Recently I gave a Zoom talk to about 150 students at my former high school, Waring School in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Waring's main school building in the 80's
I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to attend this tiny private school, which then was just 75 kids. Based on the philosophy that a well-educated person should have proficiency in the arts as well as academics, Waring School requires every student to study theater, a musical instrument, chorus, and art every year in addition to literature, history, French, math, and science. When I attended there were no electives; everything was required.
Both drawing and writing are considered essential skills everyone should cultivate, not special "talents". So working in our journals and sketchbooks has always been part of daily life at Waring.
The school's founders are Josée and Philip Waring, a French woman and her American husband who started it as a home-school for their four children. Josée and Philip still taught there when I attended in the late 80's, and their youngest child was my classmate. In the 15 years from when it started until I attended it, the school expanded from a one-room "Petite Ecole" to the 3-acre campus of a former private estate, with a main house, carriage house and barn that had been converted into classrooms and a library.
I was in heaven. The rustic buildings, surrounded by woods, fields and even a small pond, felt like a dream to me. The whole school met together once a week for All School Meeting in a big room we called La Grande Salle that smelled of herbal tea and chalk dust and had a battered grand piano on the corner. The room had exposed wooden ceiling beams and barnboard walls and the windows looked out onto the fields and trees. At my first All School Meeting I couldn't believe I was in "school".
My graduating class of 1989 was 13 students, which was a large class for Waring. (My sister, 2 years behind me, had just seven kids in her class.) Out of the 13 of us, at least three of us were considered "the artists" of the class. The other two, Jackie and Sarah, had studied drawing with Josée in 7th grade. By the time I joined the school in 9th grade, Josée no longer taught drawing, but her artistic education philosophy prevailed. Our art studio was called an "atelier", and even though we did not do formal cast drawing, there were several plaster casts in the room. Josée regularly checked our sketchbooks, and always admonished us to draw only from life, never from photographs.
Josée and Philip Waring in the 80's
I loved to draw, and I loved looking at Josée's collection of art books. I wanted to go to art school. I had an idea that art school would be like Waring, except I would be allowed to draw all day every day, working from a live model like I had done in a special art class for high school students that Sarah and I had attended on Saturdays at the Boston Museum School. When I imagined art school I had vague images of high ceilings and skylights, casts and models, and all the students drawing constantly. I now realize I'd absorbed the idea of what art school would be like from Josee, who'd had a classical art education in Florence.
Art school was fun and also challenging, but most the classes were nothing like what I had imagined. I loved figure drawing class and I took as many live model classes as possible throughout my time there. But figure drawing and painting is not the primary emphasis in a modern art school. Drawing and painting from life was considered ok for education, but not necessarily what professional artists did. Aside from Lucian Freud, I did not know of any contemporary living professional artists or illustrators who worked from life. (Those artists did exist: I now know there was a representational figurative art scene in New York in the 80's, but before the internet era, it was hard to know what was happening outside my immediate sphere of reference. And even my friends who attended the major art schools in New York were not exposed to a classical education.)
It wasn't until my early 30's, in the early 2000's that I became aware of ateliers and Classical Realism, where students learn to draw and paint by working exclusively from life and by copying the works of the Old Masters. Upon my first introduction to this movement, I thought "THIS is the kind of art school I've imagined since I was 14!" I was by then settled in San Francisco so I could not move to Seattle or New York (or Florence!) to attend one of the contemporary ateliers.... so I started one.
I've long wanted to return to Waring and give a presentation at a school meeting about my experience of art school and atelier training. But since my family no longer lives in Massachusetts, I rarely return to Beverly. But this past year during the pandemic I knew Waring was conducting All School Meetings online, so I asked if they would like me to give the students a little zoom talk. The current school head and a few of the teachers there are my former high school classmates, and they warmly accepted my request.
Here is the talk:
I usually give my talks in person, for an hour, and to adults, so condensing a slide lecture to less than 30 minutes over zoom to high school students was a bit daunting. But I greatly enjoyed giving the talk. I presented what I would have liked to know as a young art student: That there are many different ways to learn and study art, and whatever art institution you attend will not necessarily expose you to all of them. Now, in the era of the internet (and Zoom!) young artists can become more aware of their options.
Note: I'd also like to add, for parents: Before you spend 100K sending your child to an art school, even a famous one with a good name, be aware of the risk of the investment you are making. An expensive school with a famous name does not necessarily prepare your child for a more successful career in the arts than a more affordable education at an atelier would. Depending on your child's temperament and interests, an atelier may be more suitable. Aristides Atelier in Seattle and Grand Central Atelier in New York are two excellent options to consider.
I offer a classical atelier education online that high school students are more than welcome to try. If you or your child is a student 18 or under who might be considering a classical art education, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to apply for a discount to my online program.