Sign me up: Students at Menlo Park Academy in Cleveland get real world experience in art class

As a creative arts teacher at Menlo Park Academy on West 52rd Street, Ohio’s only tuition-free charter school for gifted children in kindergarten through eighth grade, John Cycyk tries to show his students how art fits in to the real world.

“I’m always looking for ways to show kids how people use art to make a living,” he says. So when the Strongsville resident saw all of the handmade signs adorning the Giant Eagle Market District on Pearl Road, he saw an opportunity. “I approached the store manager to see if they’d be interested in working with our school.”

Store officials were very interested. So last year, Cycyk’s students designed signs for the store. This year, 33 students, working in pairs across three of Cycyk’s classes, are making about 15 signs for seasonal Market District projects at both the Strongsville store and the Westlake Market District. The two stores employ twin brothers Chris Kasmar in Strongsville and Tony Kasmar in Westlake as full-time graphic designers.

The students began this year’s project in early October, touring the store. “We did a board meeting, explained what we were looking for in signage,” says Chris Kasmar. “Half the group toured the store and half went upstairs to eat, brainstorm, sketch, and learn buzz words like ‘non-GMO’ and “gluten-free.’”

Chris says he and Tony then had several FaceTime meetings, “answering questions, giving direction, and providing guidance.” The students often check in a couple times a day. “I try to give them as much feedback as I can, kind of like an art director.”

Chris says when he and Tony were in school, as art education majors, the only career options for artists seemed to be art teachers. He says he’s pleased to show the Menlo Park students there are more options if they choose an art career.

“The big thing that’s really cool about this, I think it’s beneficial for all of us, giving them [knowledge that] they can have a job in the arts if they decide to go into it as a career,” he says.

Cycyk says the students have experienced every aspect of being a graphic designer for a grocery store—from pitching their ideas, to getting feedback from the client, to executing the signs. The students will hand over their signs to the Kasmars this week, and Chris and Tony will spend the weekend evaluating the work and scheduling the displays.

Chris says he and Tony will also create storyboard displays for both stores to depict the students' work process on the project.

“They’ve been really supportive,” says Cycyk. “They’ve gone above and beyond.”

Eighth graders Mariam Kalil and Aayushi Shrivastava have been working on signs for Wandering Bear Coffee. Shrivastava says they did a lot of research before they started designing their signs. “I went out and bought the product so we could see how they decorated their boxes,” she says. “The images are more graphic, with the bear [on the box].”

Kalil says they decided to go with a painted image of a bear holding a sign. She says she’s enjoyed the project and is excited to see their work in the stores. “I would be so proud,” she says.

Other products the students are working on include a nonalcoholic sparkling cider, Smashmallow (a snack product), and Walker Scottish shortbread cookies. The products are displayed throughout the store floor.

Shrivastava says she usually enjoys photography and drawing when she’s not in class, while Kalil says she likes working in oil paints.

Both agree that Cycyk is a great teacher. “Mr. Cycyk is the teacher everyone wants,” says Shrivastava. “He’s really chill, laid back. He’s a teacher, yeah, but he is someone you can go to if you have a problem.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.