Zak Hennessey stood on a dusty stage that would not look out of place at an underground punk show. A collection of multipurpose spotlights illuminated his excitement as he ran through the story of Denver Entertainment Art and Design Academy -- for at least the third time that day.
This Hennessey's brainchild, born after he returned to Colorado from art school in Los Angeles and was disappointed with the lack of educational opportunities for thinkers and creators here. He started the school to create such opportunities, including the first annual high school art contest whose winners were announced Friday.
DEAD Academy -- the winner of the Best of Denver 2013 award for Best Classroom Ticket to Hollywood -- fills a two-story studio on Santa Fe Drive, one filled with the constant movement of ideas, inspiration and art. The school and gallery focuses on arts that are sometimes overlooked, including comic-book illustration, movie and video game concept art, and even special effects.
For the DEAD Academy's first high school art contest, the crowd was surprisingly large for an event that Jennifer Fox, director of operations, says is designed mostly to "work out the kinks" for future competitions.
Winners in four main categories -- for illustration, concept art, comic-book art and practical FX -- were awarded gift cards from local donors such as Wizard's Chest, Noosa Yoghurt and Mile High Comics, as well as free five-week courses at the Academy and a spot in the school's display during Denver's First Friday Art Walk. Multiple subcategory entrants were also awarded prizes for their artwork -- 21 winners in all.
"We are really trying to legitimize those fields -- comic-book art, video-game art," Fox said in the Academy's art and paperwork-laden back office before the contest winners were announced. "Because they are legitimate, they are lucrative, and they are a lot of fun."
Both Hennessey and Fox, the only two paid staff members of a school hosting several hundred students, say they want to see the entertainment industry in Colorado grow stronger.
"For about two decades, anyone with talent had to leave the state," Hennessey said. "There were no movie jobs, no video-game jobs, no comic-book jobs, and I think that's ridiculous. The governor wants to bring more movies to Colorado, more video-game producers to Colorado, and we're trying to do our part to train people for those jobs."
Hennessey graduated from Gateway High School in Aurora before attending the Art Institute of Los Angeles, which gave him the education he'd been unable to find here. After returning home and spending two years working for a local movie studio, he decided to create his own school.
"I started with like $37 in the bank," he says. "Everything was falling apart. I had to work other jobs to pay the bills while still working for the studio. So I went to Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute, they gave me a microloan to get the basic materials I needed to build the walls and make the classrooms, and from there I started enrolling students and teaching."
Keep reading for more on DEAD Academy.
Hennessey calls DEAD Academy the school he would have wanted to attend after high school, and modeled it after his experiences at Art Institute of Los Angeles. "They had professional teachers who worked in these industries during the day and then came to school to teach the next generation of students at night," he explains.
He'd been operating the school for two years when he met Fox at a First Friday event. She began volunteering with the Academy almost immediately, then worked up to a full-time job. "What I'm in charge of is helping the school to grow," she says. "We have a public-access show in the works, we're working with a lot of different schools to form student recommendations in both directions, and we're trying to go through the state authorization process."
Once the school is authorized by the state, it will be eligible for certain types of funding, including Veterans' Affairs reimbursements for returning soldiers interested in the arts. "That's a really big one, we're super-thrilled about that," Fox says. "We can give them the skills they need to get in an industry they enjoy."
The school services students of all ages, ranging from middle and high school students to artists in their forties. "A lot of our older students are people who maybe wanted to do comics when they were younger but then they settled into a regular job, and now they're coming back because it was something they always loved," Hennessey says.
The Academy aims to integrate the entire experience of art as a career -- from education to employment. Fox says the school is in constant contact with local industry leaders to find out what they look for in a prospective employee, and is building its future curricula accordingly.
"There are all these talented students who want to do movies or comics or video games, and I wanted to reach out to them and give them a place to display their art on the Santa Fe Art Walk," Hennessey says of the high school contest. "So they can see what the school does, but also so they can feel what it's like to be in a gallery."
Friday night's show was set up in an impromptu auditorium on the first level of the building, where artists and supporters of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels listened as the names of the winners were called out.
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"We really try to make this education accessible," Fox says. "It's art. It's for everyone."