Why did I leave my comfortable job to pursue classical art training?
I had been teaching at an all-boys prep school for six years. I loved my colleagues and had great bosses I respected and loved to work for. I loved the young men that I taught. My wife and I were just starting our family - we already had our first beautiful baby girl! With these responsibilities in mind, my wife and I had decided to leave the security and comforts of my job as head of the Art Department at The Heights School so that I could go back to being a student myself, full-time, under Master painter Paul Ingbretson.
Many people would say it was crazy (and likely they were saying it). I left a very good career path that didn't entail a fraction of the risk and outright financial loss that turning down years of income in exchange for years of tuition would. And yet my wife and I weighed these realities and with a little fear, a lot of hope, support from family, and a firm will, took the leap and moved our small family up to Manchester, New Hampshire to start this foolish little enterprise.
So why did I do it?
For me a big piece of that choice goes back to my grade school experience when my family attended Saint Vincent De Paul Church. Many people in our mid-sized Midwestern Town referred to it as "St. Vincent Deluxe" -- for easily inferable reasons. And yet despite being one of the wealthiest parishes around, it was a truly ugly building. It is what I referred to as a "Pizza Hut church" whose squat architecture speaks much more of fast food than of beauty, transcendence, and elevation of the mind and heart. It's one of many such buildings erected by Catholic parishes in the United States during the dark days of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The stained glass windows were more sandy grout than actual glass. Their designs were clumsy at best -- upon reflection, I think they have much more in common with the pixelated graphics of an early Nintendo gaming system then the amazing patterning and geometry of the stained glass of Chartres or even a modest 19th century chapel. I believe it had some rough hewn statues, Stations of the Cross, and a crucifix that was inoffensive at best. Besides these, the sanctuary was very bare. But perhaps even more offensive than the barrenness of the church sanctuary were the very ugly murals just outside, in the vestibule. Stark blue-faced figures, reminiscent more of aliens than of human beings, marched across the bright orange walls of the vestibule in a world constructed of violently hacked, jagged paint strokes. They were supposed to illustrate the life of St. Vincent de Paul... I only knew that I didn't want to be around them.
With all this wealth and opportunity, why didn't we have a beautiful church? We as a parish community could certainly afford it.
Then, during my 8th grade year, my parents took me on a trip to Rome. What an experience! I was deeply moved by the great beauty I found there. The stark, colossal grandeur of the statues in St. John Lateran; St Peter's Basilica with its amazing Colonnades; the wonders of the Vatican Museums -- particularly the Sistine Chapel -- but most of all the paintings in the Jesu (a grand, post-Reformation Church, that is the head Church of the Jesuit order) spoke to me as nothing else I had ever seen before.
The beauty and vigor of the figures from the Jesu touched me deeply. Perhaps a little over-the-top, the figures burst forth from their architectural frames into the space of the viewers. They spoke to me unmistakably of the Saints being of our world, having power to intercede for us, to change the world for the better... and all of this communicated by the excellent craftsmanship, care, and vision of all-but-unknown artists. Here were men and women who looked like me, but perhaps a little higher, cleaner, more noble. I wanted to be like them and I was convinced that they would want to help me. I felt profoundly the bridge between Heaven and Earth through this artwork and it helped me to watch, to stay, to pray, and to enjoy the house of God - almost nothing could have been farther from that aesthetic experience than the experience of the vestibule at St. Vincent de Paul's back home.
And yet the communities who had made these grand, amazing churches didn't have nearly the resources in terms of technological sophistication that the community of St. Vincent's had.
I had also heard of beautiful buildings that were built in the rural area of New York State where my mother had grown up -- made by poor French and Irish pioneers and farmers. I heard stories of these elegant churches filled with carved wood and stone that, before my time, had been replaced with other Pizza Hut churches. I began to suspect that the ugly churches came about not through a lack of money or technology but because of a type of spiritual crisis: a lack of love and dedication (to Beauty and to the Source of Beauty -- as Saint Augustine said, the "beauty ever ancient and never new").
From that point on I started to feel called to dedicate myself to the pursuit of beauty.
Through the years that pursuit took different forms.
I had always drawn, but having been to Rome, interest in classical and baroque art started engaging me in a new way. I took some classes in high school, but never had any art teacher who seemed to be offering what I really wanted. I learned about Caravaggio, and was swept away by the same sense of wonder at the beauty of light and form combined with the beauty of the presence of the Divine so close to us that I had experienced in the Jesu.
I went to college; my parents encouraged me to "find something that I loved and figure out a way to get paid for it." To my parents' somewhat restrained horror I really took the first part of their message to heart, trusting that I would figure out the second part in time: I majored in Studio Art and Philosophy. Here again, I was disappointed at the lack of any teacher who could teach me what I was truly craving: how to draw the beauty, the truth - how to create an image of that higher Vision that those great Italian Masters I had seen in Rome had done.
In fact, I found they couldn't even teach me excellent technique for approaching any visual subject.
By the time that I was just about to graduate. I really didn't know what to do next. I knew I wanted to pursue "art" but had gained only enough knowledge to know that I needed a lot more training to be able to make the beautiful things that I hoped to make -- that I was haunted by, that I felt were burning at my heart.
I didn't know where to get such training though, so I decided to get a job and continue my search.
As the head of the Art Department at the Heights School I did that in one of the most supportive and generous communities that I could imagine. I taught my grade school and high school students, I took classes from different realist artists and started to learn more about the reviving tradition of realist, Western Art. A breakthrough came when I visited the studios of Henry Wingate in Front Royal, Virginia. Some friends had told me about him, encouraging me to get in touch and visit him. When I reached out to him, telling him about my history and desire for training, Henry generously invited me out to his studio.
What I saw there blew me away.
Henry's studio was a whole building, the size of a small house, tailored to the needs of a traditional artist. It had a huge room with an enormous north-facing window. Multiple panels, custom made to fit the window, could be placed over or removed from different areas to completely control the flow of light. It had a large, raised pedestal where he drew and painted from live models in natural light. And it had his work: beautiful still life drawings and paintings; large, imposing portraits; but most of all, his epic grand-scale religious figurative work. I felt like I had stepped into the studio of one of those great Italian Masters. It was unlike any other Studio I've been to before and I knew I was on the right track.
I wanted to study with Henry, but to my disappointment he informed me he was not taking any students. However he directed me towards the master under whom he had studied: Paul Ingbretson. It was a very exciting moment in my journey. If Henry could make paintings like this, maybe someday I could as well.
A year passed before I could visit Paul's studio. I'd seen some of his work online, but the thing that really took my breath away when I finally visited were the colors in the still life. By that time I had visited a number of studios of contemporary realist painters; I had seen much of their work in galleries; I'd been to many great galleries in the US, the UK, Italy, and France. I have never been as impressed with color in still life. The vibrancy and freshness of the color without exaggeration or over-saturation, combined with disciplined drawing, was so powerful and yet so calm and restrained! It was truly a revelation of Beauty for me. I had never suspected until then what an exciting thing still life painting could be.
The decision had been building for a number of years. I had often talked with my wife about it and finally we both had enough clarity to see that after our first child, if we didn't make the jump to have me study painting then, we probably never would. We had to choose between settling down and taking the "leap of faith." We had both decided that we were committed to beauty. We recognized that real sacrifices often have to be made in order to pursue the highest goods, and we both recognized that learning how to make beautiful images for others and to present a vision of true beauty -- in short, working actively in building up a culture of beauty -- is something worth sacrificing for.
We had both seen our share of Pizza Hut churches as well as a popular art culture that rejects and often attacks beauty; we had seen how many people were seeking true beauty and were unable to find it; and we recognized the need for people to act to change the culture for the good, the true, and the beautiful. We had discerned that we felt a call to be such people - culture warriors, perhaps some might say - in the service of Beauty. We also realized that we had only one life to live, and that if we didn't make the jump we would probably regret it for the rest of our lives.
And so -- we jumped!
What do you think? Is there a dream out there that you would pursue if you had the chance? Tell me about it.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley, an oil painter in the Boston School tradition. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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