Old-school rules

“If he didn’t like your drawing, he would walk by and reach over and grab the paper and roll it up and throw it in the trash and keep walking,” a laughing Benajmin Long recalled of the teaching style favored by one of his former art instructors.

“That’s not what we’re trying to do here at our school,” Long adds more seriously. “You don’t want to impose little lumps on the head before [students] get a clear idea of what’s going on.”

Long, who studied and painted in Europe for 30 years, is the founder of the Fine Arts League of Asheville, a nonprofit school dedicated to upholding and teaching the traditions of classical-realist artists.

“Sometimes students go abroad to study classical art and become excited and enthusiastic,” says Long. “But when they return to their normal art schools, there is nothing to follow up, nothing that even relates to what they were taught. And this is where we’re trying to say there is more to offer.”

Long’s school opened a year ago, moving last month into a new, 4,500-square-foot space at 25 Rankin St. The spacious inside features high ceilings and ample natural lighting, ideal for an art studio.

The Fine Arts League practices the Old Master apprenticeship system of instruction — a virtually extinct method in this day and age. The school is one of very few in America to offer such a program.

Along with following the ancient-style curriculum, students receive practical experience to help them survive in today’s economic environment, says Long.

“We’ll teach them how to present a portfolio, have a show, set up a show in a gallery, print up invitations – [to] do everything you have to do if you’re going to have a show in a professional gallery,” Long explains.

“When they leave here, they’ll have the preparation to go somewhere else and do it again, in a real gallery.”

The school’s goal, Long says, is to send its graduating students out into the world as professionals.

Master and servant

Roger Nelson was Long’s student for 10 years and “learned light years more from the apprenticeship method than from the academic approach of most art schools,” he says.

“It demands more of the teacher,” continues Nelson, himself now an instructor at the Fine Arts League. “First of all, it demands that you are an active, existing artist, out in the world — one who happens to spend part of his time teaching.

“Secondly, [as a teacher] you have to walk in here and draw and paint with people surrounding you, which a lot of [artists] don’t like to do. You perform right in front of them and become an equal. It is safe territory to just walk around and critique the students’ work; it’s another thing to be facing a blank canvas or white piece of paper. It demands that you have the confidence.”

Long says the school aims to “attract young students who are seriously wanting to be artists, and [who] have a desire and a strong commitment to learn.” The League, which promises the finest traditional-art training in North Carolina, has enrolled about 15 students and plans to accept another 35 or so for its comprehensive three-year program encompassing figurative drawing, painting and sculpture.

Currently, the school also offers some night classes for those who can’t attend on a full-time basis. Approval to operate as a nonprofit organization will, Long says, enable the school to keep tuition low while attracting the most talented and motivated students.

On the other hand, the current tuition is too small, according to Long, to “make a dent in the overhead,” though he adds that the school doesn’t want to exclude talented students.

Traditionally, the best art schools charge high tuition — and if a student is lucky enough to locate an Old Masters apprenticeship program, the cost can be prohibitively expensive, and may require the added expense of living overseas.

“We’re going to try to get grants and establish scholarships for those who can’t even afford our meager tuition,” Long continues. “[For now], we’re funded by supporters.”

He adds this plug: “If anyone out there wants to help this kind of effort, we welcome them.”

Long, Nelson and the school’s other teachers — James Daniel III, John Dempsey, John MacKah and Michael Smith — are accepting no salaries at this time, in order to help establish the school. And they’ve donated their own time and labor to gut, rebuild, design and paint the office and studio spaces at their new location.

“It’s a big sacrifice,” Nelson admits. “But teaching is a learning experience. And the school forms a mecca for those of us who have private studios where we spent most of our time working alone. We can come here and get energy from a common place.”

The school’s use of anatomy models has apparently energized another kind of art lover, as well.

“We did have one little situation,” recalls Nelson with a chuckle. “There’s a fellow who comes around with his basket selling apples door-to-door. When he found out we had live nude models in the classroom, he starting coming around a lot more frequently with those apples.”

Such visits are discouraged, but students may still be inclined to give their teachers an apple or two as a token of appreciation.

“[Instructors] are passing on what they have gathered from 20 or 30 years of professional vocation,” explains Long. “My teacher was one of the people who put the idea in my head that you have a responsibility to pass on what you know.”

Practicing spontaneity

“We teach the fundamentals,” Long emphasizes. “Too many art schools tell you to just express yourself. There are a lot of people who have some innate, native talent and can draw and love to draw. And most art schools allow you to simply work with that. I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong. But the kind of interest I always had in painting was [with] those marvelous drawings of the Old Masters, whose work was done with a whole different spirit.

“They were trained to the point of being able to use their own personal way of defining what they were looking at,” he continues. “And they got there by having a deep understanding of line and form and anatomy, and [also a] skeletal and muscular understanding of the human figure.

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