May 06, 2015
Illustration chair encouraged some 500 students to do their best work
By Karen Sandstrom
It was a simple phrase that Dominic Scibilia often used at the start of class. “Hello, my illustrators,” he’d say with a smile. For some, that was the beginning of thinking of themselves as the professional they would be.
Scibilia is retiring after 35 years as chair of CIA’s Illustration Department. By a conservative estimate, more than 500 students have heard his lessons and been coached on what it takes to succeed in illustration. (Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity.)
His words carried weight because he has been there. A 1972 CIA graduate, Scibilia worked first for American Greetings, then at the E & R Graphics studio, before starting his own studio, the Art Plant, with business partner Chuck Wimmer.
During those early studio years, the workdays were long, challenging, and also exhilarating. “We worked from 9 to 11 every day,” he said. “We didn’t even think about questioning that.”
He was represented by a New York-based agency, so clients came from all over. Often enough, assignments arrived on Friday afternoons as rush jobs that needed to be done by Monday morning. “All the years I dated – those poor women!” Scibilia said. “I never would commit to doing anything on the weekend, because I knew I’d be working.”
But art was all he ever wanted to do. Growing up in Cleveland, he was captivated by illustrated books his father brought home for him. “They were my first art influence, and I think they are for many people,” he said.
He still collects illustrated books, both for the love of them and to share as learning resources. Asked how many he owns, he laughed. “Do you want it by tonnage?”
Two years ago, Scibilia packed up parts of two Ohio homes to begin furnishing a retirement place in Mount Dora, Florida. At a weigh station just over the Florida line, he learned he’d been hauling 14,000 pounds of stuff – about twice the advertised capacity of his rented truck.
Not all of that load was books, of course. Scibilia is an inveterate gatherer – a guy who sees something interesting and figures out how to use it later. He has turned cast-off brick into an outdoor fireplace and made a staircase from reclaimed wood paneling. Resourcefulness is part of his DNA, and a quality he worked to cultivate in his students.
“There are lots of things that you can do.” That’s another Scibilia catchphrase. In the classroom, he encouraged students never to be satisfied with the first solution to a problem. If something didn’t work, he’d advise them to try it another way. If something DID work, he’d ask whether another approach might take the work to a higher level.
“When I teach that there are a million ways of doing things, there really are a million ways,” Scibilia explained. He aimed to make this idea second nature in his illustrators because he knew that “if you’re not open-minded, and won’t look at different ways of doing things, you won’t be as successful.”
Former student David Kegg ’10 took him at his word. Kegg, a lead concept artist at Shield Break Studios in California, is generous in his gratitude toward Scibilia, as well as toward John Chuldenko and Larry O’Neal, the core illustration teachers during his time at CIA.
“Dom was never less than candid about how proud he was of all of us, and he showed us how much he deeply cared about our success,” Kegg said. “I remember so many occasions when Dom was in the studio working with us late into the evening, long after official classes had ended, still helping a student get a technique right or giving someone a pep talk when they were discouraged or frustrated.”
One of the biggest gifts, Kegg said, was what Scibilia taught about setting personal standards.
“In the Illustration Department, we were exposed to the reality that, as individuals . . . we are competing with the greatest artists in the industry,” he said. “While that could be a sobering and scary idea for a young artist not even out of school, Dom never had a doubt that we could achieve greatness in our work and in our careers. Now, seeing really great professional work actually makes me excited and propels me to become a better artist.”
Retirement will bring a new rhythm to Scibilia’s life. He’ll still spend summers at the Middle Bass Island lake house he shares with his longtime partner, Linda Post. In the cold months, they’ll be snowbirds at their home in Mount Dora.
He will no doubt continue working as a freelance illustrator (he and O’Neal created new branding for Cleveland Independents, a restaurant consortium).
But when Scibilia looks back on his teaching career, there is no doubt what he will remember most fondly. “Being with the students, forming relationships with them,” he said. “Watching the light go on.”
Karen Sandstrom ’12 is an illustrator and writer. She works in marketing at Cuyahoga Community College.
Above, Professor Dom Scibilia received the Viktor Schreckengost Teaching Award at Commencement 2014.
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