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Creative Freedom: An Academy Alum and Instructor’s Artistic Journey

Celebrated artist Kazuhiko Sano (Kazu) defines freedom as “a chance to think and create what you want to do.”  For the Academy of Art University student-turned-instructor, freedom is the driving force in his career and is something he encourages his students to obtain.

Illustration of Paleque

Kazu enrolled at the Academy in 1974 to receive an education that encouraged creative freedom, in stark contrast to the rigorous courses in Japan. Studying in San Francisco, a city with a culturally and artistically diverse reputation, also appealed to Kazu and he saw the opportunity to expand his career choices.
As an international student, he came across some cultural and linguistic  barriers in San Francisco. He connected with other Academy international students and together they formed a support group, helping each other out with classes and getting adjusted to life in another country. The difficulties he encountered also pushed Kazu to work harder.
“As a foreigner who had a disadvantage in the communication skills, I had to try extra hard to convince my ability as an artist,” he recalled.
Kazu received a BFA and MFA in Illustration from the Academy. He credits Barbara Bradley, Director of the School of Illustration, for helping him become the artist he is today.
“What she told me was invaluable,” Kazu said. “Her knowledge and acuteness to realize what I was lacking was my foundation.”

After graduation, Kazu embarked on a challenging, yet gratifying career path. He has done everything from creating Star Wars movie posters to traveling to the ancient ruins at Palenque, Mexico on an assignment for National Geographic.  For Kazu, working for National Geographic is a rewarding mix of “science and drama.” Recently, he finished a series of illustrations for an article in the July 2007 issue about the last days of an Ice Age man, whose body was found in 1991 in the Swiss Alps.

Kazu wanted the drawings to be dramatic and in the style of a graphic novel, however they also had to be historically accurate. It became difficult at times when new research about the iceman surfaced. The tiniest details had to be considered – even down the iceman’s undergarments! With very little resources to work with, Kazu had to come up with his own methods of retaining factuality.

“I pushed the project further by using models, props and location photographs,” he said. “ They [the editors] liked my illustrations very much.”

The German National Geographic staff asked him to do a painting for the cover of the European issues. For Kazu, this was a dream come true. He didn’t have much time to complete it – in fact he had only three days and one of those days he had to teach. After many late night phone calls with last minute changes, Kazu finished the cover and it was met with acclaim.

"National Geographic" Iceman Illustration

Kazu also had the exciting opportunity to design stamps for the United States Postal Service. He has created 1970s-themed stamps as part of the Celebrate the Century series as well as paintings of Charles Chesnutt and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for a literature series.

Painting for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Stamp

Recently, Kazu designed stamps of Frank Sinatra and another star to be revealed as part of a Hollywood series. In order to capture their personalities on such a small-sized medium, Kazu really had to understand the people he was portraying.

“I listened to so much Frank Sinatra to get what his goal was – how he wanted to be a superstar,” Kazu said.

As an instructor at the Academy of Art University’s Schools of Illustration and Fine Art, Kazu wants to instill his knowledge and experience, both as a working artist and alumnus, to his students.

“The best part about teaching at Academy of Art University is sharing what I have with the next generation of artists and witnessing students blossoming right in front of my eyes,” he said. “ What is particularly great is that what I teach goes to many levels of people from all over the world.”


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