The inner light

Asheville has long been known as a city of intriguing diversity, a lively creative environment where the traditional and the contemporary often go head to head. Walking downtown, you’ll hear as much bluegrass booming from car stereos as you will hip-hop. And the many local galleries, theaters, studios and performance spaces span the full range of artistic expression, from traditional dance, music and drama to conceptual sculpture, avant-garde painting and poetry slams.

Some might consider local fresco painter James Daniel more of a traditionalist. He recently completed Asheville’s first authentic fresco — a 9-by-12-foot painting commissioned by St. Eugene’s Parish in north Asheville. Titled “The Communion of the Saints,” it depicts Christ ascendant over St. Francis, St. Paul, Mary Magdalen and a pair of anonymous followers. The traditional technique involves mixing water with lime and plaster, then painting directly onto the plaster. When the plaster dries, the paint is permanently bonded to it — in theory, it will last forever. (Many Renaissance masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings and Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” are frescos.)

Daniel’s style is often described as classical realism. For more than six years, he’s studied with internationally recognized fresco master Ben Long, who also lives in Asheville. Daniel teaches at Long’s art school, where classical-realist styles of drawing and painting are the yardsticks of perfection. Daniel has also assisted Long on several impressive commissions over the years, including the dome of the TransAmerica Building in Charlotte, the Charlotte Law Enforcement Center, The Chapel of the Prodigal in Montreat, and the Statesville Civic Center.

But Daniel prefers to think of himself as a modern interpreter of classical themes and approaches. The extremely lifelike figures in “The Communion of the Saints” contrast sharply with an ethereal Christ, whose body is represented as a mass of divine energy emanating intense white-and-yellow tongues of heavenly light.

“You start with drawing studies from life,” the artist explains. “No photos, because they distort colors and look plastic and fake, and you don’t connect with the subject you’re working with.” In the course of preparing to create his first solo fresco work, Daniel logged hundreds of hours over eight months finding models; doing preliminary sketches, color studies and figure paintings; and finally drafting a full-size charcoal mock-up.

He also worked with the clergy at St. Eugene’s to agree on what the piece would look like. “After the church presented me with the idea, I picked the three saints, and then there were several revisions over time in terms of color and composition. Christ looks much more abstract now than he did, for example, which is how I wanted to do it initially. Instead of a realistic Christ, I focused on the light issuing from his body, so that you gravitate towards the inner light of the spirit and the Church.”

“Christ is always in the background,” notes Daniel. “The power of spirituality is in the light, ever present but indeterminate. I find it easier to connect to the image on a personal level; it allows you the freedom to see your own individual interpretation, to find your own meaning in it.”

Daniel and his assistant, Michael Smith created the actual fresco on a tight19-day schedule, often working 10 to 12 hours at a stretch to complete sections before the plaster dried. “Fresco colors tend to become lighter and softer over time,” Smith explains. “The first week, the colors come together gradually, so that they are slightly different every morning when we come in. After six months, we’ll return to add final touches, if necessary, with egg tempera (a pigment mixed with egg yolk) which binds well to the surface of the painting.”

The setting, in St. Eugene’s new day chapel, is dramatic. Set into a 15-foot, free-standing stone wall, the fresco catches the light from the north windows, which reveal a view of the mountains.

“The wall in the new day chapel happened to be a perfect place for a fresco,” says Daniel. “They were going to build it anyway. And after the commission was arranged, the architects then built the wall to the specifications of the fresco.”

Speaking as he painted the head of St. Francis one day recently, Daniel cited some of his key influences. “Tiepolo may be my favorite; he was amazing. Then Michelangelo and Giotto, Raphael and Annigoni, who was more or less a classical realist. Massacio turned the corner, so to speak; he had a great influence on Michelangelo and later fresco artists. He brought in realism; he used live models from the village where he lived.”

But Daniel, who also studied fresco in Florence for several years, was less forthcoming when asked about his own style, replying simply, “I’m a painter; an artist.”

Then, after a few moments of silence broken only by the swish of his brush on the plaster, he added, “You shouldn’t try to classify yourself as just one thing or another. In Italy, no matter what style you practice, they call you a painter until you reach a certain level of artistic achievement. Then they call you an artist.”

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