The Art Academy is located in a dumpy little strip mall on Snelling next to a liquor store — hardly the location to foster rarified beauty. Inside and downstairs, where my class is being held, students sit grouped at big tables, and the deeper you go into the room, the brighter and shinier the supplies and clothes, the more nervous and excited the participants. My class was against the back wall — the kids’ table.
My new teacher, Jim, is the founder of The Art Academy. That first night, I wasn’t sure what to make of him: He has a very dry, bored way of speaking that reminds me of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller, minus the “anyone? anyone?”‘s. He didn’t seem particularly anxious that night to learn our names, and told us almost immediately that he asks for quiet during class because his eyesight is quite poor and it requires intense concentration for him to critique our fine details. Clearly, we were not there to have fun.
The first part of class was spent filling out a questionnaire meant to evaluate our background and interest in art, while Jim went to help the more advanced students. “I feel judged,” I said to the woman next to me after scanning a few of the questions. “Oh, have you gotten to the question about the last time you took an art class?,” she asked. I had not. I had gotten to the one about the last time I read an artist biography or art magazine; the last time I visited a gallery; the last time I had a conversation about art. Twenty-eight years; twenty-eight years; twenty-eight years. For the question about my three favorite artists, I racked my brain for some of the names I remembered from college. I knew I had done my senior thesis on an artist named Lucian Freud… or was it Lucius? Thirty years ago I think I had liked Ingres… was that someone? I dimly remembered liking an artist that painted a lot of obese nudes — who was that? And then, for the last one… Leonardo da Vinci. A safe bet. I decided to make my writing very messy in that section.
Over the course of the evening, however, Jim — and the class itself — started to grow on me. First of all, he had a real reverence for DOING THINGS RIGHT — there was nothing half-assed about his instruction. It’s true that his speech about what materials to use to be sure our work would still be sound in 200 years drew some stifled giggles from those of us who couldn’t imagine our audience ever being wider than our own families, but when we’re starting from nothing, didn’t it make sense to start with the right habits, the right technique? And while he was quick to criticize most art professors and programs, he was incredibly positive with us, praising us for our “great questions,” and even our abilities to pat toner onto canvas. Lastly, he gave us this great piece of advice (paraphrased): “We all have busy lives. Some of you work full-time; some have kids. There’s always going to be something that makes you think you don’t have time to paint. That’s why it’s vitally important that you plan your painting time into your week. Can you get away for a couple of hours on a Monday afternoon? Can you wake up before anyone else on a Saturday? If you schedule your painting time in advance, and treat it like a job, a priority, you’re much more likely to stick to it. And the more hours you can practice, the more quickly you’ll advance.” Amen.
Perhaps most importantly though, all the while he assured us that we will learn, that anyone can, and all the while we saw as seeming proof the beautiful work of the group at the very next table. I’m ready!