For Mark Kistler, it’s all about inspiration.
As a child, he was inspired by his drawing teacher, Bruce McIntyre, a former Disney Studios artist in the 1940s whose Carlsbad drawing classes Kistler attended from fifth grade through high school. Kistler began teaching art classes himself at age 15 at , then continued to teach throughout San Diego County and beyond, to put himself through college at San Diego State University.
He has continued teaching art for 35 years, winning an Emmy in the process, in 2010, for his PBS drawing show, Mark Kistler’s Imagination Station, writing books, producing DVDs, and still doing hundreds of school assemblies and drawing workshops each year.
Kistler’s students have included the likes of Hollywood kids Miley Cyrus and Raven Symone, who use his online art academy as part of their on-set schooling, as well as successful cartoonists who have worked on animated projects such as Madagascar, Shrek, Tangled, The Incredibles, Alvin & the Chipmunks, The Incredible Hulk, and many more. He has logged over 7,000 school assemblies, been seen in 18 countries by over forty million viewers, and received over a million 3-D drawings via letter and email from children around the world who use his programs.
And, still, Kistler comes home to Carlsbad each year to inspire where he was first inspired. That he did this past week, when my 5-year-old daughter and I (trading off with my husband) took a parents-and-kids morning drawing class with Kistler. Inspired we were.
The key to Kistler is his impromptu, Robin Williams-esque humor. The constant laughter of our daughter and her 5-year-old buddy (who joined the class on the second day, Kistler’s “bring a friend day,” and stayed for the week) was music to my ears. They were learning, drawing and laughing through the whole process. There was no perfectionism, no furrowed brows or self-criticism—in fact, Kistler says, “I spit on erasers! Pew! Pew! Just draw! No erasing!”—only the joy of creating and using our imaginations.
What I also appreciate about Kistler’s style is that he realizes his influence on kids and uses it to affect their broader thinking in life in a conscious, positive way. In his drawing lessons, he ties in subtle messages about self-esteem, goal-setting, environmental awareness, and the power of reading. In our class packets, there is a “Less Television, More Drawing Legally Binding Contract” for kids to sign, as well as a “Safe Surfing Contract” for kids to vow to make safe and smart choices when online.
“I’m trying to get kids to understand that there’s life beyond the screen,” he tells me. “I’m not saying media is bad—it’s how we communicate, how we do commerce—but kids are in front of screens twice as much today as they were when I started teaching 35 years ago. It’s so important that they step back and see the world outside—and also that they are discriminating online, and that their parents are 100 percent engaged with what they are doing there.”
Kistler created his online art academy with a vision of parents and kids having screen time together—learning to draw, enjoying themselves—and it has been wildly successful. Sure enough, one mom in our class, who was back with her sons for the second summer in a row, said in their home they have "Family Drawing Night" each week, when parents and kids do Kistler's online lessons together.
This spring, my daughter and I started with the free online “mini marshmallow” lessons (for 4-7 year olds, the first of a series that goes up to teens and beyond) and were just sucked into Kistler’s unique style and humor. We quickly learned, with giggles, about index finger applause, that we must scream (“aaaaaaahhhhhh!”) every time we draw hair, that any character can riff on any wacky topic—all the while learning serious (“college-level, genius” as Kistler jokes) artistic terms such as foreshortening, shading, horizon lines and placement. Inspiring, really.
So, after 35 years, how does Kistler stay inspired to travel for months of the year and teach drawing classes again and again?
“As I approach 50, I’ve been rediscovering for myself the joy of drawing,” he says. “And the renaissance I am having, after working with kids for so long, is that I’m now taking great joy in flipping the switch for parents to rediscover their own creativity.”
As common as it is for kids to get sucked into a life of screens and texts and too-busyness these days, it obviously is for parents, too. But, Kistler aims to lure parents into his classes so they can slow down, with their children, and simply enjoy the creative process.
“It took me ages to write it, but this year I finally published my first drawing book for adults,” he says, referring to You Can Draw in 30 Days. “I’m getting amazing feedback on it. I’m so confident, comfortable, and excited about what we’ve been able to do with kids in the past 35 years, adding this element this year has really re-lit my spark.”
He was also re-inspired during Hurricane Katrina, when he went down to Houston and set up a drawing camp in the Reliant Center for the children of 28,000 evacuees. “I did exactly what I did this week here in Carlsbad, but for thousands of kids and parents who had been through this ordeal,” he explains. A life-validating experience, for sure.
Two months later, Kistler moved his family to Houston, which is now his central home base as he flies around the country doing art programs. He still regularly returns to his original home base of Carlsbad—where his parents and siblings still live—to teach drawing as he first did at age 15. This coming year, he will be back for a spring Carlsbad drawing camp and school assemblies, teach drawing on an art cruise, launch an art school in Houston and do more summer camps nationwide for kids and parents.
“I’m just carrying the torch of Mr. McIntyre, who first inspired me, to remind people everywhere of the joy of creating art,” Kistler says.
Judging from the smiles, and drawings, of all the parents and kids in our art camp this week, he is doing a rip-roaring job.