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In the Spotlight: Intro to Creativity

“Society doesn’t want us to be creative ... My goal for this class is to get the students to recognize their inner voices that they’ve been ignoring.”

By Melanie Jarrett

Willie Baronet’s Introduction to Creativity class is held in what might very well be the least creative space in the Owen Arts Center. Blank, windowless white walls surround faded, olive green stadiumstyle seating – chairs that, on this day in particular, squeal with the strain of 50-plus undergraduate students interested in advertising as a major. The setting is in stark contrast to Baronet’s lively demeanor and buoyant energy.

His opening words create a spark in the drab confines: “Your fear is welcome here.” And during the 50-minute class students discover that, yes, fear is in fact welcome. Vigorous debate over the controversial documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop precedes an exercise with a visiting artist wherein the students frost cupcakes – yes, cupcakes – to symbolize their hidden anxieties. The lighthearted interaction between students and professor belies a more serious purpose to the entry-level class, which is to introduce students to the advertising industry and the creative track in particular.

“The class is really kind of an industry literacy class – it sets the tone for what advertising is and why certain ads break through while others don’t,” says Steve Edwards, chair of the Temerlin Advertising Institute. “It gives you perspective on how to solve problems, and how to apply the aspect of being creative to anything that you’re going to do in the industry.”

Baronet says his take on the class is about dispelling the notion that some people are creative and some are not. “A lot of the class is just them discovering that everybody is creative if they’re willing to take the risk.”

Risk, in fact, is a key theme in Baronet’s life. The visiting executive-in-residence is the former owner and creative director of GroupBaronet (now MasonBaronet), a successful ad agency he sold in 2006 to pursue other interests that include art (he earned his M.F.A. from UT-Dallas in 2011) and now, teaching. Baronet’s ongoing art project, We Are All Homeless, has garnered attention for its focus on dispelling preconceived ideas about the homeless population through the collection and display of their handmade signs.

Baronet’s art plays an integral role in his approach to the Intro to Creativity class, which represents a crossroads for advertising majors ready to declare their specialty. His spin on the creative industry or, more accurately, on the process of being creative, has inspired a record number of students to apply for the design track.

“Society doesn’t want us to be creative; it wants us to follow the rules,” Baronet says. “My goal for this class is to get the students to recognize their inner voices that they’ve been ignoring. I want them to learn to say, ‘to hell with it – I’m doing it anyway,’ whether that’s making a painting or wearing a goofy hat or dancing in the middle of a fountain.

“They have to realize that the people who are successful at creativity are not necessarily more talented. It’s that they’re willing to take risks and keep trying and screw up, and keep trying and screw up and keep trying.”

It is a strategy that has had a powerful impact on his students.

“I’ve heard so many people say that they’re not creative, but obviously they haven’t taken his class yet,” says junior advertising major Meredith White. “This class is a way for us to explore our own thinking process and the thinking processes of others; it pushes us to see ourselves in a way we never have before.”

Baronet has a sparkling résumé to rely upon as he guides students through their introduction to the advertising industry. Beyond the success of his agency, he’s had advertising and design work featured in a long list of distinguished industry publications and has received numerous medals and awards both locally and nationally. And his art – a passion he long hesitated to pursue – has been showcased in a number of group and solo exhibitions. He says that each choice he’s made, each achievement he’s garnered, informs the way he approaches teaching, whether it be a 10-person portfolio class or a larger seminar such as Intro to Creativity.

“There was a time in my life when I was making decisions based on what other people wanted me to do. But not any more,” says Baronet. “I want students to figure out for themselves what makes them bounce out of bed and get excited. And then I want them to go do that.”

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