The School of Visual Concepts, originally called the New School of Visual Concepts, trained students and professionals in marketing, communications, and design skills. When founded in 1971 by husband-and-wife team Dick Brown (1929-1985) and Cherry Brown (1931-1994), it was the Pacific Northwest's only professional advertising-art school. For 43 years, the school was located at 500 Aurora Avenue N in a Seattle building that once housed the J. T. Hardeman Hat Company. The School of Visual Concepts moved to a new, nearby location in 2014.
Dick Brown was an artist and well-known commercial illustrator whose work graced book covers, corporate annual reports, and department store fashion guides. Cherry Brown was an accomplished fashion illustrator and watercolor artist. After Dick's death in 1985, Cherry ran the school for nine more years until she lost her own battle with cancer in 1994. A few months before she died, her assistant Linda Hunt took over co-ownership of the school with copywriter Larry Asher.
When the New School of Visual Concepts opened in 1971, the Browns did not want it to be like other art schools. The couple believed that students learned best from professionals working in their respective fields. Several years after the school's opening, The Seattle Times reporter Sid Copeland described the atmosphere as "creative, and both faculty (NOT teachers) and students seem to be having a ball ... It's designed to direct the students toward esthetic excellence and professional relevance and thus increase his confidence in this competitive field. Another objective is to show the student where the art markets are and help him find where his talents may be used to best advantage” ("Art School With Career ... ").
Dick Brown taught illustration; Cherry Brown focused on figure drawing. Other early faculty members specialized in graphic design, art direction, painting, and photography. About 50 students were enrolled in 1975. By 2013, that number had grown to 650.
Staple of the Design Community
The School of Visual Concepts became a staple of the Seattle design community. As an applied-arts school, much attention was placed on the tools and strategies critical to succeed commercially. From the Brown's initial focus on marketing, communications, and design, SVC's class options expanded to embrace digital technology.
In 2019, the school offered courses, workshops, and certificate programs in the fields of design, interactive marketing, creative services, letterpress, content and copywriting, business practices, and software skills. Since 2015, the school "has seen huge growth, due to the introduction of certificate programs and an increase in its corporate-training business" (Coffman).
As it grew, the school continued to honor its roots. Students were assigned mentors to enhance professional relevance and strengthen their networking potential.
"Today, the school's original approach -- students are taught by top industry professionals during hours that allow both to keep their day job -- is kept alive by SVC's codirectors, Linda Hunt and Larry Asher. Together, they're nicer than Mother Teresa and the Pope combined" (Neylan).
Art and Inspiration
Dick Brown was born in Everett, Washington, on April 28, 1929. His design work was published in magazines such as Reader's Digest, and his clients included Boeing, Frederick & Nelson department store, Pacific Northwest Bell, and others. He taught students at Cornish Institute and the Burnley School of Professional Art before founding the New School of Visual Concepts in 1971. He and Cherry married in the 1950s and had four children: sons Jeffrey, Roger, and Drake, and daughter Leslie.
Brown was an inspiration to illustrators and commercial artists in the Northwest. More than three decades after his death, his artist flair and reputation were still the stuff of legend. Seattle designer and illustrator Ted Leonhardt described Brown's extraordinary artistic talents: "Dick's handling of the figure, with just a suggestion of line, made men look heroic and women sexy. His art sold the Boeing SST to Eisenhower, and Puget Power stock to investors" (Leonhardt).
In the early 1980s, Dick was diagnosed with a brain tumor; Cherry cared for him until his death on June 5, 1985. The year before he died, SVC mounted a month-long exhibit of his work in the school gallery.
"The cream of Brown's art is on display and anyone who admires fine drawing and excellence in draftsmanship will want to browse through it, maybe more than once. Brown won't be doing any more of it. Since 1980, a brain tumor has sidelined him. The show is hail and farewell to a talent that has influenced not only his students but countless consumers of products a long way removed from the world of art" ("Commercial Artist Gets ... ").
Linda Hunt, who became co-owner of SVC in 1994, rented a house across the street from the Browns in Edmonds, Washington, in 1982. She recalled one of her first get-togethers with the couple:
"Dick was already wheelchair-bound by this time, and Cherry was singlehandedly running SVC. They were amazing, down-to-earth people who lived quietly and courageously with Dick's many physical challenges. I vividly remember the first time I entered their multilevel home. It wasn't the spectacular view of the sound that took my breath away -- it was Dick's amazing paintings" (Neylan).
Cherry Brown was a fashion illustrator and watercolorist as well as a popular teacher. "'A natural teacher,' said Hunt ... 'Even Nordstrom and Boeing sent their artists to her'" ("Cherry Brown, Fashion ... ").
Forging her own path was not new for Brown.
"The energetic, wavy-haired woman -- as fearless at mixing textures and colors in her clothing as she was in her artwork -- apparently didn't often entertain the words 'won't' or 'can't' ... 'They lived in a cabin on Bainbridge Island at first,' said her daughter Leslie Brown of Seattle. 'It was really primitive. She had a woodstove, a wringer washer and three kids in one bedroom'" ("Cherry Brown, Fashion ... ".
Sharing Professional Knowhow
Dick and Cherry Brown enjoyed connecting with students and sharing the tips and techniques they had honed over the years. According to one story, after students had finished an illustration, Dick Brown suggested that they ask themselves: "Would this be just as effective if it were photographed instead of drawn? If so, you blew it" ("Commercial Artist Gets ... ").
Cherry encouraged students to capture the temperament of their subject.
"She was not into anatomy or copying. She believed you captured the mood of the subject, that the work had to have an attitude. To that end, she would hold a student's hand in her own so the student understood how it felt to give a drawing fullness or weight. 'She was a gentle teacher, not arrogant at all, like some,' said illustrator Fred Hilliard" ("Cherry Brown, Fashion ... ").
Even while battling the cancer that eventually took her life, Brown continued to teach. "She would get a pass out of the hospital and teach drawing with IVs hooked into her. That’s how dedicated she was" ("Cherry Brown, Fashion ... ").
The Next Generation
In 1994, Linda Hunt and Larry Asher became co-directors and co-owners of the school. Hunt had studied psychology and sociology in college and met the Browns when she and her husband, a landscaper, moved from California to Edmonds in 1982. She helped Cherry care for Dick in his final years and after his death, became her assistant at the school.
Asher was a copywriting instructor and former creative director at Borders Perrin & Norrander, an advertising agency in Portland, Oregon. In 1992, he founded Worker Bees, a healthcare marketing communications firm. He is the author of "Do or Die," a full-length business book released as an app.
Hunt explained why their partnership worked:
"When Larry and I took over SVC in 1994, we really didn't know one another well. However, we were both committed to the Browns' philosophy of providing customized learning taught by award-winning professionals. We were on the same page in wanting SVC to thrive. And thrive it has. Now, almost 45 years later ... its mission is the same: educate students via the honest, exuberant, generous transfer of knowledge from one caring person to another, just as Dick and Cherry wanted" (Neylan).
Hunt and Asher continued the Browns' tradition of being open and candid with students.
“Linda has given me something that graphic designers need desperately, especially in these rocky times -- encouragement and hope," said former SVC student Bryon Mucke in 2010. "It comes, not in a sugar-coated package, but honestly and with the authenticity of someone who knows what your strengths and weaknesses are, and how they will fit into the marketplace. Even with all the classes taught by giants in the Seattle design community, it is her honesty and patience that I remember most" (Mucke).
The Case of the Stolen Painting
In May 1991, six years after Dick Brown's death, a thief walked into the SVC school gallery and stole one of his most well-known paintings. Called "The Pool Player," the 20-inch-by-30-inch artwork was a black-and-white portrait of an African American pool player. Although it was valued at about $5,000, it had great emotional value to Cherry Brown.
"'It was so much Dick's personality. It was so much him, this piece, it kind of took a little bit of him away from me,' his widow said ... Cherry Brown said she is unsure whether her homeowner's insurance will pay the $5,000 value of the missing artwork. But no amount of money would replace the memories" ("Stolen Painting Leaves ... ").
Cherry Brown reported the theft to the police and released a photo of the painting to the media, hoping someone might see it. That someone turned out to be J. Evan Madden, a house-painter. Madden had visited a neighbor's apartment and thought he saw the missing painting hanging on the living room wall. Madden played it cool and asked if the neighbor would be willing to part with it. The neighbor, who had often admired Madden's tropical fish collection, traded the painting for a fish tank, some fish food, and a filter -- about $30 worth of supplies.
With the painting in hand, Madden called Cherry Brown, who at first thought it was a scam. He finally convinced her otherwise. When Madden returned the painting to SVC, where it went back on display, Brown called him a hero.
"Cherry Brown offered Madden free art lessons, art supplies and enough money to buy another fish tank. When Brown phoned police, they said it would be one neighbor's word versus Madden's -- with no physical evidence tying the neighbor to the crime" ("Fish Tank Nets ... ").
'Steamroller Smackdown' and 'Wayzgoose'
One of SVC's most popular community activities has been the Steamroller Smackdown event held each year at the South Lake Union Block Party. Teams of top designers create massive posters using a 5-ton steamroller instead of a traditional printing press. The image is laid down on the pavement and a giant asphalt roller moves over it, transferring the ink onto the paper. Block Party attendees watch the art unfold, literally, and can make mini-letterpress posters of their own.
Jenny Wilkson, SVC's letterpress shop manager who founded SVC's letterpress program in 2001, said the Smackdown had a positive influence on the school in several ways. "The Smackdown engages the design community, spotlights SVC's unique letterpress programming, and has become a much-loved South Lake Union tradition" (“SVC Takes Letterpress ... ").
The school also organized an annual wayzgoose, a seventeenth-century term for "the entertainment provided by a printer for his workmen at the end of summer. Seattle's School of Visual Concepts (SVC) has embraced the centuries-old tradition of wayzgoose in its own way ... putting on an annual August festival in celebration of letterpress printing" ("School of Visual Concepts Sets ... "). SVC's wayzgoose has been staged as an open house, where the public can view printing-press demonstrations, a letterpress swap meet, typesetting races, and a marketplace to buy locally designed and printed cards, posters, and other items.
SVC Moves to a New Location
In 2014, as the Aurora Avenue property was set for redevelopment, the School of Visual Concepts needed to find a new home. On December 1, 2014, SVC began classes in a new location at 2300 7th Avenue, near the intersection of Dexter Avenue N and Denny Way, at a site that originally housed British Motor Car Distributors. Staff and students welcomed the cleaner, better-maintained surroundings of the new location.
"It's currently outside of the Mercer Street reconstruction zone, quieter, has better street visibility, and provides technological advantages (such as gigabit internet access) that the previous building couldn’t offer" ("School of Visual Concepts Has ... ").