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December 14, 2023

It's All Relative

In some families, the CIA tradition runs deep

Industrial Design faculty member Jason Tilk ’97 chats with his stepson, Felix Mathoslah ’26, in Felix’s Illustration studio.

By Karen Sandstrom ’12

When people talk about how Cleveland Institute of Art students become part of an extended family, it isn’t just brochure copy. Between its small size and the students’ shared passion for art and design, many establish relationships at CIA that will become deep and long lasting.

But CIA also has a way of attracting actual families, too. Its alumni roster is rich with examples of parents, children, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters following each other through the doors and sharing the College’s traditions.

The Birchfields
As home-schooled kids who made lots of field trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art, siblings Christi Birchfield ’06, Jerry Birchfield ’09 and Wendy Puerto ’11 knew early on that Cleveland was home to a college of art and design.

“Our mom grew up in Parma, and I think always thought that having an art college in town was quite exciting,” says Christi, a Printmaking grad who works with fiber and paper. “We always talked about the fact that CIA was there. I think that planted a seed early on in my head that that could possibly be an option.”

All three siblings enrolled in post-secondary classes at Cuyahoga Community College during their high school years, which was where Jerry’s interest in photography was piqued. When it was time to pursue his bachelor’s degree, CIA was the only art school he considered.

Jerry, who now teaches at Case Western Reserve University and runs a photo business called Field Studio, also had taken CIA Young Artist classes on Saturday mornings and had visited during some of the few college critiques. “I remember being at a photo BFA prior to when I would’ve started attending, and it was just like, whoa! This is it.”

An opportunity to play volleyball on scholarship first drew Wendy to Hiram College, but when it came time to decide on a career path, she wanted clarity.

“Through visiting Christi and Jerry at CIA, I became aware of the Industrial Design major from seeing the work in the hallways,” Wendy says. “I thought it was so cool that people designed objects for use in everyday life, and that I could impact someone’s daily life. So I transferred to CIA my sophomore year and went directly into the ID program.”

These days, Wendy does contract work for Kichler Lighting. She married ID classmate Gabe Puerto ’11. They have two children.

Like Wendy, Jerry married a CIA alum: Jessica Jurca Birchfield ’09. And the Birchfields’ father, Jerry Birchfield Sr., for many years helped run the CIA fabrication studios.

The Birchfields say their time at the College gave them rigorous training and a rock-solid approach to making work.

“We were taught how to problem solve,” Wendy says. “For every single project, we went through a process of research, ideation or concept development, and refinement. I still use that process, whether for design or if I’m doing some sort of house project.”

Jerry appreciates having been in an environment in which taking artmaking seriously was the norm. “We were making pictures and making objects, and we were all focusing really hard on that,” he says.

Such support came from peers as well as faculty, adds Christi. “I was completely enamored by the people who were attending CIA. There were so many students who were just super invested in the work they were making. That raised the bar. I felt like, ‘Oh, you’re doing that? I want to do that, too.’”

The Nottinghams
The Nottingham name is well known within CIA and the design world at large. After graduating from CIA in 1972, John Nottingham and John Spirk created their product and innovation firm, Nottingham Spirk. To date, the company has built a team of 80 associates (including many CIA alumni) and developed 1,400 patents related to well-known household products and medical devices.

John Nottingham had always loved drawing. While growing up in Sharon, Pennsylvania, he was drawn to automotive design and was curious about how products were made. “I remember discovering industrial design in the seventh grade and I knew immediately what I wanted to do.”

He wrote to General Motors asking for advice on how to become a car designer and received a letter in return that recommended CIA. He still has it today.

John also had an advocate for CIA within his own family.

“My cousin Roger Anliker graduated from CIA in 1949,” John says. “He was a colleague of Andy Warhol at Carnegie Mellon. Roger was a Fulbright Scholar and spent most of his time as a professor of art at Temple University. His painting style is superb with delicate detailing. Roger’s paintings involved multiple layers of meaning through each of his pieces.”

John, in turn, inspired son Bill ’01 and daughter Rachel ’06 to attend CIA. Both graduated with BFAs in Industrial Design.

Bill had an early interest in drawing and sculpting. He attended classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art along with CIA Young Artist classes on Saturdays. In ninth grade, he attended a car design class taught by CIA student Dan Cuffaro ’91—now chair of Industrial Design.

“I will never forget attending the ID Spring Show in high school and seeing the amazing work of the design majors,” Bill says.

After graduation, Bill was hired by General Motors, where he developed interior and exterior designs for Cadillac. He also worked at a Chicago design consultancy before returning to Cleveland to join the family business. He spent about 20 years at Nottingham Spirk.

Bill started at Nottingham Spirk as a designer, eventually led client projects, and forged new business opportunities, including building a network with Fortune 500 companies. John credits Bill for motivating Nottingham Spirk to focus on integrating technology into product design and developing consumer electronics.

Today, Bill is the founder and CEO of InnovateNOW LLC, which invests in, advises and partners with high-growth companies. He also is a partner with his dad and Alison Liscoe Nottingham in Nottingham Unlimited Ventures, which has a portfolio of investments in more than 31 innovative companies.

John and Bill value the ongoing connections to former CIA classmates, many of whom are notable leaders in design. They also stress the importance of how CIA connected students to professional mentors in everyday instruction, through sponsored projects from automotive companies, toy manufacturers and others.

The Vaiksnorases
To say the creative force was strong in the Vaiksnoras family is an understatement. All four daughters of Anthony ’42 and Laurie Vaiksnoras grew up in a household that encouraged artmaking, and when it came time to go to college, all four chose CIA. Both parents were artists, and their father was a huge influence.

“We had this desire to make art because we watched him do it,” says Andrea Vaiksnoras Uravitch ’72. “He was a really good dad. He was really available for us.”

Andrea, who earned her degree in Fiber + Material Studies, focused on an art career from the start.

“I wanted to be a person who exhibited artwork,” she says. “Then the old classic thing happened: I met a guy, we got married, he took care of me, we had children.” But the artmaking almost literally never stopped. “I was crocheting while I was in labor,” Andrea says.

Sister Debbie Vaiksnoras Stenger ’74 followed Andrea to CIA and sought a Graphic Design degree with the idea that it would be reliable.

“I did it for several years, but I was not happy doing it because I enjoyed doing my own artwork,” Debbie says. “But I have used all the skills that I got from CIA throughout my life, the graphic skills and everything else. Now I’m doing my photo collage and loving it.”

Sister No. 3, Kristina Vaiksnoras Parker, spent two and a half years at CIA, where she learned printmaking and loved it. Then a beloved professor who taught her how to print on fabric left the College, and silk screening on fabric went by the wayside. Kristine transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she graduated in 1977.

By the time Lisa was old enough to be thinking about college, the family dynamics had changed. Their father died when she was just 6, but encouragement was all around her.

“My art teacher in high school pretty much said, ‘You should apply to CIA.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, come on, my whole family has done it. Are you serious?’”

She earned her BFA in Fiber + Material Studies in 1990.

Lisa says she has used her CIA experience in every job she’s ever had, including her current role as a lead in the specialty cheese department (“Great job!”) at Heinen’s grocery store.

All four women have valued their schooling as well as their father’s legacy.

“Our father used to say, whatever you’re doing, make sure it’s good,” Kris says. “Whether it’s a small job or a big job, if you’re doing something creative, then this is who you are. We’re all very driven. Whatever we’re doing or whatever we’re involved in, it looks fabulous.”

Jason Tilk and Felix Mathoslah
When Jason Tilk ’97 talks about his time as a CIA student, he paints a picture of someone dashing from the Glass studios, where he was a major, to Industrial Design, Ceramics and Metals, breathing in everything about every discipline he could explore.

“I ran all over this school when I was here. I think the nature of the possibility of doing interdisciplinary work is a massive part of the benefit of CIA,” he says. “And I like that Felix is getting a good taste of that.”

Felix, Jason’s stepson, is a sophomore Illustration major. He came into the College with thoughts of making comics, and now finds his appetites are broadening.

“Foundation year was a huge thing,” Felix says. “I had this 3D design course. I made this piece that was supposed to be talking about line, using soft sculpture. That really broadened my horizons. Something about using textiles and fabrics and felting, and just feeling something in your hands and making it, is fulfilling in a way I didn’t know it was.”

Felix has watched Jason thrive in a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary career that involves being an industrial design consultant, a CIA professor of practice in Industrial Design, and, with his wife Danielle (Felix’s mom), creator of the vaudeville theater act Pinch and Squeal. That variety is inspiring.

“I’m interested in doing anything and everything, just acquiring as many skills as possible, so that 30 years from now, I’ll have a weird string of different jobs that all match together somehow,” Felix says. “I think that’s the goal.”

The Nagodes
The auto industry was in a downswing in 1974, when Larry Nagode graduated from CIA with a BFA in Industrial Design. So he took a job at the Ideal Toy Co. and found that the toy industry was—surprise!—fun. He worked at Ideal for three years before signing on with Fisher-Price in East Aurora, New York. He spent 37 years there before retiring, picking up a brush and diving back into watercolors.

“I had an Industrial Design major and a Painting minor,” Larry says. “The last time I used oil paints was in school, and then I got into acrylics, and that was fun. But then I picked up watercolors, and I love it. I join these shows, and they have deadlines. That’s the only way I can get anything accomplished—having a deadline.”

While Larry’s career-building years are behind him, son Ryan ’03 is in the thick of things. Right out of CIA, he was hired by Chrysler, and he has been with the company ever since. In summer of 2023, he was promoted to Head of Design, Interior Design Vice President for all the North American brands at Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler).

The most important lesson Ryan took from his years at CIA is an understanding that there’s no such thing as resting on laurels.

“You have to keep working your butt off no matter what,” he says. “Even if things seem set in stone or laid out for you as best as possible, you really never know what’s going to happen.”

And then, he adds, designers do well to approach work like a team sport. It’s easy for students to think only in terms of making themselves a star performer. And while they do need chops, they’ll need more than that to make themselves valuable to an employer.

“When you’re at a job, it’s expected that you’ll be at a certain talent level,” he says. “You got in the door, and you’re at that talent level. It’s how you work with everyone else that enables you to make the next leap.”

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