Freshman Foundation

Studio Immersion

The Foundation program is the first year of the undergraduate curriculum that brings freshman into broad-based, studio-intensive investigations in perceptual and intellectual studies. The active climate of Foundation is an immersive, transformative experience that nurtures your abilities and challenges your preconceived ideas and attitudes towards creativity.

Our 16,000 square-foot studio facility dedicated solely to freshman is the ideal place to grow and interact with gifted people of diverse backgrounds who learn to excel through independent and collaborative projects.  You are closely mentored by our full-time faculty to develop the skills, attitudes, and philosophies needed to confidently pursue your artistic goals across all media and engross yourself in the pursuit of creative excellence.






As a student, when you enter these yellow doors, you are stepping into a professional design studio. In the fall semester studio course, students begin developing a vocabulary that is rooted in visual experience. Students learn to intellectually reason, to transcend their observations, and to link verbal and visual ideas as they witness the enjoyment of creating visual expression. Students work with one instructor throughout the semester; this mentor helps students to understand critiquing processes and self-reflection. Students encounter a range of creative challenges, including perceptual drawing, 2-D design, 3-D form investigation, time-based and mixed media investigations as avenues of communication and expression.


Spring Semester

Building on strengths and accomplishments of the fall, the spring semester presents a student with entirely new learning structures.  The spring semester is divided into three sequenced, five-week workshops that focus on intellectual, imagistic and process-based learning platforms.  It offers the opportunity for students to choose their individual paths of inquiry based on self-assessed needs and educational interests.  Examples of recent workshops include “Chromatic Constructions,” “The Woven Self,” “Meta-making,” and “Butoh and the Expressive Figure.”


Jean Schmitt, M.F.A.

Visiting Assistant Professor and Acting Chair

Jean Ormaza’s artwork is informed by her musical background and includes large-scale drawing, sculpture, sound and moving image.  She enjoys combining travel, art, and teaching. So far, projects have taken her to the streets of Quito, deep into the Amazon and to other locations throughout South America. Primarily, Ormaza is interested in the ways in which art and storytelling can build cultural empathy. Her recent educational project centers around creative exchanges that bridge gaps between distinct world-views, with the goal of stimulating new ways of thinking. Jean taught at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Northeastern University.  She received her B.F.A from Alfred University and her M.F.A .from Vermont College.  

Steve Snell

Assistant Professor and Acting Chair

Steve Snell calls his work adventure art. This adventure and community-based practice has led him to variety of experiences, ranging from floating the Connecticut River in a couch-boat to a random encounter with Alec Baldwin while hiking across Western Massachusetts.

In 2014, Steve was an official artist-in-residence along the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska and British Columbia, which was sponsored by the National Parks Service and Parks Canada.  His work has been shown in galleries and film festivals throughout the United States, including the Aspen Shorts Fest and the Currents New Media Festival in Santa Fe. Steve earned his M.F.A. in Studio Art from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (2011) as well as a B.F.A. in Painting / B.S. in Art Education from Miami University (2006).


Steve Whitacre

Professor and Sosland Family Chair in Foundation Studies

A senior professor of art, Steve Whitacre’s long-term leadership in the Institute’s Foundation studies has earned national and international recognition. Steve’s work encompasses large sculpture and his practice of visual poetics is broad and diverse in form, image and circumstance. Whitacre’s works are held in many private collections and have been widely exhibited in this country, England, Scotland and Italy. He is often invited as a guest lecturer or critic to various institutions. He also directs a private design practice, SBW Associates, based in Kansas City, and he has been on the faculties of Ohio University and the University of Kansas School of Architecture. Whitacre studied at the Columbus College of Art and Design and earned B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees from Ohio University. His creative pathway is guided by the following statement: “For me the process of making art is an act of courage, an exploration of profoundly unclear complexities of existence. My efforts are attempts to act out my perceptions of this level of existence. However, in the context of this activity, my actions are ultimately metaphysical gestures, and often, as in my dreams, the nature of these acts are seldom fully understood but enacted with a primitive faith in their meaning.”


Chris Chapin


Professor Chapin joined KCAI in 2009, teaching a broad range of interdisciplinary studio courses in art and design. Previously, he was Professor of Communication Arts and Fine Arts at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Chapin is a career photographer, designer and arts educator with degrees in Photography, Design and Architecture. He has held lead creative posts in the private sector, and since 1996 has served as Principal and Creative Director for the California-based Parallax Design Group. Chapin has won awards in design, and has held distinguished leadership roles in arts education. His personal work combines experiences in graphic communication, photography and printmaking to shape his works of visual inquiry and communication.


Russell Ferguson


KCAI faculty member since 1993, Russell Ferguson’s interests include sculpture, drawing and printmaking, with specific application of narrative drawing to the fields of painting, printmaking, scenography and illustration. His works are held in private collections regionally and internationally. Ferguson also has worked on set design for the Kansas City Ballet and the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City. Ferguson is a maker/fabricator working within the industrial milieu of the West. He holds an M.F.A. degree from Yale University and a B.F.A. degree from the Kansas City Art Institute.


Hugh Merrill


Hugh Merrill, who joined the KCAI faculty in 1976, has had solo exhibitions at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, as well as many other galleries and museums. He has been a visiting artist at over 50 universities and colleges internationally. Merrill has received National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Virginia Museum Fellowship, a Yaddo/Hand Hollow Fellowship, a Mellon Foundation Grant, and an Alliance of Independent Art Schools Faculty Grant in support of his work. He received the Distinguished Teaching Award from the Southern Graphics Council 2007. Merrill earned a B.F.A. degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and an M.F.A. degree from the School of Art and Architecture at Yale University.


Sherry Sparks

Associate Professor

Sherry Sparks has particular interest, as an artist, in design, painting and photography. Her work has been included in various group shows, local galleries and in juried shows. Sparks received the Active Sponsor Award for her work in the Mid-Four Exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She is a designer with Asiatica, Ltd., in Kansas City, where she designs accessories and contributes to the fashion collection. Asiatica’s couture line is shown in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Sparks holds B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees from the University of Kansas.


Christopher Spaw

Assistant Professor

Christopher Spaw has over 10 years experience in teaching architectural studios, seminars, and lectures. He also has over 20 years experience in architectural practice. With extensive a background in design + build experience he is able to communicate design processes in a complete form. The need to build, to make, to design, and explore is what drives his process. Believing that the art of making and the creative act of discovery reveals the greatest potential of a project. He is a design principle and Co-owner of boxlab, an award winning design studio and showroom in Manhattan, Kansas. In addition to regional projects in Kansas and Missouri, Christopher has also collaborated with international architecture firms with projects in Mexico and Norway. Christopher earned his Master of Architecture from Kansas State University in 2005 as well as a Bachelor of Architecture from Kansas State University in 1997.

Caleb Taylor

Assistant Professor

Caleb Taylor earned his M.F.A. degree in painting from Montana State University-Bozeman (2008), and his B.F.A. degree from Northwest Missouri State University (2004). He was named a Charlotte Street Foundation Fellow in 2010, and he’s the recipient of the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation M.F.A. Grant. Additional awards include a 2009 ArtsKC Inspiration Grant and a ThinkTank Emerging Educator Fellowship. Taylor also is a founding member of PLUG Projects, a curatorial collaboration in Kansas City. PLUG is a recipient of a 2011 Rocket Grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, Spencer Museum of Art and Charlotte Street Foundation.


Adjunct Faculty

Student Work