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Innate talent led Joseph Lanker on winding path to Bridge Academy

Sun., June 6, 2010

Bridge Academy graduate Joseph Lanker in front of his artwork at Sum of 6 Gallery in Coeur d’Alene  May 20. He is pursuing a career as an artist. (Kathy Plonka)
Bridge Academy graduate Joseph Lanker in front of his artwork at Sum of 6 Gallery in Coeur d’Alene May 20. He is pursuing a career as an artist. (Kathy Plonka)

Since the moment Joseph Lanker could wield a brush or sit on a piano bench, he showed an innate artistic talent that carries through today. By most accounts, he’s well on his way down a career path he set for himself nearly a decade ago.

“I always wanted to be an artist,” said Lanker, his back propped up against a wall, his feet folded underneath him, during a recent weekday at the Bridge Academy and Project high schools, which share a building in midtown Coeur d’Alene. “I started playing music when I was really young, at around 5, and my grandma was a painter. So I pretty much grew up painting, too.”

The rare type of kid who knew exactly what he wanted to be as an adult from a young age, Lanker has found success as a painter, with coffee shop showings, many commissioned pieces, and a gallery display currently at Sum of 6 in downtown Coeur d’Alene. And thanks to online coursework provided at the Bridge Academy, he received his high school diploma at the school’s May 25 graduation.

Getting there, however, proved to be an often-trying challenge.

The artistic 18-year-old, who has two older sisters, struggled with the daily grind of most high school settings. Originally from San Diego, he moved to Spokane as a kid and transferred to Coeur d’Alene High School as a freshman, where he later showed a glimpse of his creative abilities by nearly single-handedly putting on the play “James and the Giant Peach,” making the costumes, handling the music and lighting, and directing the show.

He bounced around a few different schools, including M.E.A.D. Alternative in Spokane, while also knocking out some credits at North Idaho College. But with little interest in the traditional classroom environment, Lanker dropped out as a junior and moved away from home at age 17.

“It was personal reasons,” Lanker explained. “I felt it was a necessary step because it was the second big decision I had made on my own.”

While his parents supported him and provided encouragement in whatever he focused on, leaving school was a decision that didn’t sit well with his family.

“They were always pretty supportive,” he explained. Since fifth grade, he knew he wanted to become an artist; it was just a matter of how best to pursue that goal that caused rifts between Lanker and his parents. “It was kind of a battle back and forth, but it was always in the arts,” he said about his future goals.

During that high school hiatus, Lanker stayed busy. He created art for commission, which provided just enough to pay rent since he doesn’t believe in overpricing his pieces, and worked on his music.

At the urging of his sister Kristen, an elementary teacher in Spokane who convinced her younger brother that to become an artist, he’d need to at least obtain a high school degree, the 18-year-old began looking at outside educational opportunities. That’s when he came across the Bridge Academy, a Coeur d’Alene School District-affiliated program established in 2003 as a computer-based alternative to conventional high school learning. The academy offers online courses for students who struggled or dropped out of the traditional educational methods, a recovery-style route to earning their diploma.

It was a perfect fit for Lanker.

“The Bridge Academy was absolutely perfect … It cuts out the busy work and is really focused on the student’s long-term goals. Going at my own pace was something I always felt I needed,” Lanker offered, referring to the online courses he was able to work on at any time. “For me to not continue high school, I knew I had to look for other options. School, I always felt, was holding me back because on the contrast I was already making a career and making money. And I was starting an alternative production company, too.”

The Bridge Academy has helped hundreds of students improve their self-esteem and reach their goal of graduation, according to Susan Thomas, a teacher at the school who convinced Lanker to perform a song at the graduation ceremony. Part of the program’s success is due to the fact that students are required to obtain employment and complete community service, which gives the students a sense of responsibility and confidence, while preparing them for the general workforce.

Lanker, Thomas offered, “is pretty extraordinary, no doubt. He’s more interested in life experiences. He kind of exemplifies the carpe diem attitude to life.”

Over the course of his senior year, he moved back in with his parents. He made up a year and a half of missed classes in order to graduate on time. This summer, he said he plans on “enjoying life but also being as productive as I can be with my portfolio.”

Next fall, Lanker will attend either Evergreen State College in Olympia, or New York Fashion Academy in Seattle. Eventually, Lanker wants to design clothes, make music and paint, all under the roof of a single production company he hopes to set up in London.

Thomas believes her former student has what it takes to achieve whatever challenges he faces. “I think he’s the real deal. I have no doubt he’ll accomplish what he sets out to do,” she said. “Not too many people his age have that clear understanding of what it is they want to do.”

Kristen Lanker, the sister who Lanker credits as being his biggest mentor, recalled the moments from a young age where it became apparent that Joseph was unique.

“He’s always been highly creative, always thinking outside the box. He had this amazing ability that he could reproduce a song just by hearing it. It was pretty incredible to watch,” she offered. “His brain was wired differently.”

Through the years, that talent transferred into the arts, painting, fashion and other pursuits. But it didn’t always connect inside a classroom, she added. “I think that really frustrated him,” Kristen Lanker said.

Now, however, with a diploma in hand, she believes her brother is just getting started. “I think he’s going to find an avenue that works for him,” she said, “and I think you will see his name out there.”

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