CalArts alum and ‘SpongeBob’ creator Stephen Hillenburg dies at 57

Photo of Hillenburgs and Rajans courtesy of CalArts

“SpongeBob Squarepants” creator and CalArts alum Stephen Hillenburg died Tuesday at age 57 after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Hillenburg’s hit show originated in Santa Clarita, where he pursued a career in animation at California Institute of the Arts. He earned a master of fine arts degree in experimental animation in 1992, a departure from his background as a marine biologist and teacher at the Ocean Institute in Orange County.

But that career would later inform the inception of SpongeBob, initially named, “SpongeBoy.”

The iconic yellow sponge was born when Hillenburg began developing a concept for a show on sea creatures in 1996, drawing on characters he created for a comic book about tidepools, “The Intertidal Zone,” while attending school at CalArts, and his own love of the world under the sea.

He pitched the show to Nickelodeon in 1998, and it premiered in July 1999 as a children’s cartoon, eventually spawning two films and a recent Broadway musical.

In a news release, CalArts President Ravi Rajan said Hillenburg and his wife, CalArts trustee Karen, were among the first few people he’d met as part of the CalArts family.

“Steve’s path to CalArts, his experience here, and his journey after, is so representative of our community,” Rajan wrote. “Indeed, he was able to take his passion for making art (he loved painting), as well as for marine biology, and merge them into a creative project that has had a huge impact on society, in the U.S., and internationally.”

Hillenburg’s diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis came in March 2017, but the marine biologist continued to work on the show until his death.

“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” Nickelodeon said in a statement on Tuesday. “He was a beloved friend and longtime creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family.”

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