Get Real

Can a small school of figurative art revive a great, dead tradition in painting?

According to Bougie, students come from all over the world to study at the Bougie Studio. "We even had a student from Japan until this fall," he says, a computer glowing behind him. Overall, Bougie's atelier, which currently has six full-time and three part-time students, is a place of order and discipline. Full-time students have 15 hours of hands-on drawing and painting coursework each week--from 9:00 a.m. to noon--and attend lectures in the afternoon on subjects such as anatomy (a skeleton waits in the corner for one such lecture this very day). At the same time, students are expected to work an additional 15 to 25 hours on their skills each week in personal cubicles located behind the main studio.

This commitment is even greater when considered with the fact that the studio is not accredited in any way, and has no actual grades, graduation requirements, or even a diploma. Students have no way of getting financial aid of any sort to attend the academy. Most rely on evening jobs (table waiting is a popular one) or the support of parents or spouses to get them through the four-year course of study. "It's hard for students to pay for this," says Bougie. "It's a big problem. We have a high attrition rate."

Bougie takes me on a tour through the studio and past the students' work areas. In each there is a neat collection of objects: still-life items, such as small plaster busts, flower pots, grapes, and musical instruments; convoluted lighting systems; various draperies of red and green velvet; easels, brushes, and paints; and other artistic trappings. Inevitably, on the floor of every cubicle, stacked against the wall, are various smallish canvases--portraits, studies of statuary, still lifes, and the like--made by each student as they intensively study how to control form, value, shape, and color in their images.

Classical realist standard-bearer Peter Bougie (left) with a friend from anatomy drawing class
Craig Lassig
Classical realist standard-bearer Peter Bougie (left) with a friend from anatomy drawing class

Bougie points out the studio of a fourth-year student, George Bowles. He is getting set to graduate, and as such has been completing a few small masterworks to take with him when he returns to Washington, D.C., at the end of spring. One of the paintings, a portrait of a young woman, is so precisely rendered and carefully modeled that for an instant it strikes the eye as an old-master painting, perhaps pilfered from the Institute of Arts located just two blocks to the east. On closer examination, the young woman's hairstyle and clothing gives away the contemporaneity of the work.

The atelier method of training artists certainly has strong roots in craftsmanship, treating the learning of art like an apprenticeship in any other trade: cooperage or farriery, for instance. In the latter half of the 19th Century, the atelier system and its rather plodding instruction methods were commonplace, particularly in France, where the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts trained several generations of the best artists in the world. In fact, nearly every artist filling the art-history books from the early 1700s till the time of the impressionists was graduated from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and learned pretty much the same things in the same ways.

At lunchtime, Bougie's students break from their studio work and mingle quietly. Some gather at a small table to eat a brown-bag lunch. One, Julie Schiffmayer, a woman in her 20s who sports a ready smile underneath a mask of fatigue, reports that this type of instruction is exactly what she was looking for as an art student. "I want to be a portrait painter when I go back home to Austin, Texas," she says. My undergraduate degree in art at the University of Texas was unsuccessful for me....My teachers couldn't paint or draw at all. They didn't learn it themselves, so they couldn't teach it. Gesture is emphasized and not anything else.

"For instance, the very first painting I did in school was on a five-by-six-foot canvas. The teacher came in and told us to make mud on the canvas," Julie gestures with her hands, squeezing tubes of paint on to an imaginary canvas, an incredulous look on her face. "It was frustrating."

"That's a lot of paint," says another student. "And paint is not cheap."

Julie nods in agreement, as do several other students. It turns out that many students at the Bougie Studio are dropouts of the mainstream contemporary art scene as it is taught at university art departments across the nation. Their discontentment may, in fact, reflect something of a trend in the academy. According to Rebecca Alm, chair of the Fine Arts Department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), bachelor's students in drawing or painting are required to complete only five courses in the discipline over the course of their studies.

"Students are requesting a lot more figurative classes," Alm says. She cites recent student-organized drawing co-ops, in which students pool resources to hire models outside of class time. "Though we're not a figurative school, there's a lot of demand....There is definitely more interest in learning figurative techniques than ten years ago."

At the Bougie Studio, meanwhile, students are generally required to complete twice the number of classroom instruction hours as one might take in a typical course of study at a college or university. And as in Schiffmayer's example, university students generally are expected to consider theoretical, expressive, and experimental issues above any technical concerns. This has lead to several generations of degreed art students who can wax poetic about how abstract notions of "the body" have influenced their oeuvre, without being able to render an actual human body.

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