Into The Wild

By Arrissia Owen

Posted October 13, 2011 in Feature Story

Deep in the bucolic oasis of the San Jacinto Mountains lies a sanctuary for students—one of only three independent boarding schools for the arts in the nation. The Idyllwild Arts Academy, a fully accredited high school that produces top-notch graduates headed to some of the world’s finest conservatories, grooms adolescent artists for professional, creative careers.

A Place for Dreamers

The experience can be transformative, says Brian Cohen, president of the school. Like many of his students, Cohen is new to the dreamy arts campus in the wild, an artist who found his place among the campus’ 205-forested acres to work, create and live.

Cohen takes over the reigns from Bill Lowman, who started as president at the school’s inception in 1985. Under Lowman’s guise, the school grew to an annual budget of more than $15 million with a full-time staff of 100 employees.

As dean of faculty at the Putney School in Vermont, Cohen was at the helm for three years. Before the promotion, he chaired the arts department for eight years and was the founding director of the Putney School Summer Program. Cohen, a trained painter, was attracted to the school’s deep commitment to the arts, he says.

Cohen is also the founder and owner of Bridge Press, which publishes and prints limited edition artists’ books and etchings, and is the founding artistic director of Two Rivers Printmaking Studio. The latter is a nonprofit co-operative studio for professional and aspiring artists. He is no stranger to supporting artists’ dreams, and he understands the struggle some students feel as creative spirits.

“There are a number of kids who had no idea that there were any other kids like them until they got here,” Cohen says. “In a sense, the school is partly social. There is that realization as an adolescent that you are not so strange, whereas before they may have felt singular, and therefore isolated.”

Graduate Samuel Chan, a classically trained vocalist who now studies vocal performance at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, agrees.

“I not only had the chance to be with like-minded individuals who had similar goals as my own, but I also had the chance to meet creative, unique personalities, who offered to me a new outlook and point of view,” Chan says. “I found a school that allowed my dreams to come true, while allowing me a place to develop new dreams.”

Proven Pedigree

Cohen takes the reigns at a school that has produced alumni that includes Obey’s Shepard Fairey—an underground artists who gained notoriety with his lawsuit-inviting Hope print of Barack Obama during the last presidential campaign.

Other notables comprise visual artist Nate Lowman, New York Philharmonic principal oboist Liang Wang, 2009 Tony nominee Marin Ireland, and two 2009 American Idol top 24 finishers, Casey Abrams and Julie Zorrilla.

Idyllwild Arts Academy’s roots date back to 1946 when USC backed Dr. Max Krone and his wife, Bee, in their vision to provide a place where people of all backgrounds could come together to experience the arts.

It was called the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts back then and was filled with summer activities for families and individuals, including music, dance, theater, visual arts, creative writing and more.

It also boasts a summer program focused on American Indian arts that has become the premier showcase for contemporary Native American artists, including prominent Native American artists Fritz Scholder, Maria Martinez, Lucy Lewis, Blue Corn and Michael Kabotie.

Community Service

In the mid 1980s, the high school arts academy galvanized, which now hosts about 295 students each school year from around the world. Tuition is $52,500 annually, including room and board.

The school boasts a wildly successful scholarship program, making a quality arts education possible for anyone talented enough to gain admission through the strenuous audition or portfolio process. About 55 percent of students enrolled receive some form of financial assistance.

“We go out and raise a lot of money,” Cohen says. “We’ve developed a very loyal and generous following.” It’s a following that is not necessarily alumni based, due to the small number of graduating students and the fact that the school produces artists, not real estate moguls and investment bankers. Plus, the school’s oldest alumni are barely in their 40s.

In a somewhat odd twist, the academy has the financial support of its neighboring community. A group called the Associates of Idyllwild, made up mostly of local residents who staunchly support the academy’s efforts.

“Very few have direct involvement,” Cohen says about the neighborly support. “They just love that we are here.” Many Idyllwild residents frequent the free concerts, and the business community recognizes the benefits of having the school attached to the small community.

“We have a strong community connection,” Cohen says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Most of the time, it’s the ivory tower and the school is indifferent to the community and likewise, the community is indifferent to the school. It’s not like that here.”

Additional support comes from the people who attend the summer arts program, Cohen says. “The founding head was very good at raising money for the school,” Cohen says. “He helped the school become financially sustainable.”

The Magic Mountain

In the beginning, the summer program attracted intense artists and thinkers of the time creating an artists colony vibe, building a reputation as the West Coast version of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College.

Notable instructors included the likes of artist Ansel Adams, composer and playwright Meredith Wilson, and folk music legend Pete Seeger. Early faculty members Bella Lewitzky, a modern dance choreographer who was the founding chair of the school’s dance department, and Harry Sternberg, a painter and printmaker, affectionately called the campus the Magic Mountain.

“The academy was founded to help the summer school sustain itself,” Cohen says. “It’s usually the other way around. That was an interesting adjustment, and it made us a unique institution.”

There are students as young as 5 and older than 80, Cohen says, with families attending in throngs. “By the time most kids are 14 they don’t want to do anything with their parents,” Cohen says. Not so in Idyllwild.

Big Bear City’s Marina DeMarco, 11, attended the summer program for strings last summer. Not only did her playing improve dramatically after just a week at the camp, but she matured as well. “She learned how to hustle and keep to a tight schedule that lasted all day,” says Ramona DeMarco, Marina’s mother.

Although the youngest of the group, Marina rose to the challenge. Since returning to normal life, her violin teacher, Sharon Rizzo, says she saw a dramatic improvement in her abilities and drive. At the end of the week, Marina left with the Most Improved award in the violin section.

This is no ordinary summer camp. “It’s a very enriching experience with concerts every night, exhibits and more,” Cohen says. “I’ve never seen more happy people in one place at one time ever. It’s such a seductive, fun environment.” People seek refuge from the city, someplace they can withdraw to and leave the hustle and bustle behind.

Bringing out the Best

Staff for the camp and arts academy is made up of people whose backgrounds are steeped in the arts world. For the high school, teachers and administrators travel the world in search of the crème de la crème to add to its hallowed halls.

“We look very closely at the students’ work and which ones will benefit from the opportunity,” Cohen says. “Many parents are weary, and may even forewarn their kids that the arts are not a good way to make a living,” Cohen says. Idyllwild helps students find their way in the real world.

“Because it’s hard doesn’t mean someone should be discouraged at 14 from following their dream,” Cohen says. “They should have a chance and should know there is a chance to have a career and train at the highest level and train for conservatories.”

The school helps the young savants set forward on a professional path. “There are careers in the arts,” Cohen says. “And we want to help them train for that.” Idyllwild Arts Academy looks good on transcripts and resumes, giving graduating students upper hand at shaping their careers. “It’s a huge head start,” he adds.

Drive and passion are common attributes among the students at Idyllwild. “They have a near obsession or actual obsession, they are kids who cannot stop practicing,” Cohen says. “Their lives revolve around discovery of and then pursuit of their passion.” They are opportunists in the best way, he says, driven by a desire for artistic expression.

The students are simultaneously competitive and supportive of one another, creating a unique campus culture. Many of the students collaborate. “They bring out the best in each other,” Cohen says, adding that most students turn out to support the premieres of each other’s work in various forums.

“The many collaborative projects that I had with my peers and friends taught me the important social skills that I would need to work with others, and they also taught me the importance of having an open mind,” Chan says of his days at Idyllwild. “I learned how to think outside the box, and how to listen to others’ opinions.

“Good ideas better the world around us,” Chan says, adding that creative though enriches through sharing and exploration. “I learned how art has many purposes, may it be to make a statement, to promote change or to hold an ideal, and/or to be an aesthetic use. I learned to accept people for what they are, and that differences make the world more interesting.

The challenges create a commodity.

“It’s a very heady place, and can be very stressful,” Cohen says about the students who take on the daunting dual curriculum. “They are pushing themselves really hard. When they complete something, they feel an enormous sense of accomplishment. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Idyllwild Arts Academy, 52500 Temecula Rd., Idyllwild, (951) 659-2171, ext. 2223;


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