For an aspiring artist like Pamm Ciupa, The Great White North proved a Great Big Wilderness. With the Canadian landscape as her teacher, she would paint plein air every free moment she had. She bought the art books and read them until she fell asleep. She found the videos and watched them until she fell asleep. She even took trips down to Tennessee to study with the American Impressionist Lori Putnam, but returning to Canada she found herself back where she started—with that Great Big Gap between her potential and her painting. Even worse, no one else seemed to recognize it. To them, the work was always good enough. “It was so frustrating,” she says. “I wasn’t getting the guidance. And if you don’t have somebody tapping you this way and tapping you back that way, you don’t know if you’re doing it right or wrong.” So when the kids flew the coop and the time came to sink or swim, Ciupa kissed her husband, told him she’d be back soon and swam to Sarasota for a four-year apprenticeship with the artist Charles Miano at the Southern Atelier. It’s been nine months, she says. “It’s been eye-opening,” she says.
Tucked away near the Sarasota-Bradenton border, the Southern Atelier remains a hidden gem in the local cultural landscape, but perhaps by design. Inspired by and fashioned after the Renaissance workshops of old—the type that produced masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo—the Southern Atelier apprenticeship program operates under the principles of rigorous and individualized instruction in the classical sense.
This is not the place for retired hobbyists to leisurely “find themselves” or youthful upstarts to skip the fundamentals—and abstraction is essentially off the table—but apprentices at the atelier join knowing one thing: if they put in the work, they will leave the program with a working mastery of shape, form, color and light in the realist tradition. Charles Miano, a recognized master by the Art Renewal Center, founded the atelier in 2008 and has honed the program in the intervening years, focusing on a tripartite approach to instruction—theory, practice and guidance. His students come from all over the world.
Li Volk, today the executive director of the Southern Atelier but also an apprentice finishing her third year of study, came to Sarasota from China so that her son could study at IMG Academy. A successful entrepreneur with her own graphic design and marketing firm in Beijing, she had no prior training in the arts, but after spending a summer at the Southern Atelier with her son, he received eight scholarship offers from arts schools around the country and she was hooked on the atelier practice. “You just realize that this is all you want to do,” she says. And that’s exactly what an apprenticeship at the Southern Atelier calls for.
Apprentices study at the atelier for 35 to 40 hours a week, coming in nearly every day to either work through their individual curriculum of projects or participate in group sketching with a live model. Highly individualized, each pupil develops at their own rate, but each also goes through the same fundamentals-focused training that progresses through four levels of complexity. Beginners start by “working from the flat,” aka training their hand-eye coordination by copying master sketches of various forms and parts of the body, learning to make marks and control their medium. The next step involves what are called bargues, or small, antique sculptural forms, such as hands, that the apprentice must themselves translate from three-dimensional space to the flat of their paper. Only once these basics of form are mastered will an apprentice move on to incorporate color into their work, first working in grisaille painting, meaning monochromatic, before finally graduating to full color for their final studies. And as the students progress through their curriculum, they attend group sessions every Saturday where they may make as many as 50 sketches in a matter of hours, working from a live model in the atelier studio.
Miano, or one of his former pupils, is always in attendance to offer instruction and guidance every time, and the emphasis becomes almost Aristotelian: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Unlike art programs that offer one class a week and then leave the student to their devices, an apprenticeship at the atelier keeps the art at the forefront of a student’s waking life. “I don’t want to waste people’s time,” says Miano. “That’s like taking one piano lesson without practicing every day.” He only takes on 12–15 apprentices at a time, and he expects dedication.
For students like Volk, who just recently completed her first masterwork—a recreation of Rembrandt’s 1631 St. Peter in Prison—the proof is in the painting. “You can see your improvement, and really quick,” she says. Art had been a dream of hers, but one that seemed to have slipped away before she came to the atelier. “Life is busy,” she says. “You get married and start a company and then it’s just one thing after another.” Now she hopes to become a professional portrait artist and maybe even teach at the atelier herself.
Importantly, though the training focuses on mastering the fundamentals of realism, the aim is for every student to move beyond them. “The goal is to get beyond technique,” says Miano. “We’re getting them to speak with their own voice with confidence, which comes from their craft.” Apprentices will not emerge from the atelier painting just like Miano or as carbon copies of one of the Old Masters, but with their own artist voices, whatever those may be. “Rembrandt said there’s only one master, and that’s nature,” Miano says. “So every single day we’re studying nature, and, for me, that’s the most exciting and most rewarding and noble endeavor that I could ever do. You’re immersing yourself in beauty and in truth.”
For more information about the courses and curriculum at Southern Atelier, visit our web site, www.southernatelier.org.