The Three Artists of the FAA U.S.A.
The Florence Academy of Art opened its first American campus in the New York metropolitan area of Jersey City in January of 2015. This article takes a peak inside the private studios of the academy’s Principal Instructors.
In 2016 The Florence Academy of Art (FAA) in Italy will celebrate 25 years of training draftsmen, painters, and sculptors in the classical realist tradition. Under the artistic direction of founder Daniel Graves and the organizational leadership of Susan Tintori, the academy has achieved a long list of impressive milestones during that time, just one of which is expanding their presence from Europe to the United States. In the summer of 2014 Graves and Tintori finalized plans to open a campus in the New York metropolitan area and chose Mana Contemporary in Jersey City as its home. Located in the industrial end of town, this multi-discipline art space features a sculpture foundry, dance studio, artist studios, exhibition spaces, framing shop, and more. The perfect environment, the FAA felt, for situating a classical academy in a modern-arts community.
Equally important as deciding the location of the FAA’s first American campus was determining who would lead it. Jordan Sokol (the former Director of the Intermediate Drawing & Painting Program at the FAA Florence) was a natural choice for the role of Academic Director, while Amaya Gurpide (an artist from Spain who studied in New York for 10 years) and Richard Greathouse (a former Principal Instructor at the FAA Florence) round out the faculty as Principal Instructors. Sokol, Gurpide, Greathouse, and Administrative Manager Alexa Marino opened the doors to the FAA U.S.A. this past January to their first 11 students, and in addition to completing the first term, they have since hosted two major exhibitions in their gallery, as well as invited several guest lecturers from both Mana Contemporary and the art world at large to speak to their students. As the FAA U.S.A. enters their second season, they have already doubled their student enrollment, obtained NASDAD certification, and are in the final stages of securing official approval to accept international students, which will expand their artistic community greatly.
Although the history of The Florence Academy of Art’s founding, curriculum, academic programs, and student experience — all of which are documented in the FAA’s recently published 25th anniversary book — are worth detailing here, this article focuses on the artists behind the school and shares some of the inspiration, aspirations, and challenges they face inside their own studios: that place of solitude and sanctuary where busy art instructors go to shut out the world and put their own experiences and education into practice.
I first visited with Amaya Gurpide at the end of the school’s spring semester this past June. She was preparing for the FAA’s end-of-term critique and also anticipating their upcoming summer workshops in July, after which she would spend the month of August in Spain and Scandinavia with her husband Jordan Sokol. There was much activity and accomplishments to be shared from this talented draftswoman and painter, and Gurpide seemed to be settling comfortably into her new life on the East Coast and dual roles as artist and teacher. What immediately stood out in the studio was a large 47½-x-31½-inch drawing titled Maryum in graphite and chalk, the scale and quality of which felt like a painting. “I’ve been doing a lot more drawing and less painting lately, but I’m approaching each drawing as if it were a painting,” she explained. “I work large-scale and invest as much time — usually around four months for each piece — and money on models as needed to finish the work properly. I often frame the drawing as soon as it’s finished, even if it doesn’t have a home, so that it has that sense of completion. In these ways I’m trying to dignify the drawing and bring it up to the level of a painting because I think drawings are every bit as beautiful and important as paintings, if not more so.”
When Gurpide creates her drawings, she is often thinking like a painter and even uses some of the same methods and materials. For instance, lately the artist has been using brushes to create large, abstract areas in her drawings — such as in the abstract mass of the young woman’s hair in Maryum, which forces the viewer’s focus to the expression and features of her face — as well as building up “layers” of graphite, Contè, white chalk, and sometimes gouache over a shellac-toned surface of cream laid paper. “Using brushes in my drawing helps satisfy the painter in me,” she said, “and also allows me to move from thinking and drawing linearly with graphite to using drawing media in a painterly manner.” In addition, the artist handles flesh tones the way she would in a painting, using the full range of graphite values to achieve natural, life-like effects, and she often experiments with different grounds and tones on her paper so that the surface can take on the appearance of canvas or linen.
Gurpide is not only raising the value of drawing in the skillful and time-intensive way in which she creates them but also in how they are fairing among collectors. Proving that drawings can be presented and appreciated on the same level as paintings, the artist’s 43-x-30-inch drawing Saudade — a Portuguese word that means nostalgic or melancholic — that was recently exhibited in the “Nude” exhibition at Eleventh Street Arts at Grand Central Atelier sold immediately upon the show’s opening for the same price as a painting. “It felt like a symbolic sale in a way, and I thought it was important for the students to see that if you put time and care into a work, no matter what the medium, someone will connect with it and see value in it too.” In addition to Saudade being well-received, the Maryum drawing that Gurpide had on her easel in June eventually made its way to Arcadia Contemporary’s “Works on Paper” exhibition in August and also sold immediately. Arcadia’s director Steve Diamant has noticed how collectors are connecting to Gurpide’s drawings and is eager to continue representing her work.
The care and craftsmanship that Gurpide puts into each of her drawings and paintings is only part of what makes her work compelling for artists and collectors. Another aspect is how much of herself she puts into each piece. In fact, learning the story behind one of her subjects is often one in the same as learning her own story. She is a sweet, soft-spoken artist but she also has an inner strength and sense of self that was built during trying seasons of soul-searching and introspection. For this reason, she is most drawn to subjects with a story to tell, especially those with both vulnerability and determination. “When someone is really honest and allows himself or herself to be seen and vulnerable — whether in poetry, writing, music, acting, art, or real life — it somehow becomes universally human,” she explained. “I think honesty and vulnerability show a person’s strength and allow other people to connect with him or her in a more intimate way. I continually search for this quality in my subjects and in the stories I tell through my drawings and paintings.”
While Gurpide continues to feel more comfortable and confident in her own artistic skin, she is also coming into her own as a teacher. She shared a bit about the journey she has been on over the last several years — she came to New York at 25, with no money, knowing no one, and unable to speak English and spent 10 years studying at various art institutions, including The Arts Students League of New York, The National Academy of Design, and The Grand Central Academy — and how after completing her training in New York she was offered several teaching positions. Her first thought was, How could I possibly teach someone else when I haven’t even figured myself out yet or found my voice as an artist? It was tempting to stay in the comfort of the artistic community in which she had become accustomed, but her instincts told her to leave — she knew her next step was not in New York, although she had a strong feeling that she would be back, and she also knew that she needed separation from outside influences. Gurpide decided to return to Spain and isolate herself for a while so that she could listen to her own inner voice and continue to grow as draftswoman and painter in the direction she felt best.
“It was a difficult time, but I really grew up as an artist,” she shared. “Now looking back I can see how that period prepared and strengthened me in ways that were necessary for the path I am on now as artist and teacher. There is a great responsibility associated with teaching, and if I hadn’t gone through the struggle of being alone during that time and wrestling with figuring things out in my own way, I don’t think I would have as much to offer students now. Since moving back to New York, I’ve realized that I’m not the same person and artist I was when I was here last. What I was searching for as a student is different than what I am looking for now, and if I had not left, perhaps that wouldn’t be the case. Being back in New York again and seeing everything through fresh eyes makes me feel as if everything has in some way come full circle.”
Once everyone had returned from their summer travels, I revisited the FAA U.S.A. in late September to interview Jordan Sokol and Richard Greathouse. Sokol was just returning to his studio after reaching the halfway mark of what has likely been one of his busiest years yet. Setting up and directing a school while continuing to maintain his personal studio is all taken in stride by Sokol, whose grounded and stalwart presence make it seem as if little could shake him. And, like Gurpide, Sokol’s character and genuine nature come through in his artwork, making his drawings and paintings sought-after treasures among a diverse and distinguished group of collectors. But as easy-going as Sokol’s everyday disposition may be, when it comes to his art he is serious, critical of his work, and extremely dedicated. He is a private person and prefers not to talk too much about himself or his art, but when he does, he has a great deal of important information to share.
Other than several stunning 19th-century drawings near his book shelf, Sokol’s studio was relatively empty when I came to visit. He told me that although he is consistently working in the studio, he really only completes about two paintings a year, and they usually leave the studio immediately. He is a self-proclaimed “slow painter” and needs to take the necessary time to patiently layer each piece, both technically and psychologically. “When you walk into a painter’s studio you expect to see a lot of paintings, but I almost never have paintings around,” he admitted. “Mainly I’m working with one gallery [Arcadia Contemporary], and my gallerist [Steve Diamant] has been great about understanding and supporting the kind of artist I am and the work I want to do. I know there is a growing sentiment among artists to try to sell their work on their own, and I can understand why, but taking that route requires a lot of self-promotion, and I’m horrible at that. I’d rather be painting than on Facebook or Instagram, so I’m grateful to give the responsibility of that to someone else, especially someone who has a solid understanding of the art business.”
Sokol is able to sustain this quality-over-quantity production schedule because he supplements his income with teaching. This frees him up to not have to create artwork under pressure or be overly concerned about whether or not his paintings will sell. Which then of course poses the sometimes more perplexing question: What is it that I really want to paint and what kind of artist do I want to be? For Sokol, that answer is found in the process of painting itself and in his relationship to the artwork. “I’m most interested in making work that feels personal, and there’s different ways this can be manifested,” he explained. “I believe in the ritual of painting and in the end result being more about the dialogue I’m having with art or with the subject than it is about any one specific idea or literal message. An idea or message may naturally result from that process, but it is not my deliberate intention. Also, I’m not thinking about creating a finished ‘image,’ and, in fact, the finished painting is rarely the most important part of the process for me. There are so many manifestations each drawing or painting goes through as I’m creating it, causing a rollercoaster of emotions: frustration, elation, loss of inspiration, surges of inspiration — painting is this powerful vehicle that allows me to reconcile and come to terms with life. That experience is exciting to me as a artist, and it is what I am drawn to in other art as well: when you see evidence of the artist’s journey through a work, the struggle, the process.”
Whether in art history or contemporary art, Sokol finds this quality most in the genre of portraiture. Andrew Wyeth is one example he cites as an artist who was continually able to express layers of meaning and emotion in his portraits without spelling out every detail. In Sokol’s portraiture too, one sees a suggested story and the depth of sensitivity and thought he puts into each piece. One can also sense the years of searching he put into his development. He explained how when he was a student he thought one of the highest achievements was completing a multi-figure narrative painting. He still thinks this is a great accomplishment for an artist, but he realized he was becoming less and less interested in creating work with a deliberate narrative. “I also started asking myself, Why would I try to paint a multi-figure narrative painting when I can’t even tell a story through a portrait yet? I decided that I would therefore concentrate on doing only portraits for many years until I felt I could convey a person’s presence or underlying story in a way that felt more subtle and natural to me. Recently I have become interested in larger-scale and more complicated work, but it took many years before I felt I could move to this level.”
One of Sokol’s well-known portraits, Tenold, was recently recognized for the highly competitive international juried show at the National Portrait Gallery in London: “The BP Portrait Award” exhibition. Sokol’s painting was one of 55 chosen from 2,748 entrants to represent what the organization calls “the very best in contemporary portrait painting.” Included among portraits of various stylistic approaches, Sokol’s portrait is a striking example of artistic aptitude and a visual testament of everything he is after as an artist. The sitter is Sokol’s friend and fellow artist who was a workshop student of his in Seattle at Juliette Aristides’ Gage Academy. A quiet, kind young man, Tenold lived with Sokol and Gurpide in Spain while studying Old Master paintings at the Prado, and in exchange, he sat for a portrait every morning. Like most of Sokol’s work, this particular portrait speaks volumes in a powerful yet humble way and creates immediate curiosity about the life of the one pictured. It also resonates with multiple viewers, including the museum directors, curator, art historian, and artist who juried this exhibition.
Although creating portraiture that feels deeply personal is one of Sokol’s primary goals, he is also interested in that proverbial and sometimes elusive aspect of “meaning” in his art. Sokol explained his definition well through a powerful story: The artist recently attended his grandfather’s funeral and described how two members of the military performed a moving ritual at the end of the service. Sokol’s grandfather had served in the Air Force as a young man during World War II, but no one expected the military to remember him at the end of his life. While family and friends watched in silence, the two men stood by the casket and ceremoniously folded an American flag according to the 12 symbolic folds of a departing veteran. They then presented the flag to Sokol’s grandmother, offering one heartfelt sentence of thanks for her husband’s service. “There was something so profound about that moment, when almost nothing was said but much was felt because it was dignified and sincere and respectful,” he remembered. “It’s hard to put into words, but those moments represent something bigger than ourselves, and that same feeling can be sensed while looking at certain work from art history, or listening to a great song, or interacting with special people. The feeling that those moments in life transmit is what moves me as an artist and is what I hope to capture in my work.”
As a teacher, Sokol continues to build on the nearly 10 years of instructional experience he developed at The Florence Academy of Art and at other schools in Europe and the States. But just as an artist’s perspective and motivation evolve over time, so too can one’s teaching approach. “When I was a younger teacher I used to be more practical and focused mostly on the technical aspect of drawing and painting because that is what I was working through myself at the time,” Sokol shared. “Although those foundational elements must be learned and technique is extremely important, I’m now also interested in having a dialogue with students about what they actually want to say with the skills and tools they are developing. Amaya, Richard, and I have these discussions all the time, and we incorporate our ideas into the teaching philosophy for the school. We know it’s a lot easier to explain how to paint a half-tone than it is to convey how one creates a painting that moves people, but we want to be cognizant that both aspects of art-making are being addressed.” Sokol also continues to walk a balanced line between where he ends as a teacher and where he begins as an artist. “It can be challenging, because as a instructor you want to give everything and as a student you want to take everything,” he explained, “but I’ve learned that I have to keep my studio a more private and sacred space. It only makes me a better teacher if I have time to work through the inspiration and questions in my mind and continue to challenge myself as an artist.”
Last but not least was my interview with Richard Greathouse, whose studio is the third in a row of the teachers. Greathouse graduated from the FAA in Florence in 2011 and from 2010 through 2014 was their Principal Instructor of Painting and Écorché. We first discussed how he’s adapting to living in the New York City area after growing up in rural Tennessee and spending six years in the “small-town” city of Florence. He told me a bit about his background, how he first attended the University of Virginia as an architecture major but in 2008 decided instead to devote himself to the study of drawing and painting. Like many of the students who start training at the FAA in Florence, Greathouse thought he would stay for two or three years, but ended up staying twice as long because of the great opportunities the FAA offered him. Now that he is on the East Coast, he is getting accustomed to his new surroundings and is proud to be a part of the excitement and energy of starting a new school. He is also finally settling into his dual teaching roles — he is both a Principal Instructor of Drawing and Painting and the Director of Anatomy — while continuing to work on his own paintings.
During the interview Greathouse clearly articulated his thoughts while making intelligent and thoughtful points — qualities that no doubt contribute to his effectiveness as a teacher. At 28 years old, he has reached that turning-point age when artists have enough distance from their student training to start developing their own perspective, while also starting to accrue the kind of life experience that inspires great art. That transition from a student mentality to a professional artist in the real world can be jarring, especially considering artists are in many respects students for most of their lives, but Greathouse has a realistic view of the big picture. “When I finished school in Florence, I had this sense that I could take on the world and had such confidence in what I was doing,” he shared. “But that feeling quickly disappeared when I got my own studio. I realized it actually only gets harder from that point. Increasingly I’ve been noticing the deficiencies in my work, and so I’ve scaled back and started focusing on smaller paintings, mostly portraits and head studies. At some point I want to think more about content, but for now I feel I need to continue developing certain skills.”
While Greathouse challenges himself in his technical abilities he is also working on ideas for the kind of paintings he finds motivating. Like Sokol, Greathouse also talked about loving the process of painting itself and enjoying the journey that each piece takes him on. A painting he recently started explores the concept of inspiration, and its origin. “One of the reasons I became an artist is because these ideas come into my head, and I have no other way of explaining them but visually,” he admitted. “Painting gives me the opportunity to tap into the ultimate reality of things, to find the true meaning behind something. I think there’s a higher reality that we can catch glimpses of through art or music or relationships. You can’t consciously aim for it, but if you provide the right circumstances and conditions, you’re allowing it to happen. It’s letting yourself be utterly in the moment and yet for a split second taking yourself out of time.”
Greathouse mentioned artists who are able to tap into this quality and how effortlessly and confidently they seem to speak with a singular voice. “You can tell when an artist has found his or her voice, and I haven’t found mine yet,” he admitted. “My paintings can be awkward, but I’m trying to embrace that rather than fight it. I think in order to create successful art the artist has to be in the right state of being. Certain artists were in that state of being so often that they produced consistently remarkable work. Titian’s paintings for example really strike a chord with me: there’s that awkwardness and sense of mystery that draws you in, not to mention the incredible way he handled paint. Giorgione is another artist whose work has that same unusualness about it. I think these type of artists were conveying that higher reality I mentioned — something that permeates everything around us but that can’t always be seen. It’s something that feels otherworldly and yet very much of this world.”
Certainly that state of being is more challenging to access in our day in age than it was in Titian’s and Giorgione’s, but Greathouse knows that in order for it to be a possibility, he has to make certain sacrifices. “I have to eliminate unnecessary distractions, whether that’s having too much going on in my life or being focused on the wrong things,” he shared. “Also, I quickly learned that social media was dangerously time-consuming for me. I actually prefer to not participate in most of the online world, because I don’t think it’s the best venue for the kind of work we do. I think art should speak for itself, and in order for it to speak for itself I think it has be experienced in person. Although I understand social media’s value in bringing artwork to a larger audience, seeing low-quality reproductions of artwork that takes a lot of time and effort to create is probably not the best way to respect the process. I believe when an artist achieves a great work of art, that work is imbued with something that can only be discerned in the physical. I see the artwork therefore as more of an 'object' to be experienced rather than strictly an 'image'."
Like Sokol, Greathouse is grateful to have found a gallerist who understands him as an artist and handles the responsibility of getting his work seen by the right people. Gary Haynes of Haynes Gallery (locations in Thomaston, Maine and Nashville, Tennessee) represents 19th- and 20th-century work from such artists as Homer, Sargent, Rockwell, and Wyeth as well as a large stable of contemporary representational painters and sculptors, including several Florence Academy of Art alumni. Having a primary gallery in his hometown of Nashville creates a further connection for Greathouse and a convenience for his loyal collectors. Raised in a family with two artist-grandfathers, Greathouse’s large family circle and local friends are great supporters and patrons of his work, and they are easily able to see his drawings and paintings in person during the gallery’s group exhibitions and events.
As we concluded our interview, Greathouse discussed his new role as Director of Anatomy at the FAA U.S.A. “Representational artists quickly realize they need to study anatomy if they are going to paint the portrait or figure with accuracy,” he said. “I find it such an interesting subject and, in addition to human anatomy, I’ve also recently been studying the anatomy of other types of animals.” He shared and talked about each piece in his collection of bones and skulls, which were chosen as beautiful examples of nature’s design, including those from coyotes, raccoons, foxes, an Alaskan lynx, and other animals. “I love to revel in the beauty of the function and form of these bones and skeletons,” the artist said. “A skull is perfectly designed to do what it does, yet is has such interesting and creative shapes. And it’s a relic of something that was alive and walking around the earth in the not-so-distant past, it had a purpose. I find that really interesting to explore through art.”
THE FAA U.S.A.: ARTISTS, TEACHERS, & FRIENDS
Among Gurpide, Sokol, and Greathouse, I noticed individual differences, but also core commonalities that contribute to their solidarity as artists, teachers, and friends. They all seem to share private personalities and a desire for the genuine and meaningful in their lives and art. They are all also tuned into developing their own viewpoints and voices and taking the necessary steps — even if that means stepping away from the crowd — to drown out distractions and keep their art on track. Most of all, they all have a deep gratitude to Graves and Tintori for not only giving them an opportunity to pass on the FAA lineage to a vibrant new community of artists but also to have a studio to call their own — where they can continue to create the kind of work that others will want to learn from.
For more information on The Florence Academy of Art, visit www.florenceacademyofart.com.
For more information on The Florence Academy of Art’s recently published 25th-annivesary book, which features the full story of the academy’s founder, faculty, curriculum, and alumni, click here.
All photography this article courtesy Allison Malafronte unless otherwise indicated.