Graphic design student Alex Kern, barely into his freshman year at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), is suddenly less the student and more the designer. Kern’s wining entry in a Mall of America (MOA) design competition was honored by eye-catching MOA billboards that went up in Minneapolis and St. Paul during October and November.
Kern, 18, a 2005 graduate of St. Louis Park High School, says the experience has been “exhilarating.” His first reaction to the news, he writes from Rochester, was “a whoop, like Curly in the Three Stooges.” Alex’s winning design, a wristwatch, features a sinister dragon whose head falls across the watch face. The creature wraps its body and tail about the wristband in green and brown colors. Runic letters evoke ancient times.
Asked about the award’s impact on his studies, Alex says his work at RIT had been coming along fine before the MOA announcement. “But afterwards,” he says, “I had a sense of courage and determination to achieve beyond what my teachers expected. I found inspiration from this success.” Alex says that college life has given him a greater sense of freedom—and of personal responsibility. With both conviction and considerable understatement, Alex says, “Time management is important in college and can be challenging.”
Mall of America spokes person, Anna Lewicki, says that art students were invited to design watches as part of MOA’s major advertising campaign, More Ways to Be You. The MOA campaign, created by the Kerker agency, Minneapolis, also features jeans designed by Twin Cities’ celebrities. Lewicki says that Kern’s winning watch design was among fifty selected from about five hundred entries.
Alex charts his interest in art from early childhood. His mother observed an intense interest in drawing at age two. By his first year in high school, Alex’s art was being expressed in video game creations and drawings that wowed his classmates and brought important encouragement from teachers. During his junior and senior high school years, Alex kept classmates and staff in stitches over a daily blackboard comic based on assorted alter egos. Alex says modestly that his cartoon work merely presented “my observations and strange humor.”
Senior year work as a Student Assistant to St. Louis Park art teacher Trevor Paulson was an important stage in his preparation for college. Alex says, “Learning how to help other students with their projects really helped develop my own skills of analysis, and my ability to shape artwork for visual effect.”
Educators aren’t shy about returning the praise Alex gives his teachers. St. Louis Park Chief Educational Case Manager and teacher Barbara Becker helps district students with hearing loss shape their high school careers. She talks with enthusiasm about Alex’s gifts in math, science and art. But Becker says “his strong belief in himself, his perseverance and the degree of responsibility he takes for his own learning might be greater gifts.” Asked to say more, Becker couldn’t prevent a smile. “He has an absolutely wonderful, twisted sense of humor,” she says. She adds that Alex’s billboards have made him an inspiration for all of the district’s students this year, especially young students with hearing loss.
Asked about the role deafness might play in his artistic creativity, Alex says, “I’ve pondered this. But even without my hearing, I learn. I see and learn from shape, form, line, structure, unity, movements, emotions, ideas that life presents, interactions with nature. What I experience goes into my creativity and my art. Sometime I do think my deafness gives me wider creativity. But we all have differences and different influences, and everybody has their own way of finding their inspiration.”
Alan Parnes, a counselor for persons with hearing loss at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, helps students in St. Louis Park make plans for their transition from school to careers. Parnes, who first met Alex in his junior year, says that Alex’s scholarship and an already well developed focus on a career in art and graphic design made him stand out among students he has counseled. He adds, smiling broadly, that Alex was very likely the only St. Louis Park student sporting, at that time, a very full beard. “It did give Alex a certain mature look,” Parnes says.
Parnes was instrumental in facilitating Alex’s plans for attending RIT, home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and a campus rich in communication supports and technology for students with hearing loss. Alex says the student body includes about 1,000 persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Rochester, N.Y itself has been called the most deaf-friendly city in America, where almost every aspect of life is deaf-accessible. Alex, who uses speech, hearing, and sign language to communicate, prefers to sign. Alex says there is deafness in his family but that his parents, Richard and Terry Kern, are not deaf. They had acquired some useful but very rudimentary signing skills before Alex was born, to communicate better with deaf relatives. They began learning sign language in earnest soon after Alex’s hearing loss was diagnosed at fourteen months.
What three contemporary consumer products does Alex Kern, designer, find interesting? Alex considers the question, and offers these: “Apple’s iPod—white, sleek, futuristic. Canned pop—playful colors and designs blend with the idea of party. Quicksilver clothing—it fits with a sense of summer and sport.”
About education, Alex Kern, student, observes, “We all have to work big in our future and must be prepared.” Asked about advice he has for younger students, Alex replies: “Always be who you are. If you need help, seek help from others you are close to. Upon entering college, expect to work hard, because they will pour assignments on you.”
Alex, who describes his parents as his greatest supporters, says fondly, “They want me to follow what is in my heart.” Now that his design has been presented on two immense billboards seen by thousands of people every day, Alex says it’s interesting that he wasn’t very enthusiastic about the competition at first. His parents encouraged him to sketch a watch design. “Looks like it got me to be a winner,” he says, “weird!”
Persons interested in information about vocational services for persons with hearing loss, including youth and young adults in transition from school to careers, may contact Rubin Latz, State Coordinator for services to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, MN Department of Employment and Economic Development-Rehabilitation Services, St. Paul MN, 651-297-8269 or 1-800-328-9095 (Voice), 651-296-9141 or 1-800-657-3973 (TTY), 651-297-5159 (FAX), or email: email@example.com.