Like many young artists these days, Jaylin Jenkins, 18, started out loving anime. Heavily influenced by the Japanese style of animation, he knew at just 5 that he loved to draw, and he recalls trying to mimic the characters in graphic novels, comics and movies.
Later on, at John Muir High School, Jenkins realized he really might have a shot to attend art school. As a freshman, he had won the Pasadena Unified School District’s annual “No Boundaries” student art exhibit, and Muir’s AP art instructor urged him on.
“I was really shy when it came to art; I never felt like I was good or at the level that I wanted to be at,” he said, noting he thought his entry was terrible at the time. “But that told me, hey, maybe my art isn’t that bad.”
The award challenged him to get better. But to become really good, Jenkins knew he needed to get serious and expand his portfolio, refine his techniques and hone his “life drawing” skills, and quickly, if he hoped to get into art college.
As luck would have it, the Armory Center for the Arts had just received a grant from the Pearlman Geller Family Foundation to award 125 teens full scholarships to its studio art classes, and Jenkins was the first one in line. Over the course of a year, he took two classes back to back, furiously studying under Armory faculty member Andrew Currey, one of the center’s most popular resident artist instructors.
The work has paid off — Jenkins recently found out he got accepted at both the Otis College of Art and Design and the Chicago Art Institute, the only two colleges to which he applied.
“I’ve learned so much — I’ve loved coming here. This place is very hands on, and the critiques are really helpful,” Jenkins said, referring to Currey’s curriculum, which models a college-level art class with a critique session after the lecture and technique drawing.
Jenkins will be just one of hundreds of Pasadena-area students to benefit from the Armory’s progressive community arts and educational programs this year. Now in its 30th year, the Armory has touched the lives of thousands through its classes, many of which are offered on site and for students as young as 18 months through adulthood, and range from painting, drawing, ceramics, and photography to developing film in a darkroom and working with a letterpress studio. But its reach doesn’t stop there — the Armory has spent decades fostering partnerships and outreach programs with schools, libraries, parks and community centers.
Leslie Ito, the Armory’s executive director, noted that students like Jenkins thrill the center and illustrate its mission.
“Jaylin’s experience exemplifies the Armory’s story as we work with local teens and help them realize their full artistic and creative potential,” Ito said. “The power of the arts brings people together to build community. People like Jaylin and Andrew, whose lives may have been vastly different before coming to the Armory, connect and create together and build human bonds in this magical place. … Our society and culture need more of this, and that’s what the Armory is here to do.”
The Armory Center for the Arts has been operating in some capacity in Southern California for more than 60 years, beginning as the education branch of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in 1947, and later becoming known as the Pasadena Art Workshops. Even then, its passionate supporters knew the importance of what diverse art programming could offer people of all ages within the community. When the onetime National Guard Armory on Raymond Street became a possible new home in 1989 (after being occupied for years by Pasadena’s once world-renowned Badminton Club), supporters jumped at the chance to reform the dilapidated structure.
Sitting down recently at the Armory’s now gleaming, cavernous upstairs studio, Jenkins and Currey talked about their time as student and instructor, dragging their stools together with an easy air.
Jenkins knew of Currey before he met him, having spotted him in an Otis brochure, posing in front of one of his hyper-realistic pencil drawings. Currey completed his master’s degree at the art college before coming on to teach at the Armory. “It was amazing,” Jenkins said, recalling his teacher’s penciled knight with palpable awe.
Currey, meanwhile, said he knew Jenkins was meant to be an artist from the get-go. The young man signed up for two back-to-back sessions, five consecutive hours of drawing. For a high schooler coming midweek after school, still with homework to finish, that showed commitment.
“The fact that he was staying, wanting to get more, go deeper, it showed a level of dedication I really respected and thought was valuable,” said Currey, who teaches sketching with a simple skeleton, because “you build up a form like you’re building a house. … You can’t start with the windows, you have to start with the foundation and build around it.”
Typically, Currey doesn’t let students introduce color into their drawings until the end of the semester, but when he told Jenkins he was ready, he was surprised at the change. “Once he started adding color … his drawings drastically changed. It was really interesting to see how his brain processed the form by just adding color to it,” he said.
The two were off and running, glowing as they talked about the technique, and their mutual, early love for comics and anime, to which Jenkins is still drawn. He loves painting with gouache, a technique he described as “watercolor, but gooey and opaque,” with wide eyes. Soon, the two morphed into talk of college art classes and some of the gut-wrenching deadlines and critiques, with Jenkins admitting he’s more than a little nervous about his upcoming move to Otis, his school of choice.
“I still don’t feel like I’m where I need to be,” Jenkins confessed, but Currey reassured him. Self-doubt comes with the territory, he said.
Their teacher-student exchange is pretty typical at the Armory, whose core strength lies in its small army of professional teaching artists, many of whom came from its esteemed fellowship program.
“The fellowship program is integral to our practice of teaching and supporting professional artists to be effective teachers of art and creativity,” noted Ito. “Core to the Armory’s mission is our support for individual artists through job training, employment and exhibition.”
Ito, who came on board as executive director just last year, knows from experience what early exposure to the arts can do for a person. She herself took lessons through the Armory’s precursor, the Pasadena Art Workshops, in the late 1970s.
“Through that experience, it opened my eyes to creativity and laid a foundation for my life in the arts,” she said. “The Armory has played a special role in my life from the very beginning.”
The Armory’s nurturing relationship with students and support of local artists has been unparalleled, noted Cynthia Lake, a revered art teacher at Muir. She helped connect Jenkins early on to the Armory after she saw his potential. She knew he’d thrive there, she said.
“He’s one of those kids, so obviously an artist, he doesn’t have any other path in life,” said Lake, who’s observed Jenkins in her AP studio art class. “The Armory is a great partner for these kids. They’ve been on board all the way, continuing and growing partnerships with community artists and providers. Art academies are thriving here because of that; it’s remarkable how many opportunities we have here in Pasadena.”
And while the Armory is there for kids as talented as Jenkins, its mission is to bring the arts to people of all walks of lives and abilities, noted Ito.
“Not all of them will become professional artists like Jaylin, and that’s OK. If they do, even better! We want people of all ages to be ignited by the power of the arts,” Ito said. “The Armory would like to be the magical place where people of all backgrounds in Pasadena, the San Gabriel Valley and beyond, come to explore, ignite and hone their creative passions.”