and Light and a dedicated amateur draftsman.

“He took it seriously and really got pretty good,” Pike says. “When I was little, he’d go hunting or fishing — he was a big outdoorsman — then sit down with me, draw whatever he’d caught and I would try to guess what it was.”

A detail from one of Pike's illustrations to
A detail from one of Pike’s illustrations to “Last Number of the Night,” a short story by Bart Parker, a photographer and member of the School of Art National Council. The story, part of a collaborative book proposal with Chicago playwright Carson Becker, is based on the letters of Abelard and Heloise, the famous 12th-century French lovers.

In high school, Pike drew voraciously — landscapes, cartoons, meticulously researched scenes from American history — and won a number of statewide awards. In one competition, he took top prize in every category.

After graduation, Pike packed up his portfolio and set out for the Layton School of Art & De-sign in Milwaukee.

He was invigorated by college life, packing as many academic offerings as possible between rigorous studio courses. Fridays, for example, featured six hours of uninterrupted figure drawing and anatomy.

When management issues closed Layton at the end of his sophomore year, Pike was quickly recruited by the Kansas City Art Institute, one of the nation’s top art schools.

Pike, who was most interested in narrative and figurative possibilities, enrolled in visual communications, yet he continued to pack his schedule with academic as well as studio courses. His work of the time reveals a certain questing spirit.

For example, after running through literally all of the institute’s philosophical offerings, he began an independent study, illustrating existential texts by Nietzsche and others, with Hans Uffelmann, then the chair of philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

For COPS, meanwhile, Pike formed what amounted to a small ad agency, recruiting student photo majors to handle filming and sound; a local news anchor to do voiceovers; and a cast of police and community actors. After months of work (and a series of technical and budgetary challenges) the group completed four spots that aired in Kansas City.

Time for changes

In 1978, Pike had just earned a master’s degree from Syracuse University when he was offered an opportunity to begin an advertising program at Cazenovia College in New York. Soon he was teaching four or five days a week — advertising design, typography, drawing, two-dimensional design, a survey of modern art — and even ordering and pricing supplies for the bookstore.

After three years, Pike moved to the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Mass., then to the prestigious Philadelphia College of Art.

While Pike was in Philadelphia, Roger DesRosiers, dean of art at Washington University, began a yearlong recruitment effort, and in 1983 Pike arrived in St. Louis.

It is no exaggeration to say that, at the time, the School of Art was somewhat scattered. Painting, graphic communication, fashion and core programs were located in Bixby Hall; photography was in the basement of Busch Hall; sculpture and graduate studios were at Tyson Research Center; ceramics was in Quonset huts near the Athletic Complex; and printmaking was in a storefront off Delmar Boulevard.

Graphic communications exhibited similar sprawl on the curricular level, encompassing a wide range of advertising, illustration and graphic design offerings. Illustration was taught largely by local professionals on an adjunct basis.

“The School of Art boasts a long history of distinguished illustration alumni — Al Parker, Bernie Fuchs, Mike Peters — but at the time there was no apparent structured curriculum,” explains Pike, who came to direct the illustration component. “(Professors) Gene Hoeffel, Bob Smith, Sarah Spurr and I began working to change that, developing more structured programs for all three concentrations and better coordinating common elements, such as typography.”

At the same time, Pike — as he had throughout his teaching career — continued to operate a busy design practice, working with major advertising agencies and clients, including D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Monsanto, Anheuser-Busch, Ralston Purina, SSM Health Care-Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages.

Curricular bridges

Jeff Pike

Family: Wife Michelle; daughter Siena, 7

Education: B.F.A., Kansas City Art Institute, 1976; M.F.A., Syracuse University, 1978

Selected awards: Administrator of the Year, Student Union (2001); Addy Award (1996); Gold Medal, University and College Designers Association (1985); Advertising Federation of America, Flair Award (1984)

Pike was named associate dean in 1993 and dean in 1999. In both capacities, he has worked to integrate a rigorous art curriculum with 21st-century technology and to build curricular bridges between the School of Art and the larger academic community.

“Jeff recognized very early on that, because of our setting as a professional art school within a major research university, we could meet a need that almost nobody else was meeting,” said Associate Dean of Art Georgia Binnington, who has worked with Pike for more than a decade.

“Our students are very passionate about art and design but also very intellectually curious about everything else academic life has to offer. Jeff has really helped to make a place where those interests interactions can happen.”

The approach seems to resonate with young artists. About a third of undergraduate art majors are earning second degrees or minors from other areas of the University, while the School of Art’s admissions acceptance yield has risen to a stellar 52 percent.

In the latest graduate and professional school rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report magazine, the school rose five spots to tie for 21st in the nation.

At the same time, as a member of the Sam Fox Arts Center Executive Committee, Pike is deeply involved with plans for two new arts buildings — a 65,000-square-foot art museum and Earl E. and Myrtle E. Walker Hall, a 38,000- square-foot studio facility, both designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. The latter of these, to be located immediately north of Bixby, will allow art school operations now in Clayton and University City to finally return to the Hilltop Campus.

“This will literally transform the culture of the school,” Pike concludes. “For the first time in decades, students and faculty from all areas will be able to work alongside one another in a single, central location.

“At the same time, as part of the Sam Fox Arts Center, we will enjoy wider opportunities for collaboration with the rest of the University, as well as a more distinct national identity.

“This is truly a banner moment for the School of Art, and one that I’m privileged to be a part of.”