Learning is inspiring at Open Studio Academy 

By Lana Linton

What is inspiration? Is it art? Is it culture? Design? I was privileged enough to sit down with Alexander Lu and Angela Chen of Open Studio Academy to discuss the concept of inspiration and how it functions in an artistic teaching environment. 

When you first walk into Open Studio Academy you feel something special. The room is open and airy, easels, sketches and books line the walls. This is space is immediately creative in nature, there are a few chairs set up in the centre of the sketching room and the impeccably groomed, young couple and I sit down. 

Alexander Lu is not what you would expect for an art teacher, while he is inwardly eccentric in the most traditional sense, outwardly he is poised and soft spoken. His dark, thick head of hair seems to transcend the laws of gravity, perfectly sculpted and statuesque. He speaks calmly and with purpose, a truly elegant and meaningfully thoughtful person; I get the sense that Lu does not say anything he does not mean. 

Angela Chen and Alexander Lu of Open Studios

Angela Chen and Alexander Lu of Open Studios

Lu is a lover of the art of learning and has mastered the craft, first studying fine art at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, then the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and finally, graphic design in New York City at the School of Visual Arts. His deep appreciation for art began at a young age when he would draw pictures for his Father, “he would always tell me it was good, and then send me off to draw him more. He was constantly saying “wow this is great! Show me more!””

Angela Chen is the less intense of the pair, warm and friendly she is the kind of person who can make you feel welcome with just a simple handshake. The couple met in high school and have been together for nearly seventeen years. Her rosy cheeks and bright smile light up the room. Studying at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, and training under the likes of Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui has left Chen with a powerfully unique vision for the fashionable future. Lu began pursuing fashion after high school because it just fit for her, “I actually started at Helen Lefeaux and when I went there suddenly it just struck.” 

The couple began teaching together in Lu’s parent’s basement in 2009 and Open Studio Academy was born. The academy offers what they call a portfolio building program to students from ages thirteen to eighteen. The program offers classes with focuses in fine art, architecture, graphic design and fashion design, helping young students build the type of portfolios required to get accepted to schools such as Central St. Martins in London, England and Chen’s alma-matter, Parsons the New School for Design in New York City. 

With class sizes of about ten students the program is intensive and requires a great amount of dedication. Lu, Chen and their employees offer one of the only comprehensive portfolio building programs in North America, and the students have to consistently work hard to earn the privileges of this kind of mentorship program, “some students we have to push. We have to constantly ask them to show us more, but others will text us at two o’clock in the morning and ask us for feedback on their latest work.” Lu and Chen are truly dedicated to providing the best education, so they reply to these texts in the wee hours of the morning and often take calls late at night. 

The intense sense of pride and purpose is overwhelming at Open Studio Academy. Lu and Chen are enthusiastic and are constantly trying to improve the studio space to create a more pleasant learning environment for their students, “we didn’t want our students to have to learn in an office space, we wanted something bright to allow for more creativity. This is what it was like at Parsons,” Chen tells me while giving me the grand tour. The space is all white and incredibly open, it is a rainy day but there is bright, natural light that flows in from the large studio windows. 

From a fashion perspective the school has been greatly successful. Students that graduate from Open Studio Academy have a history of being accepted into the world’s top fashion schools. Lu and Chen offer opportunities for their students to work with seasoned designers and have even had their students design clothing for celebrities, most recently international sensation and Louis Vuitton model, Godfrey Gao. The school shows no sign of slowing down, and neither do the instructors, Chen is currently working on a collection set to debut at New York Fashion Week in the fall.

So do Lu and Chen think that creativity and inspiration can be taught? “Maybe,” they say, “it depends on the student. You can’t teach someone to have an eye, but you can maybe encourage them to recognize beauty.” The pair start off their classes with exercises that offer insight into how each student sees the world and beauty individually, “sometimes they don’t get it, and we have to try a different approach.” Their dedication to their students’ positive outcome is heartwarming to say the least, it is obvious that these two not only love teaching but learning “sometimes I tell them “I think I’m learning more from teaching you than you are from me,” Lu says, chuckling with a soft grin. 

For more information on the school and how to enroll you can visit www.openstudioacademy.com and for updates you can follow them on Instagram at @openstudio_academy

All photography by Liz Dungate for Open Studios