10, October 2016 § 2 Comments
By: Jun-Pierre Shiozawa
The past month the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts marked the 28th year of its Italy program. The new group of students arrived in early September at the Villa Rospigliosi, the Aegean Center’s home in Italy. Up in the hills overlooking the Tuscan city of Pistoia, the students became accustomed to life at the Villa; classes throughout the day including drawing, photography, writing and theatre, and sharing prepared meals by the Villa chefs, who have been with the Center since the very first years.
The bulk of the Italy program involves touring the great centers of the Italian Renaissance, including Florence, Siena, Venice, Pisa, Pistoia, Rome and for the first time ever for the Aegean Center, Bologna.
In Florence, the Center was able to visit the newly reopened Museum of the Works of the Duomo featuring a new layout which recreates the facade of the Cathedral with original sculptures set in niches. We toured through the great churches and museums of Florence including the Bargello and the Uffizi. As always, the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine was a highlight of the tours in Florence. Inside the chapel the group was able to enjoy thirty minutes to themselves to study and admire the great fresco masterpieces of Massacio and Masolino.
On one rainy day, our bus brought us through the Tuscan hills to Siena, where we were fortunately greeted with clearer skies and sunshine. The Cathedral of Siena was less crowded than usual and we were able to admire its incredible array of sculpture and decor, its fascinating floors and the colorful Piccolimini library.
During our second week in Italy, the Aegean Center visited Venice for three days. Upon arriving, art history professor Jeffrey Carson led the tour through the Piazza San Marco and up in to the Basilica of San Marco to see the original bronze horses, taken from the hippodrome of Constantinople. The next day the Aegean Center toured the great painting museum of Venice, the Accademia and found some of our old favorites, works by Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian.
After returning to Venice we continued our tours through Tuscany with a visit to Pisa where we enjoyed a bright sunny day in the “Piazza dei Mirocoli,” (the Plaza of Miracles) with its beautiful marble faced buildings: the Cathedral of Pisa, its baptistery, the Campo Santo and of course, the Leaning Tower. In the baptistery, Studio Arts professor Jane Pack described the innovative work of Nicola Pisano’s pulpit and we were able to hear the incredible acoustics of the baptistery interior as one of the guards made a call in to its dome which echoed with his own response.
The Aegean Center visited Bologna for the first time as well. The home of the oldest university in the world, Bologna welcomed us in its rich array of historical and religious centers, including the Basilicas of San Petronio and San Domenico. Although we were unable to see Giambologna’s Fountain of Neptune (under restoration) and Raphael’s Ectasy of St. Cecilia (currently on loan for the Pushkin Museum’s “Raphael. The Poetry of the Image” exhibition) we were taken by the austere beauty of the medieval and premedieval church complex of Santo Stefano and the energy of the city itself.
The Aegean Center students enjoyed our last meal at the Villa Rospigiliosi and thanked the Villa chefs with a thank you card and applause. Saying farewell to the Villa is always bittersweet, a mixture of sadness and excited anticipation with what lays ahead: Rome and finally Greece!
In Rome, director John Pack led the students through a winding tour of Rome’s downtown. John took the students through its famous piazzas, complete with stops for Granita di Cafe in front of the Pantheon and a trip up the Capitoline hill to view over the ancient Roman forum. The next day Jane led the group through the magical Palazzo Massimo to see its treasures including the bronze Pugilist, the dying Niobid and the lovely garden frescoes from the Villa Livia. Finally on our last day in Rome the Aegean Center woke up at the crack of dawn to visit the Vatican museum and where we had the Sistine Chapel all to ourselves, entering before any other group. We all gasped at Michelangelo’s achievements, awestruck and moved.
Rome marked the final leg of the Aegean Center’s Italian tour and the students then departed for Athens. There, under the characteristically bright Greek sunlight, art history Jeffrey Carson led the students up to the Acropolis to see the monument to the magnificence of the Ancient Athenians: The Parthenon. That night, one of the students, Aria Higgins, invited the entire Aegean Center to dine at her family restaurant, Mama Roux. The last day of touring before the students’ arrival in Paros was at the greatest museum of ancient Greek antiquities in the world, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Now the students have all arrived in Paros, to settle in and prepare for the classes ahead. We are all excited to see what else will be accomplished with this close knit, energetic and talented group of students.
Thank you very much to Bruno-Ken Shiozawa for the use of his photographs for this post
13, May 2014 § 6 Comments
by Stephanie Dissette
The decision I made to study with the Aegean Center five years ago, as a gap-year student (only planning on one semester, then staying two years), has completely defined and outlined my adult life. Now, I have a bachelor’s degree in art history and a fine arts minor from the American University of Paris. I will begin a postgraduate degree this fall with Warwick University’s History of Art (Venice stream) postgraduate program. Eventually, I hope this will lead to a career as an art history professor.
When I started with the Aegean Center, I had no intention of becoming an artist or art historian – I just wanted to see the world. At the time, I thought even simply visiting Italy and Greece would satisfy: the art was a perk.
Please understand, contrary to popular belief, not all gap-year students travel in order to party and relax before getting serious about school. I can still hear my high-school guidance counselor warning, “the longer you wait to go, the less likely you’ll actually make it through college.” What an idiot. To be fair, I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where at least three-quarters of students who continue on to higher education chose a state school, or at least stay within about 3-4 hours of home at another Midwest college or university. Students who don’t feel certain about their goals for college (what 18-year old is ever certain anyway…?) usually go to the nearby junior college, saving money the first couple years, and then finish their degree elsewhere. I bet most students my old counselor deals with (who don’t choose one of those obvious, typical paths) have no intention of continuing their education at all. I bet, just like the parents of some of my friends, that counselor was thinking, “what parent in her right mind would spend that kind of money and let her kid go that far away, just to see it all wasted on partying abroad?”
Well, my mom couldn’t spend that kind of money, for one. I had some help from my grandparents, but otherwise managed a lot of help through scholarships and work-study. And as far as sending me so far away… well, she knows there is a lot more to learn in life than what any school can offer, and looked forward to my travels. The best part of my counselor’s lack of faith in my future education: I was an honor’s student, who participated in many extra-curricular activities, and, of the 997 students that graduated from my high school that spring, I ranked in the top 10% academically. Even if none of that were true, even if I was the kind of student that chose school abroad to party as an under-21 (where it is legal), there was no way to avoid the kind of education I received with the Aegean Center.
In one word, the Aegean Center is an education in perception. Whether through the literal or philosophical reading of the word, there is perhaps no better place in the world to challenge one’s perception than with the Aegean Center. If you read this blog often, you know about the Friday hikes – the communion with nature that refreshes the spirit, but perhaps more importantly teaches purity in light, color, planes, even materials – and how they open up the world in a way many of us have forgotten or possibly never experienced. The courses follow a classical approach to fine art, based on masterworks, providing a basis many well-respected art schools have stopped offering their students. The blog also features articles the teachers have written about exhibits they’ve visited or projects they are working on. Perhaps its time to re-read those articles and recognize the freshness of their perspectives and techniques compared to the typical, contemporary take on art: a true Renaissance, if you’ll excuse the pun, in classical approach. My personal favorite: stories about the month touring Italy.
Chicago doesn’t have a very impressive collection of Renaissance art – the city is better known for its world-class impressionist collection and modern-contemporary art. The only connection I had to Italian Renaissance art in my first experiences abroad was an appreciation for public outdoor art – Chicago is packed full of that! And while I’m a big fan of the Chagall wall, Calder’s Flamingo, and the Picasso in Daley Plaza; for me, they hardly compare to Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, or the Michelangelo David. That perception, of course, is all about personal preference. I just never had the context before to understand where that preference came from. Now, I do.
And it is easier for me to make these comparisons now, after finishing my degree in art history, but getting there is its own story too. For the record, I am the wrong kind of art history student – at least traditionally speaking. Most art history students are excellent at remembering detailed information, especially names and dates; my memory does not hold those kinds of details very well. I’m lucky to get the century right with most works, and even if I can talk you through exactly where a painting hangs in the remarkable chasm of the Louvre, or break down the full story of nearly any biblical subject in an artwork and tell you why you should care about it, I will always double check my notes for names and dates. Definitely did that writing the previous paragraph here (at least now we have the internet!). And all the ways I am different or wrong compared to the typical, traditional art history student, I credit to the Aegean Center. First off, in my experience, very few art history students have a background in fine art. Many come from families that exposed them to every museum imaginable, or took a liking to art early on and chased it themselves; however, very few have picked up a pencil, crayon, paintbrush, or camera for anything artistic since they were in grade school. In fact, most would probably tell you that they are terrible at anything creative. Can anyone please explain to me how someone who does not consider him or herself creative ends up studying art history?
The truth is, as far as I’m concerned, uncreative people (or those without interest in being creative) do not study art history. The people who choose to study art history definitely have a creative side, whether they’ve acknowledged it or not. The Aegean Center embraces students with all levels of experience because they know the secret: art isn’t just talent, it’s work! Yes, anyone CAN draw. Anyone CAN paint. Anyone CAN take a beautiful photograph, then edit and print it like a real artist does. The trick is hard work, studying the great masters, and committing to practice. I may never display any artworks of my own in galleries or magazines, but I can paint properly with oil paints if I so desire, and my drawing does still improve, even when I stop practicing for a couple months now and again. The American University of Paris (AUP) does offer fine arts courses, and in fact, just recently launched a fine arts major (in addition to the minor). While most of my fine arts experience comes from the Aegean Center, AUP caught my attention by valuing the education the Aegean Center offered, and gave me full university credits for all the work I accomplished through the Aegean Center’s rigorous courses. There is currently one fine arts course AUP students must complete in order to graduate with an art history degree called “Materials and Techniques of the Masters.” I remember explaining the course to teachers at the Aegean Center, hardly containing my excitement, and then expressing honest disbelief when I realized how few students in the course had any background in the fine arts, as well as how many of them were seniors, graduating that same semester. Those students hadn’t ever specifically studied the materials and techniques used in all the works they had spent up to four years analyzing until their final semesters. Enter me: a number’s dummy, yes, but also the only one in the room who cared whether a work was made in tempera or oils… better yet, I’m the only one who could usually guess the material before asking.
Consider this: does a painting receive the same reaction, and hold the same majesty, projected in a classroom as it does when viewed in the flesh? While I’d like to think I understood the difference as a kid wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago, it probably wasn’t until my time with the Aegean Center that I really became aware of the difference. I have shown so many of my favorite artworks to friends and family through photos I’ve taken, or pictures I find online, and they never really compare to the awe acquired in being inches away from that full-scale work. Before I even committed to studying art history, the Aegean Center was preparing me to better understand and appreciate art, architecture, and history.
That also explains why, researching masters programs in art history, I had to somehow still experience the art in person; and I couldn’t do that with Renaissance works in Chicago. Starting this September, I’ll have come full circle – back to Italy, the same way the Aegean Center begins its fall semesters. Attending a British school as an American, I’m already preparing to stand out in more ways than one. I’ll probably be the wrong kind of student, again – I wish it all started tomorrow.
Thank you, Parian family, for helping me see fully and understand deeply. I couldn’t be more pleased for what I see coming next.
24, July 2013 § Leave a comment
Today is the final day of the two week Figure Drawing Intensive at the Aegean Center. We are tired but exhilarated and all the participants have seen great improvement in their abilities to draw the figure. I see startling jumps in the comprehension of form and anatomy, exactness of position and character of the pose. In the last few days the ability to concentrate and focus has increased and a one hour drawing flies by without awareness of the time passing. We have worked in ink, finger paint, conte, charcoal and pencil. Yesterday we drew portraits. Now time is needed to allow the information to sink in and enter the subconscious.
It was a joyful experience to teach this group. Each student brought their unique skills and perspective and we all helped each other to achieve our best. Thank you to Eleni, Elena, Ellie, Maia, Cassie, Penny, Isabel, Anglelika, and Avril for your contributions.
31, May 2013 § 1 Comment
There has been a flurry of paper flying in the digital lab as students mat their prints and make decisions on what will go into the flip files at the exhibition opening on Saturday. Painters are applying final touches and evaluating their best efforts. As the students clear out the studios there is sadness mingled with nostalgia as they will all go their separate ways in less than a week. Many will stay in touch over the next years as they have formed important bonds but the group energy disapates as they all begin to anticipate the next step. Some will return for the fall semester and play the role of the experienced returnees advising the newcomers. The rest go on to jobs and universities carrying a part of the Aegean Center with them. We wish them καλό ταξίδι. Good journeys!
15, May 2013 § Leave a comment
Euphrosyne Doxiades revealed secrets about the encaustic method of painting in a recent workshop at the Aegean Center. Encaustic is an ancient technique in which pigments and wax are blended together and applied hot to a surface. An electric hot plate kept the wax at the perfect temperature to dip into and spread with a brush. Small alcohol burners were also used to heat metal spatulas which spread the wax. Working on a dark imprimatura the wax strokes leave a highly textured surface which can be further manipulated with heat. Electric tools can be used as well. The four color palette was employed; white and black, yellow and red. Euprhosyne’s book, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, shows how this ancient technique was used for mummy portraits in first century Egypt. Her book is published by Thames and Hudson.
8, May 2013 § 3 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
Surprised by the ease of painting in the dark and upside down, I left the reader waiting for an update while our underpaintings dried.
The projection seems bursting with color and light inside of our dark room or ‘camera obscura’ as is the Italian phrase. How strange it was to apply color then and find our efforts were too garish in comparison. Our second surprise with this project– how neutral the image needed to be.
I first suggested we tint our underpainting with some generalized glazes while still outside the camera. This gave us a sense of the general warms and cools. The vase was glazed in a warm transparent brown very thinly applied and wiped back with a rag; the wall was tinted with a veil of blue. In truth this glazing just barely altered the color of the painting from its monochromatic state to something resembling an old fashioned tinted photograph.
After studying Vermeer I saw that many of his tones are neutral, darks are mostly without color, half tones are very grey, and only lights have true color. This matches what we perceive of the projection. Highlights are obviously colored yellow or blue, gradations are very soft, contrasts are muted. Selecting a very limited palette of raw sienna and cobalt blue, with just a touch of cobalt violet (plus black and white), I matched the underpainting’s tones and scumbled on color very lightly. My application of the colors, once viewed in daylight, was too colorful. I went back in a second time and added greys, warm and cool, softened transitions and added transparent color glazes into the darks. The feeling of cool light this gave was more northern in feel, the greyed out colors were more photographically ‘real’. The process is somewhat demanding, light off and on, white card up, down, staring at the image, mixing color, all in the half dark. But it goes fairly quickly nonetheless.
The students were anxious to try a portrait but we quickly discovered that a human model needs to be very still or the results are skewed. Given fifteen minutes one can attain a likeness; more time generally results in a slumping model and a frustrated painter.
This project has taught us much about the use of color, its potency if restrained in use, the use of selective focus, the beauty of grey. I don’t think we are any closer to answering the final question of whether Vermeer painted inside of a darkened room but we have certainly understood that it would be possible to do so.
19, April 2013 § 8 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
Have you ever painted upside down in the dark?
While visiting Rome this winter I had the opportunity to study several Vermeer paintings in the exhibit at the Quirinale. They were part of a larger show called “Vermeer and The Golden Age of Dutch Art” and although there were some other fine pieces in the exhibit, the Vermeers outshone the others. They seem to glow from within and the accuracy of the perceived space is extraordinary. Johannes Vermeer has captured modern interest not only for his dreamy women engaged in mundane tasks but also perhaps due to the mystery surrounding his life. We know little about his training, his personal life or his methods. I was intrigued by his use of the camera obscura, which seems to be an accepted fact among art historians, and I purchased a book which discussed his use of lenses, “Vermeer’s Camera” by Philip Steadman. This book suggests that Vermeer used a small booth type of camera which one sits in, and not the tabletop type. I felt Steadman’s work was intriguing and it raised some questions that I wanted to investigate.
Advanced painters, those that have already done one semester with us, work on a project with me during the term. This spring I suggested we put our energies into discovering what makes Vermeer unique. His subject matter is neither original nor particular to him. His power lies in his method.
We did some preliminary toying around with a magnifying glass and a black tent pitched over easels to get a sense of what a lens will do. When we determined that an image could indeed be projected by that means I took the time to build a small room out of PVC pipe and covered it in cardboard and black cloth. This served as our camera obscura. Procuring the lens was a bit more challenging but after some reading on the Internet I discovered that we needed a lens with a low number diopter and the local optician was kind enough to allow me to try many lenses until I found the one with the correct focal length.
Once we had the lens and fixed it in place the next challenge was to see if the image could be traced easily and how one might go about painting on the tracing afterwards. We set up the still life and used a mirror to reverse the image right to left because I thought we would need to see the real still life to paint from it at some point and the lens by itself reverses the image. This proved unnecessary but I didn’t know that at the time.
We found that inside the booth we had a beautiful painterly projection and that the light coming from that was enough to see the palette and mix tones. Following traditional methodology we placed five tones directly onto the imprimatura, moving from the extremes of black and white and then locating the middle three. It was not difficult to find and apply the tones even though the image was in color but my advanced painters have had experience using the five tone range before. We took extra time to blend edges and smooth gradations. It is necessary to check your work against the projection occasionally which we do by turning on and off a light inside the booth.
The extraordinary discovery was that a very credible image can be made, despite working in the semi darkness, despite working on a colored, upside down image, despite the lack of a preliminary tracing. I was thrilled to see the results, though each student had individual differences in handling and application, the paintings were all very beautiful, correct and nuanced. The next step was to add color once our underpaintings had dried. Again, working entirely inside the camera obscura, we mixed and applied color, both as glazes and as opaque paint. I am waiting for our group to finish this step and then I will report again on the results.
The exhibit at the Quirinale was a chance to view paintings I may not get an opportunity to see again. There was also an obvious fake nestled in among the real work, something a trained eye could see. It will no doubt be bought by a major museum in the near future and pass into the oeuvre of Vermeer’s genius with an appropriate exchange of millions. But cynicism aside, the purpose of our exercise is not to make fake Vermeers. Sitting in the dark, seeing the painterly vision of light causes nearly all to exclaim at its beauty. We learn so much about color, surface, transitions of tone and application of paint following in the footsteps of this great artist. We have all gained immeasurably just by going through the process.
8, April 2013 § 1 Comment
John Pack says “Create yourself a limit and it’s yours”. Pushing through, opening the door to a new place is difficult regardless of the task at hand. But, what I see around me in the Aegean Center are brave creative souls pushing through, limit after limit…for what is on the other side?
Art to me seems to be a path into ourselves, into greater consciousness. But what does that mean? One analogy is the ability of our heart to hear. As we step along the path our hearts open up to more and more subtle sounds, discovering worlds that were previously deaf to our ears. The singers experience this directly in the ensemble with Orfeas. I remember a conversation with my mother after the first class “It’s really fun Mum, you can pretend you are an opera singer and in public! You HAVE to pretend, it’s like a serious game. I love it!”…and that was it. As I began to sing out operatically, I felt like I had pushed past the barrier of feeling like a prize idiot, warbling out notes, to be able to sing seriously in a choir. End of hard work, bring on the pleasure! I was pleased I was in tune and singing more or less at the same point as everyone else. Quite successful I deemed myself. But then, the ear jumps on a little bit, and suddenly I hear breathiness in that warble, that indeed there is a warble and that the vowels are coming out warped by my broad northern accent. I hit the despondency key, a minor third, and worry if I am simply not in the right place, or the right class. But I keep going and slowly pick up confidence again to sing out. Oh how glorious to be weaving sounds! But almost as soon I am back into imagining big audiences, that little bugger of an ear jumps on ahead putting into painful display that I don’t have resonance, that my throat doesn’t know what open at the back means, nor how to push air into my nose cavity or sinuses. Head voice, what? Too bedazzled to even tackle the idea of vibrato, I still somehow forget to remember to breathe. And so it goes on, through perilous peaks and fertile valleys.
The safe conclusion would seem that, being on a path, any path, and especially the artistic path, one is never in their comfort zone for very long. It takes discipline just to keep going and to concentrate, instead of collapsing on the floor in your favourite type of fit, blaming the world for being unfair.
Sometimes in the choir it feels scary, and more so when you have to sing alone. Sometimes it is just downright frog throat embarrassing. I often have attacks of feeling simply ridiculous. But somehow I get the musical backpack on again, and again, and again, each time starting anew. And curiously through this process I am learning to sing! I am finding my own voice. I come out, having sang with others, feeling loved and loving, feeling high. As I deconstruct my ego fear of the unknown, I have another thin veil lifted, so I can see myself a little clearer, it is a mini re-velation (re-veil-ation). Consciousness is not only the heart hearing, but also the mind seeing.
What I really admire of the people around me here in the Aegean Center is that they are prepared to go through these unveiling limits into the new unknown. I see it in their eyes when Jane or Jun hold up their work as an example for others to see: it is exposure, it is uncomfortable and it is scary. In each piece, each person is expressing their real selves to the world, and it feels as if the light of attention would burn us alive naked without our blanket fears to protect us – and yet on the other side of that woolly limit we keep discovering that nothing happens at all: we are not rejected, but instead feel closer to the others, nor do people snigger at our lob-sided proportions, but are supportive…They know too well how we feel and that underlying a botched up expression are shifts and changes within helping us along the path to Beauty. Each class we discover that our drawings parallel how we are learning to see more consciously, when marvellously, magically, we are taught to allow our inner figures, once dull and flat, to dance into new dimensions onto the pages of life.
The same fear knocks about in the writing class. Unusual it is for someone to read without a slight quiver to their voice, a shaky hand, or having to repeat bumbled lines. It is really scary, especially the first couple of times, where one feels like throwing down the paper and collapsing into the rapidly forming pool of sweat beneath one’s chair, or screaming out “Fire! Fire!” and jumping out through the window. But thankfully, one does not. One continues through the torture, only to realise that the discipline of getting to the other side brings a deep sense of satisfaction.
On one public reading there was a girl who didn’t want to read, but Jeffery announced her to the public, unbeknownst to her, no prior warning. As she dazed to a stand her work was shoved into her hand. Crikey! I can imagine how she felt, the energy for holding her legs up disappearing into thin air, eyes unable to grasp that simple idea of focus, hands suddenly forgetting how to hold onto paper thin dimensions and the mind simply collapsing into autopilot, blindly flying through a war zone as all on board have fainted under the pressure. But did she scream and shout at Jeffery afterwards, accusing him of being a psychological criminal? No, she did not. She thanked him. He had pushed her through to greater self confidence, because she experienced in her body (she in-corporated) the fact that her fears were not real, that actually nothing had happened at all: she didn’t die, or faint, or collapse, she read her work, people liked it, and everyone moved on.
I think everyone can relate to feeling uncomfortable expressing their true selves. I was brought up in a family where farty is the adjective for arty, and where collage is something kiddies do in primary school to fill in time before they are able to do proper studies like maths. It has been difficult to fully believe my own belief that art is useful, but harder is the idea that I will not be shot down by some World War II fighter plane for enjoying myself. Somehow it feels like a crime to allow myself to become more who I really am. I struggle through this limit, wondering about bills, my waist line and raining bullets, and yet, nothing dire happens at all. Quite the contrary in fact: it is me firing up, exploding with excitement, and I find that instead of bullets raining down, work comes in.
My right brain is so thankful that after years of being tied up in the dark, damp dungeon of my mind, it is being given fresh air, it is allowed to go out to play…class after class, singing, writing, drawing. This intuitive, random, holistic hemisphere is being asked to take over, something that she has been ready to do for years, waiting for the day she can shine. As I continue through the exhaustion of dealing with the constant new, class after wonderful class, each little step is adding up. I can feel a shift in my brain, I am seeing a little more of this wonderful world that we live in, as new ideas greet me changing my inner landscape. I feel something in the world within me that I have never met before and yet feels like an age-old friend: I am contacting with my own creativity. It breathes a sigh of relief as I breathe a sigh of deep gratitude to the Aegean Center. I am sure I cannot be an exception to the rule. Feeling the others as they walk along their paths beside mine fills me with confidence that after exposing my inner world not only to them, but to (fear of fears!) to myself, I will not burn in the flames of chaos, but instead will come closer to a deeper understanding of who, and more importantly what, we are. Each class, each step takes us a little closer. Stepping through limits into a new open space, we begin to feel more confident expressing ourselves, motivated onwards by the joy of creating…until of course our ears open a little more, our eyes see wider horizons or our pens dig to previously un-delved depths, throwing us back into that un-comfort zone, into that red rawness that gradually, our brave creative souls, get more and more used to rising through.
21, February 2013 § 2 Comments
When I first came to the Aegean Center in the fall of 2007 to work as John’s assistant, I had always been under the impression that artists were born with talent, with a special way of seeing the world and the rare ability to easily render it on paper. Drawing had never been easy for me. My love for art would often inspire me to try my own hand at it, but the results were always discouraging. I thus resigned myself to being an admirer of art, to visiting museums and taking art history at university (where studio art was closed to non-majors, giving the artist this special status and reinforcing the idea that art cannot be taught to the uninitiated).
This was something that on one level upset me, as I had always had the urge to draw and to express myself visually but never the ability. On the other hand however the forces at work had conspired to convince me that this would always be out of my reach, and so I, with not a small degree of regret, accepted my place in the world, or my place outside of art.
Then I came to the Aegean Center and for semester after semester I watched students with no prior training– armed only with that creative urge– enroll in one or both of the drawing classes and emerge three months later able to draw, to do competently all those wonderful things that artists had always impressed me with — lively gesture drawings, still lives with dramatic tonalities. The students were happy and their work seemed painless.
So in the spring of 2010, at Jun’s urging, I finally took the dive and enrolled in Basic Drawing. This class met once a week every Thursday morning from 9 to 11. That particular semester we had a handful of returning students from the Italian session and I remember that first day in class feeling particularly uneasy being with others who already seemed to know what they were doing, for whom drawing, to some degree at least, came relatively easy (for a classic overachiever like myself this was a very intimidating position to be in).
The first thing Jun had us do that morning was to draw a series of lines and circles, in an effort to loosen up our arms. We then explored the range of our pencils, making marks with varying degrees of pressure. It wasn’t until the end of class that Jun placed various still life objects on the tables in front of us giving us five minutes to draw them. This was mine, my very first drawing. As you can see I couldn’t even fit it on the page:
We were then instructed to draw the same object but instead of focusing on its outline, we were told to draw its mass, with the pencil beginning at the center of the form and pushing out towards its boundaries. Already there is a marked improvement; the vase is more upright, more symmetrical and better conveys a sense of volume. Nevertheless, I remember leaving that class a thousand times humbled, but I was determined to learn, and I trusted Jun one hundred percent.
I was not disappointed. In the following two weeks alone, with very basic instruction on perspective, I was already able to competently render the illusion of three dimensions on paper. What was particularly amazing was that I was already in possession of the skills I needed to do this– 1) I could tell time and 2) I could draw an ellipse.
For the remainder of the course we built on the techniques that add movement and emotion to a work, completing various exercises on line quality and tonality. We also received further instruction on how to see the way an artist sees (yes, it can be taught!), appreciating negative space and identifying composite shapes. This new way of seeing immediately changed the way I saw the world both in and out of class. It added something to my routine walks around town and helped me to better analyse why I found something beautiful, what it was about a certain tree or building that appealed to me. Otherwise boring minutes in a waiting room or in line at the bank became instructive, as I would catch myself thinking, “Now how would I draw that?” all while isolating shapes and imagining line quality.
I quickly discovered the value of being in a class with more experienced draughtsmen than myself, for I learned as much from them as I did from Jun, who took great care to foster an encouraging, constructive and non-competitive environment. Whenever we looked at each others work it was never with the intention of a critique but always with the intention of learning how to achieve certain effects, what improvements can be made and how — always how. To see how my classmates rendered the same objects in a still life, to gain insights into their decision making and problem solving, was an invaluable experience. (I should add that my insecurities about my own progress vanished once I realized a mixed level classroom is beneficial to everyone; you can learn just as much from a poorly conceived drawing as you can from a good one).
At the end of the semester Jun assigned a final drawing entirely of our own choosing. As I am particularly attracted to the melancholy in art, I wanted to try constructing a vanitas scene, a la 17th century Dutch still lives. I imagined something dark and moody, a bittersweet reflection on the ephermeral nature of existence. I imagined my viewer and the quiet terror that would seize him as he contemplated his own mortality! With these thoughts I deviously went about collecting all the necessary items — the drapery, the skulls, the roses that would inevitably wilt! I set up my still life late at night within the darkened walls of my living room and was certain (oh so certain!) that my intention would be fulfilled because I had willed it and because I had the skull, a real skull (no questions, please)– but no! Hours later, looking down at my paper, was the chair, covered by my bed sheet, and there the skull, looking ever so goofy and benign. The roses too refused to look menacing. And only then did I realize where the real difficulty lies in making art: to perfectly illustrate your intention, to convey mood and alter the emotional state of the viewer, to conjure feelings and stimulate his senses. This takes more than three months– it can take an entire lifetime– but I emerged from Basic Drawing confident that I had a better idea of what I had to do to get there, and this involves working towards a masterful command of perspective, line, composition and tone.
While I feel that I did not capture the mood I intended, or achieve much by way of composition, I am always so impressed whenever I compare my first drawing of the vase to my final drawing. At the same time, however, I am saddened. My original ideas about art and art making were wrong. But why? How did I come to believe them in the first place? That art making was reserved for a talented elite? I cannot pretend to understand just how these ideas came to permeate society, but they are dangerous, to say the least, and have far reaching consequences. Looking back I realize that had art been taught differently in school when I was a kid, with equal focus on crafts and traditional drawing techniques, my life could have been vastly different. I believe that children can afford to make one less snowman out of cotton balls if it means acquiring more sophisticated means of exploring the world and expressing themselves. Children are curious and capable and a crafts based curriculum seriously underestimates them.
It is these thoughts that lend my final drawing its elusive somber mood. But the good news remains, that art can be taught, and I delight in this as I draw and examine this beautiful, mysterious world of which I never, ever tire.
30, January 2013 § 3 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
If we are suffering illness, poverty, or misfortune, we think we shall be satisfied on the day it ceases. But there too, we know it is false; so soon as one has got used to not suffering one wants something else.
– Simone Weil
Illness is a clumsy attempt to arrive at health: we must come to nature’s aid with intellect.
Lying in bed with the winter flu gives one too much time to think. Browsing all the news articles on the brutality of our species adds to the depression. For a brighter view I glance at the happenings in the tech world and also feel overwhelmed. My mind struggles to find a place to be at rest. I ache to be back in the studio and yet I am ambivalent as well. If I’m honest I never really settled this battle, this score with the creative process . Every winter I once again pick up my brushes to try to find a new artistic expression that I so long for when I am away from it, and then I struggle with the “why”. Why am I doing this? Why do I occupy so much of my time and effort in something which after all changes the world so little? I am often asked this question by students. Is the struggle and sacrifice worth it? I don’t claim to have authority but at least the question makes me pause and consider this question for myself.
All artists want recognition and a few even claim to desire fame. But fame brings stiff competition and even more pressures. Having met a few celebrities recently I can only imagine that their stresses are way beyond mine. I would like to say that being an artist is all joy. But perhaps it is only the privileged status we award ourselves that makes this struggle seem worthwhile. The self-doubts and the push to find the material and means to express what you feel about the world, about art, can trip you up. Too much hesitation and the joy can evaporate. I think about my audience, then just as swiftly try to deny their presence. It is fatal to work for another. This constant push toward self renewal is taxing. It is so much easier to find a niche and stay there, or a distinctive method and just push it rearranging the elements. But I think the explorer in me rebels against sameness. Although my work may look similar to others and identifiable as mine, I always feel that I am breaching new walls and confronting new ideas.
We all have limitations. Our place in the world is unfortunately stratified and tiered. I don’t prescribe to the idea that anyone can become anything, although that is an American dream which receives much lip service. But within the limitations that we prescribe for ourselves could we not be more? Could we not do more? How many of us waste the better part of ourselves wondering rather than doing. While lying here on the couch waiting for my health to return I ebb and flow with restlessness and inertia. Maybe age pushes me more strongly than youth. But time ticks away for all of us and what we do not tap will drain away. All humans surely struggle with the balance of work and play, creativity and duty. Perhaps labeling myself as an artist gives me some sense of urgency, or at least inevitability to continue. Could I do more? That answer is an easy yes, a resounding yes.