Though I was raised in a creative household, I didn’t fall in love with visual art until college, for a few reasons. First, I cannot draw to save my life – stick figure-people in boxy clothing, and wire-looking flowers and mustache-shaped birds have been it since age three.Second, I strapped on literary blinders and didn’t look up from a book for the longest time. And finally, I attended a private Christian school for my entire education, and while I had many great teachers, my art education in general was a bit skewed. For example, the Hell’s Bells 1 and 2 documentaries were required watching in Bible class. Who knew both Whitney Houston and AC/DC could induce a satanic stupor?
Thankfully, after I graduated from that sheltered evangelical scene, I poked my head out and really looked at the world that God made.I met friends who introduced me to good music.And I took an art history course in Austin that forever altered my eyes, an eclectic visual account of humanity:the ingenious prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux;jewel-toned Byzantine icons and mosaics; Rembrandt’s stories of shadow and glimmer; Van Gogh’s bedroom and an ink-blue starry night; Chagall’s dreamscapes; Rothko’s “sandwiches of color” (as named by Billy Collins in this poem). Since then, I’ve been on a continual quest to find a painting able to lift me out of my life into another, to give me new eyes to see this world.
Last year, I discovered the work of Jacob Collins through Rev. George Grant’s blog. I’d never seen anything like Collins’s classical realism, certainly not within the modern art scene. He paints whatever is lovely to behold, yet each piece seems misplaced in time – haunting, as if viewing the present day through a lens of the past. I stared in wonder as I clicked from one image to the next on Collins’s web site – an unwrapped chocolate bar,the American flag with fifty stars, a Ford pickup truck, a pint of beer and popcorn, figs and chevre, and Vermont maple trees -each smoldering with traditional, natural light akin to Caravaggio, but painted by a man alive and well in 2009 and married to Ann Brashares, the bestselling author of the quite contemporary Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.
Jacob Collins’s childhood love of drawing pirate ships, airplanes, revolvers, and Spiderman kindled a reverence for the great draftsmanship of the Old Masters such as Vermeer, Velázquez, and Rembrandt.Skillful from a young age, Collins sketched and painted fervently under the guidance of his grandmother, Alma Binion Cahn Schapiro, an artist trained in Paris. To this day, his disciplined passion is the framework of a normal life working from home: “I take the kids to school, go back, and draw and paint all day. Once the kids are in bed, I draw and paint, and then I go to bed. We do other things, but on the ordinary, it’s pretty streamlined – days of drawing and painting.”
I’d almost forgotten the straightforward, elegant beauty of classical still lifes, portraits, nudes, interiors, and landscapes – layer upon layer of craft and complexity. Instead of the modernist spin on reality – personal, inward assessment – Collins merely presents creation and daily life, quiet and beautiful, with near-photographic realism (though he does not work aided by a camera).There is beauty to be found in the colors and shapes of modernism, but to Collins, each form he paints is “in our midst, in our world – things, vistas, scenes, the natural environment, the manmade environment, and the people in it – that’s the actual world, what it looks like, and what it is.”His stillness and simplicity of line, atmosphere, and warm and neutral colors beget the mystery of anatomy – not only of the human body, but also the elements of earth, water, air, and the fire of a picked orange, peeled and glowing with natural light.
Collins faced tough challenges learning classicism in the face of modernism, including resistance from many of his teachers who assumed that beauty in and of itself is not enough – it ought to be dismantled. Even if they partially supported his traditional vision, they also believed it wasn’t something a real artist would pursue anymore, especially given the 1980s visceral bias against reviving classical art.He was made to feel foolish, as if his pursuit wasn’t worthwhile or relevant, or that it was “art from another time.”Prophet-like, he didn’t retreat to the nineteenth century, but leapt over modernism to carry the classical torch forward, learning from the beauty of history.
Eventually, his dogged work paid off when he located kindred spirit teachers such as Michael Aviano and Ted Seth Jacobs at the New York Academy of Art when it was new (he studied with Jacobs further in France).His fellow student and older friend, Tony Ryder, was also a profound influence in his life and career.No longer stumbling in the artistic dark, Collins gained skill and confidence, and now he is the most prominent representative of classical realism, or as he prefers, “traditionalist painting” or simply, “classical painting.” His solo exhibitions at Hirschl & Adler Modern (New York), John Pence Gallery (San Francisco), and Meredith Long & Company (Houston), among others, are evidence that classical realism is not antiquated.
He finally found a successful niche, but “once in awhile,” admits Collins, “it bothers me a little, the fact that the major cultural mouthpieces – The New York Times, serious art criticism, or the museums – still seem to be relatively uninterested in artists trying to use classical techniques.” So he is cultivating change primarily by the work of his hands, with like-minded souls, making beautiful drawings and paintings – inevitably, the artist’s job.
“I don’t want this to sound negative,” says Collins, “but honestly, I don’t think the existing art culture – the avant-garde, institutional-modernists of the establishment – are ever going to be interested, or even able to come around to the art values that I care about most.”He believes that those who are enthusiastic about the values of modernism – rejecting traditional methods – should follow their own vision. They, too, have the right to freedom of expression, but some of their rejection is so complete that they don’t make room for classical ideals. Collins is driven to be kindly subversive and create a parallel culture, one he envisions to be comprised of “artists who make poetical images and touching, emotionally-resonating art using traditional skills, and even a vocabulary of images – the language of classical art.”
Because neither he nor his heroes learned alone, Collins founded three schools of art: The Water Street Atelier in the basement of his New York home, The Grand Central Academy of Art, and The Hudson River Fellowship. Artists of old evolved and thrived by befriending, sharing, competing, and sharpening other artists in a community, and Collins longed to establish similar shelters, to be part of something bigger than himself, to pass on an artistic legacy, and to make a contribution to a world that ought to be.He is stimulated by talking about drawing and painting and preserving that passion within other people who want to create mere beauty.Collins muses, “I imagine that I’m trying to make the school(s) that I wish I could’ve gone to, so that kids exactly like me can have it better than I did.”
The students of the Hudson River Fellowship also learn to rediscover American soil through the artistic and spiritual values of the 19th century Hudson River School painters such as Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford R. Gifford, and Albert Bierstadt. They defined the poetry of creation by painting outdoors – en plein air (“in the open air”) – creating a meditative piece for a wall indoors.This new tribe calls us to step outdoors and remember that where we tread is holy ground, vividly depicted in Collins’s Vinalhaven Sunset (2008) – treetops licked with sun-flames, both under a cloud-cathedral and below a mirror of water, a congregation of rocks.
He recognizes that “in the 20th century, we’ve become a little crazy with how we use the land – our willingness to carve a highway through anything and everything, and pour concrete over beautiful landscapes, and sprawl our way across the country.” Instead, he hopes we hear the prophetic call of these neo-Hudson River painters living in our commercial wilderness: Honor and protect the land; save it from ugliness!
It’s an invitation to survival. Poet Kate Daniels said, “Without art to translate for us the ambiguous intensities of our lives, we exist in a kind of emotional hell – whirling and spinning through the darkness of undifferentiated, undiscriminated feeling that declines to reveal any pattern to us.” When art only pitches its tent in the vast lands of modernism, it “belittles the complicated and powerful ideas of beauty” spoken in classical paintings.
Collins and his peers have a right to be neighbors of modern art. Beauty is everyone’s dwelling.
John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco, will host a collection of Jacob Collins’s recent oil paintings and drawings from May 2 – 30, 2009.