Summer Academies

by James Lancel McElhinney

Summer study has a long tradition in American art education. Following in the traditions of William Merritt Chase, Charles Hawthorne and Hans Hofmann, American summer art programs attract promising students and boast distinguished alumni. Foreign study programs grew with the rise of plein-air painting, and the practice of bringing a journal on the Grand Tour of Europe. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a decline in Americans traveling abroad is giving domestic programs a shot in the arm. Responding to a renewed hunger for classical skills and knowledge in visual art, new academies and ateliers offer instruction in subjects such as cast and life drawing, materials and techniques. These and other classical skills have slowly disappeared from higher education since World War II. Once disdained as vanity venues, artist-run workshops are gaining credibility, though many are not accredited. Faced with the dilemma of having to choose between skills and credit, more students are choosing skills.

The Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art’s Director of Public Relations, Shannon Franklin, opined that many students are drawn to academies instead of other institutions because of the promise of learning real skills. Many are illustration students. Others are interested in digital animation. She stated flat out that at Greater Los Angeles art schools—such as Art Center Pasadena—the students “all major in illustration if they want to become painters.” The Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art provides another option, where serious students can take a core curriculum of classical subjects ranging from cast and perspective drawing to advanced composition, materials and theory. Running the same schedule of courses in the summer and the normal academic year, the academy presents an additional menu of summer workshops in specific subjects, from traditional materials and techniques to figure invention.

Studio 126 is the brainchild of a small group of artists living and working in Manhattan. Most of them declined to follow the habitual path of attending a four-year college or art school, followed by a couple of years in an MFA program. Brandon Soloff and Michael Grimaldi give classes in drawing and painting at 126 West 23rd Street. Meeting with Soloff, I found it easy to sympathize with his agenda. Soloff never went to an accredited college or art school, choosing instead to train with individual artists both in the United States and Europe. “When you go to art school,” Soloff explained, “it’s usually because the student has chosen the school, based on its reputation, which is partly based on the people who teach there. If they accept you, the school chooses your teachers. At an atelier, the students choose their teacher. We at Studio 126 see classical training as the starting point, not the final outcome. It’s all about developing visual intelligence, not just learning how to make a particular kind of painting, drawing or sculpture.” Summer programs offered at Studio 126 include perspective drawing, taught by Patrick Connors, who also teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Michael Grimaldi leads courses in figure and cityscape drawing and painting. Frank Porcu teaches anatomy; Brandon Soloff, Stephen Perkins and Dan Thompson cover the rest of the classes in figure and portrait drawing and painting. Other ateliers are operating in New York City, including Jim Childs’s Drawing Academy of the Atlantic and Bridgeview School of Art in Long Island City. These and others can be found on the Websites of the Art Renewal Center and the Society for Classical Realism.

Two venues the reader may not find on these Websites are the Beverly Street Studio School in Staunton, Virginia, and the Washington Studio School in the District of Columbia. Graduates of American University—many of them former students of Jack Boule and Alan Feltus—founded the Washington Studio School in 1985. The school and gallery, located for many years off M Street in Georgetown, recently moved to larger quarters in suburban Bethesda, Maryland. Summer courses in traditional subjects are being offered by artists such as Martin Kotler, known for his Hopper-influenced paintings of light and shadow moving across domestic Washington architecture. Frank Hobbs, an artist with ties to the Washington Studio School, opened the Beverly Street Studio School in 1992 to provide instruction in observation-based painting and drawing in an atelier-style setting. Located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Beverly Street Studio School offers a wide range of instructional experiences. Traditional drawing and painting classes focus on still life, landscape and the human figure. The proximity of the school to Mary Baldwin College leads to some crossover enrollments. Other courses target high school students, building basic skills and portfolio materials.

Weekend workshops and travel study programs are the bulk of the Beverly Street Studio School’s summer offerings, from the landscape workshop with Ron Boehmer to an intensive week-long course taught by Rick Weaver on Bailey’s Island, located off the Maine coast. Weaver recently received a national prize for portraiture. Robert Stuart was recently honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. An eight-day course will also be offered in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, during the month of November. Beverly Street Studio School is interested in attracting only serious students, explained coordinator Chantal Kennedy. The yearly schedule—which includes courses led by instructors as well as open figure-drawing sessions—serves the regional population. Students for summer weekend workshops come from all over the world. Janet Olsson, an American living in Paris, leads one of these workshops; Pat Cook, recipient of the 2004 Silver Medal from the American Watercolor Society, leads another. Students stay in local bed-and-breakfasts.

There is a robust community of figurative artists in the upper South. Some, such as Philip Geiger, Bill White, Michael Ananian and Erling Sjovold, teach in regional colleges and universities. Others follow a different path, such as muralist Ben Long, who established the Fine Arts League of Asheville. Traditional subjects from cast drawing to anatomy are offered, with a strong emphasis on the human figure. Landscape drawing and painting courses take advantage of the natural beauty of Asheville’s setting. The curriculum covers a full array of traditional subjects over a period of three years, with anatomy, craftsmanship, theory, perspective and composition continually stressed and reinforced. Summer workshops begin in July and run through August, including an intensive course in portraiture led by James Daniel, who has assisted Long in some of his mural commissions, and landscape painting with Julian Davis. Christopher Holt and Nathan Bertling will run a one-week workshop for children grades 7–9, and another week for high school students, taking them through the drill of old master apprenticeships. Holt’s description of the Asheville program was entirely upbeat. I asked him if any of his students were digital artists. “There are some artists living in the Asheville area who worked on Lord of the Rings,” he explained. “We have had a number of digital animators coming to us for instruction. They are really motivated by classical drawing. High school kids, too. It is like they can actually learn something from our system of teaching, and that’s worth something.” “We had one student,” Holt told me, “who came to build up his drawing skills. He was committed to a career in animation, but he went into painting instead. Who knows in the long run? Right now he is entirely focused on painting.” Shannon Franklin at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art had noted that members of their faculty regularly work with Dreamworks, Disney, and other media giants. Someone might become a painter, finding a day job as an animator or matte painter in the movie business, instead of doing the tenure tango in academe.

Mims Studios runs a battery of summer courses in Southern Pines, North Carolina. D. Jeffery Mims, who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, began his training at the Rhode Island School of Design. A Greenshields award sent Mims to London, where he spent a year copying paintings at the National Gallery and other collections. After working with Ben Long in Florence in 1981 he returned to the United States to establish his own atelier. Studio 126’s Brandon Soloff is one of his former students. Mims Studios has filed papers to establish a new 501C3 called the Classical Design Foundation. Connecting with proponents of New Urbanism will be part of its mission. According to school administrator Abigail Dowd, the foundation will promote wise town planning and stand in the path of growing sprawl, which threatens to roll over communities in the region like the architectural equivalent of Kudzu.

The painter Gary Faigin, who founded the Seattle Academy of Fine Art and wrote The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expressions, was recently honored by digital animators and filmmakers in Hollywood, for whom Faigin’s book has become a bible. Pamela Belyea, Faigin’s wife and the school’s executive director, described their summer programs as a light version of the routine curriculum, which brings visiting artists such as Sigmund Abeles (NA) and John Morra to Seattle during the academic year. Five- to ten-day-long summer workshops feature such artists as Studio 126’s Michael Grimaldi, the distinguished veteran painter and teacher Martha Mayer Erlebacher, Michael Stasinos, Tony Ryder, Suzanne Brooker and Juliet Aristides. A former student of Jacob Collins’s Water Street Atelier in New York City, Aristides took home the 1995 Walker Prize for drawing from the National Academy of Design.

Many other programs merit consideration. Nelson Shanks’s Studio Incamminati, a short walk from the Pennsylvania Academy, is run by one of the most successful portrait artists alive, long celebrated by collectors in Philadelphia and neighboring Bucks County. Shanks’s influence is evident in the work of many local artists, including Wade Schuman and Bo Bartlett, who also has connections to Andrew Wyeth. Philadelphia is home to the new Schuylkill Academy, organized by recent PAFA graduates. The tireless Patrick Connors, who teaches at PAFA, the New York Academy and Studio 126, is offering a series of one-day intensive portrait workshops in his Philadelphia studio. Students arrive with palette, brushes and knives. Other necessities are provided. The eight-hour workshops take a short break for lunch at midday.

Daniel Graves’s Atelier Florence Academy of Art contributed to the training of many young artists, including Adrian Gottlieb, who worked with the San Francisco Bay Area Classical Artists’ Guild and now teaches at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. Charles Cecil, a student of R.H. Ives Gammell, runs another academy in Firenze, which is also home to the Angel Academy of Art.

Angel Studios, run by M. John Angel, is located in Toronto. The Bohemiarte School and Gallery, under Lubljana-trained artist Irena Korosec and partner Lucie Larose, is located in Montreal. Ateliers of painters trained within the social realist tradition of former Iron Curtain countries are not uncommon. Semyon Bilmes’s Ashland Academy of Art in Ashland, Oregon, is one example. Midwestern painter Richard Lack, who studied with Gammell in Boston, has passed along skills and knowledge to numerous younger artists in his Minneapolis atelier. His teaching has inspired former students to hang out shingles of their own. Among them are Kelly Holsapple at Atelier Indiana in New Castle, Indiana, Daniel Redpath and Cyd Wicker at the Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis, and Atelier du Nord, also in Minnesota. The list of teaching venues continues, far beyond the scope of this article. Discrediting ateliers because they suffer from cults of personality is pointless. It is a huge part of what makes them tick. Ateliers thrive in part because of personality cults. Students choose to study with somebody because of the kind of somebody they are. Summer ateliers provide new alternatives exploring the benefits of durable knowledge—through the time-honored practice of learning from artists in their place of business.


American Arts Quarterly, Volume 21, number 3.



Angel Academy of Art, Via Fiesolana 34r, Firenze, Italy 540122. Telephone: 011-39-055-2466737.

Angel Studios, 2738 Dundas St. West, Suite 100, Toronto, Ontario M6P 1Y3 Canada. Telephone: 416-766-1280.

Ashland Academy of Art, 1081 E. Main St. Ashland, OR 97520. Telephone: 541-482-3567.

Atelier du Nord, School of Classical Realism, Char Tidball, Director, 1066 Highway 61 East, Two Harbors, MN 55616. Telephone: 218-834-2059.

The Atelier, Dale Redpath, Cyd Wicker, Co-Directors, 1681 East Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55401. Telephone: 612-362-8421.

Beverly Street Studio School, 24 W. Beverly Street, Staunton, VA 24401. Telephone: 540-886-8636.

Blue Valley Art Studio, 2547 S. Greensboro Pike, New Castle, IN 47362. Telephone: 765-521-0200. E-mail:

Bohemiarte Gallery and School, Francois-Xavier 465, Montreal, Canada. Telephone: 514-286-0522.

Bridgeview School of Fine Art, 42–26 28th Street, Long Island City, NY 11101. Telephone: (718) 937-1300.

Charles H. Cecil Studios, Borgo San Frediano 68, Florence, Italy 50124. Telephone: 011-39-055285102.

Drawing Academy of the Atlantic, 180 Varick Street, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10014. Telephone: (212) 206-7444.

Fine Arts League of Asheville, 25 Rankin Street, Asheville, NC 28801. Telephone: 828-252-5050.

Florence Academy of Art, Via delle Casine 21/R, 50122 Florence, Italy. Telephone: 011-39-055-245444.

Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, 16926 Saticoy Street, Van Nuys, CA 91406. Telephone: (818) 793-5063.

Mims Studios, 11 Camellia Way, Southern Pines, NC 28387. E-mail:

Patrick Connors Fine Arts Studio, 915 Spring Garden Street, #406, Philadelphia, PA 19123. Telephone: 215-463-5665.

Schuylkill Academy of Fine Art, 421 North 7th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123. Telephone: 215-922-2430.

Seattle Academy of Fine Art, 1501 10th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98102. Telephone 206-526.2787.

Studio 126, 126 West 23rd Street, New York, NY. Telephone: 212-560-2451.

Studio Incamminati, 340 N. 12th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Telephone: 215-592-7912.

Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., PMB 392, 8502 East Chapman Avenue, Orange, CA 92869-2461. Telephone:  714-997-8500.

Washington Studio School, 4505 Stanford Street, Chevy Chase, MD 20815. Telephone: 301-18-210.