Tacoma’s School of the Arts graduate’s senior project lands him paid summer commission

Ian Wheelock had a big year.

Before he graduated this month from Tacoma’s School of the Arts, he drew a self-portrait that won a congressional art award. He was accepted to the California College of the Arts. And his high school senior project — a portrait featuring the faces of all 73 SOTA classmates — landed him a paid commission for the summer.

In the middle of it all, Wheelock surprised everyone by breaking his right arm, the one he draws with. He fractured it in January while leaping over sculptures on his way to school.

He was devastated but wouldn’t be denied. He taught himself to draw with his left.

“My mom saw me crying in the hospital room, but when the doctor told me that my arm was broken, I perked up,” he said. “I was like, ‘I know what I have to do because I have to finish this project.’ I wasn’t going to not do it, I was already halfway done.”

His senior project combined detailed head shots of all of his classmates into one large, hand-drawn class portrait. He also drew a self portrait that will hang for the next year in a hallway connecting a congressional office building with the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Terri Placentia, his art teacher and mentor at SOTA, believes Wheelock communicates by sketching the world around him. He’s a visual thinker and a rare young artist, she said.

“He processes stuff, visually ... stylistically, he is very well formed,” she said. “That’s not usually the case with high school students; it usually takes a while to come to that place, but because he has been drawing since he could breathe, he’s there.”

The 18-year-old creates art in multiple mediums including pencil, pen, watercolor, markers and acrylic.

Some of his formative years were spent at Jason Lee Middle School, where he participated in the Hilltop Glass Program. Exposure to the Hilltop Artists showed him he could make a career of his passion.

“I learned that art is like a feasible thing that I could do for the rest of my life,” he said.

After middle school, he traveled to Europe with his uncle, gaining exposure to art outside the confines of his hometown, he said.

He discovered Keith Haring, a member of the New York milieu that included Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Wheelock read Haring’s autobiography during his travels and found inspiration. It convinced him to go to art school. But SOTA, at that time, was a three-year high school, so he attended Stadium High School as a freshman.

Under printmaking teacher Laurie Brown, he learned about “streamlining art, like T-shirts and posters and stuff, and how you can make a really simple graphic and make a bunch of them.”

After Stadium came SOTA, where he met Placentia. Wheelock took two semesters of painting from her, as well as three drawing courses. He also enrolled in her class on business art, which had a strong impact on him.

“One of the things I emphasize in all of my classes: Don’t do it for free; you’re working really hard here,” she said.

Placentia has taught 14 years at SOTA and says she’s thankful for the opportunity.

“I think that people under-teach kids ... their expectations are set a little low for my taste,” she said. “I always push to the end and give them work that is as hard as possible and they always do it.”

Now a former student, Wheelock plans to stay in Tacoma this summer and keep busy.

He’ll be paid to work on a group portrait commissioned by a SOTA administrator. It is scheduled for a fall unveiling.

Wheelock’s musician friends want him to do posters and album covers for them, and he figures to produce some T-shirts and buttons for himself.

“I’ve had couple of art shows. Maybe I’ll have another one.”

David Anderson: 253-597-8670