Ellen Vance

Liberal Arts Instructor
The Art Institute of Seattle

Ellen Vance headshot

Creative work is not just ideas or inspiration or even talent; it's work. Ellen Vance , Liberal Arts Instructor , The Art Institute of Seattle
What would you say is the defining moment in your life when you knew you were destined to become a creative professional?

I was brought up around the fine arts. My mother was a part of the Drama department of a large university, and I was in children’s theatre from the time I could talk, as well as acting children’s parts in adult plays. I was exposed to all of the arts—symphony and opera, museum and gallery shows, ballet, and visiting shows from Broadway musicals to Kabuki theatre.

But mostly we read. Everyone in my large family read every night, and we talked about what we were reading. I loved to read, but my "aha moment" came in the public library. We went every week and, when I was about ten, I complained that I had read everything worth reading in the children’s section of the library, so my mother took me into the stacks of adult fiction. I was surrounded by towering shelves of print. The smell of the ink and paper, the colors and textures of the bindings, and the endless array of stories spoke to me on a visceral level that I hadn’t experienced before. I knew this had to be my world.

How do you weave your professional background into the classroom experience to provide an industry veteran's sense of the realities / challenges / opportunities of the profession?

I teach both speech and writing courses, as well as a freshman professionalism course, and there are a wealth of opportunities to draw from my professional experiences. I, of course, tell them about my professional journey, and I urge them to join professional organizations and attend conferences to keep up with industry changes and trends, to learn, to be inspired, and to network like crazy. 
I have to pitch my work to editors and agents, so I have the students develop pitches for projects, ranging from elevator pitches to longer and more detailed pitches. And I like to bring in several of my professional contacts from PR and publishing to authors to hear and critique both the projects and the effectiveness of the pitches. It raises the stakes and ratchets up the reality factor. They get good, realistic feedback and advice on what works and what doesn’t.

Is there a class assignment that exemplifies your approach to teaching and mentoring? Similarly, how does your approach inspire each student to push themselves beyond their own perceived limits?

In Creative Writing, the students develop a particular creative written project like a short story, graphic novel, screen play or poetry collection. They must develop a proposal and pitch their project before a panel who gives them feedback. As they work on development and drafts, we practice various elements of creative writing and apply whatever we’re learning, like point of view or setting, to their progress. We have periodic peer reviews and one-on-ones where the students have to present their work in progress. They have a final comprehensive review and revision, then they present their work to the class, and the initial pitch panel if available, discussing both their process and the work itself.

Creative work is not just ideas or inspiration or even talent—it’s work. It’s all about revision. You take what you’ve done, get feedback, and then revise.

What role does collaboration contribute to students' success, especially when students from other programs contribute to the same project?

I think the opportunity for creative collaboration is one of the great advantages at The Art Institute. Teaching in Liberal Arts, the students in my classes come from every program. In forming groups, I urge—and sometimes mandate—that they seek out group members with skills and interests that complement and not replicate their own. I also try to construct group projects so they encompass a variety of skill sets including researching, writing and presenting, designing, and executing using various media. Assembling a team with diverse skills, strengths, and experience brings in possibilities that a single student, or even students of the same program, might never consider.

In your opinion, what is the single most important thing you impart to your students to help them succeed in your class and in the real world? Alternatively, what is the most critical advice you would offer any student as he / she embarks on a creative career?

Welcome critique. Develop a thicker skin if you need, but listen to what is said, analyze its value and relevance to your work, and edit, revise, make changes, make it better. Then ask for more feedback.

Is there anything else you'd like us to know about you, your experience, or your role as a faculty member at The Art Institutes?

I have taught at The Art Institute of Seattle for 24 years, and I’ve witnessed many changes in programs and students over the years. As a Liberal Arts faculty member who teaches a variety of different courses, I have the privilege of teaching a large number of Ai Seattle students across every program offered. I love the diversity of students at Ai Seattle and the passion with which they first enter the doors and the talent and skills with which they leave.

What was the inspiration for your artwork?

The inspiration for my current book, Laramie Moon, came in traveling through Wyoming and Montana. I noticed that the ranching areas of the states were extremely anti-wolf. Wolves had been re-introduced into the Yellowstone area and are federally protected, which gives little recourse to ranchers whose livestock falls prey to the wolves. I saw bumper stickers on many trucks with the sentiment “Shoot, shovel, and shut up,” advocating taking matters into their own hands.

My thoughts went to the question, “What would you do if you were a wolf in ranching country?”—which immediately morphed to werewolves who live and work among ranching neighbors who would likely kill them if they knew. So the story of Jim Winter was born—a contemporary alpha werewolf who must protect his pack in a world that now knows about their kind.

Please explain what we are seeing in your pieces.

Since my work is fiction, I’ve attached a photo of the cover of my current book, Laramie Moon.

How can people find out more about you and your artwork?