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Austin Dwyer: Memories of The Burnley School

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Austin Dwyer: Memories of The Burnley School

Sadie Sullivan

Following is a firsthand account from PSG Life Member Austin Dwyer of his memories of The Burnley School for Professional Art.

Founded in 1946, The Burnley School joined The Art Institute system in 1982 and became The Art Institute of Seattle.

My memories of The Burnley School of Professional Art take me back to the the early sixties. John F. Kennedy was our president. The Southern states were coming into the twentieth century regarding social justice for African Americans and I was happily married to my wife Mig and looking forward to creating a family: a family with lots of wonderful children. I had studied at Burnley and after graduation, enjoyed working as a design illustrator in Seattle. I remember the day that Jess Cauthorn called me to see if I might be interested in teaching. Art Directors in Seattle were making between five and ten dollars an hour. Jess paid fifteen dollars an hour and a studio at the school where I could also freelance. It was everything that I had dreamed of …I was in heaven.

The Burnley School of Professional Art was founded by Edwin Burnley in 1946. In those days it was called, The Burnley School of Art and Design. Jess Cauthorn purchased the school in 1958. I joined the staff in the early sixties. We had a strict policy for admitting students. A portfolio review was mandatory. I, along with Jess and Fred Griffin were responsible for selecting students. There were always questions to be answered. “Why do you want to study at Burnley?” was usually answered with, “ I don’t care for English and Math is not one of my favorite subjects.” Those were two very important categories that would inevitably come back to haunt them. Certainly, a knowledge of English would be an absolute requirement in the development of professional art and of course Mathematics would be required to size art and even simple cross multiplication and dealing with percentages, a must for sizing art. Screening was critical. Every year we had three beginning classes; big classes with as many as thirty students to a class. Those ninety to a hundred students had to show and exhibit a portfolio to move on to the second year. We usually began a second year with enough students for two classes. The second year graduation class moved on to the third year where they prepared for the market by taking special classes in art direction, copy writing and illustration. When all was said and done, the attrition rate was preposterous; as few as 15 to 20 twenty of those ninety students graduated. All exhibited their portfolio for faculty review. Burnley had an excellent relationship with corporations, advertising agencies and design studios throughout the country and usually placed all graduating students. 

Although I lived to teach, most of my valuable memories are filled with the amazing people with whom I taught. So many are gone now but never forgotten and will always hold a special place in my thoughts. I often think of Jess Cauthorn who passed away some years ago. Fred Griffin, Dick Brown, Gus Swanberg, Bill Cumming and James Edward Peck were all instrumental in the life of the school. Ken Duffin and Doug Sandland are still around and are life members of the PSG. My very good and dear friend, James Scott died recently and will be greatly missed.

Speaking of the PSG, Burnley played a big role with our annual auction for it was there (which also had a large stage) that all the rehearsals for our annual skit took place. The play, and I use that word rather loosely, was only supposed to last thirty to forty minutes, John Ringen and Glen Oberg could turn a three minute act into ten and sometimes we had to use the hook. The skit was the life blood that kept the auction going year after year. We all enjoyed those years and I was privileged to have written and directed many of the skits with my good friend Norm Comp.

Eventually all things must come to an end and so it was with Burnley. Jess was tired and wished to spend the rest of his life painting and teaching (little old blue haired ladies) as he called them, how to paint. He sold the school to the Art Institute of Seattle thus ending a virtual artistic landmark in Seattle for over 50 years. They were some of the best years of my life.

Austin Dwyer
PSG Life Member
July 2014