Choosing art as a career

By Katherine Sather

In the Gamrath household on East Mercer Way, the decor is fragile.

Bump into a table or shelf and you could tip over an Italian-style glass vase or a shimmery glass bowl. In the backyard, step lightly around an art installment created with multiple glass figurines in a rainbow of colors.

The artwork was made by Jason Gamrath, a 2005 graduate of Mercer Island High School who has an apprenticeship at the Mt. Pilchuck Glass School this winter. He's one of a handful of Islander grads each year who opt to study at an arts-based school rather than pursue an academic path.

``Kids are following their passions,'' said Mj Hillstrom, the college counselor at MIHS. ``They're being realistic, but they're following their passions.''

The bulk of Mercer Island High School graduates, 84 percent or more, enroll in traditional, four-year colleges, Hillstrom said. Of those, about three to four percent get their degree from an arts-based school, like the Berkelee School of Music in Boston. About three or four students each year attend shorter arts programs at community colleges, design institutes and places like Pilchuck Glass School, where Gamrath won't get college credit, but valuable training.

That doesn't mean more students aren't studying the arts. Often, they'll enroll at a four-year school where they can study the arts and branch out into other fields as well. A popular path at Carnegie Mellon, Hillstrom said, is a double major in music and engineering.

``Students are so versatile,'' Hillstrom said. ``They're gifted in a number of ways.''

Students who opt to enroll at arts-based schools are taking diverse routes. Graduates in the class of 2005 enrolled at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., the Academy of Art in San Francisco, the Film School in Seattle, Parsons School of Design in New York City, the Gekidan Shiki Acting Program in Toyko and Pilchuck, located north of Seattle.

This fall, students at the high school have applied at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, the Berkelee College of Music and several film schools in Southern California. One student sought out Belmont College in Nashville, Tenn., for its music program. Administrators at the Art Institute of Seattle report that a number of Island graduates have enrolled there.

Some say students who make the choice to follow a career in art should consider what other training they might have to sacrifice.

The Princeton Review, an annual guide to higher education, cautions students that arts-based schools often don't offer a broad education, a clearly marked job path or bucketloads of money. But the Review also cites benefits: Immersion in the field, connecting with a community of artists and inspiration.

Hillstrom said she hopes students know themselves well before they commit to an arts-based school. She doesn't throw them any caution, but instead, encourages them.

``It would be a pretty sad world if we didn't have artists around,'' she said.

The Seattle-King County Occupational Outlook for 2010 indicates that some of the fastest growing occupations involve music and dance. They include choreographers and agents and business managers of artists, performers and athletes. Hillstrom said there are more careers around for art students than ever before.

``We live in an area that supports art very well,'' she said.

Gamrath hopes to eventually be able to support himself by selling his art. He attended a three-week class at Pilchuck last summer with artist Randy Walker, an assistant for nationally-known artist William Morris.

Competition is fierce at the internationally known school in Stanwood, Wash. Gamrath, 19, was selected by lottery from 320 people to attend a 12-student class with Walker, he said. At the end of the session, Walker invited him to stay as his assistant. Gamrath now commutes from his Mercer Island home to the school, 50 miles north of Seattle, four times a week.

Other days, he creates his own work at a studio at Pratt University in Seattle, where he got his start blowing glass two years ago. He'd always been an artist, but hadn't found the right medium until then.

``I could convey a lot of my ideas through glass,'' he said.

During his senior year, he didn't apply for any schools.

``I wanted to keep blowing glass, but I couldn't figure out how to develop a career,'' he said.

His parents weren't worried, he said. They knew he'd figure it out. It wasn't until the end of his senior year that he considered applying to Pilchuck, and feels lucky to have been accepted.

He's hoping to earn enough from art sales to move into his own place soon. He recently sold a piece for $500 and finds customers through word-of-mouth. He enjoys his time at Pilchuck where he's practicing the basics and developing his own style. It offers experience that a university couldn't, he said.

``The best place in the world to learn to blow glass is Pilchuck,'' he said.

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