OLD LYME — Lyme Academy of Fine Arts will enroll 14 students into its core program beginning in the spring trimester — an important milestone, according to Jordan Sokol, artistic director for the school.
“We had our first cohort of students last trimester, which was 11 students, we’re up to 12 students this trimester and we’re anticipating continuing to grow enrollment — we have two new students starting next trimester already. That will bring us to 14 students, which was our projected maximum for our first year,” he said.
Sokol said that the first year was limited to 14 students because that is the number that can fit comfortably within the studio where students draw from live models, a key part of the program.
“That’s how we can manage that amount of students and give them the kind of individualized attention that they get from the program,” he told CT Examiner. “Once as soon as we go above 14, then we need to basically begin to expand and bring on more faculty.”
Sokol and his wife, artist Amaya Gurpide, who is the director of drawing at the school, were hired in February 2021 to create a new curriculum after the school lost its accreditation in 2019 when University of New Haven withdrew its affiliation. The academy was established in 1976 by artist Elizabeth Gordon Chandler and had granted Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees since 1992.
Sokol said the program follows the principles of Chandler, who believed in a classical art education with an emphasis on figurative drawing, painting and sculpture.
“It’s exactly the mission that she had initiated about 1976. Every artist has differences in their approach, but essentially, our mission is exactly the same,” he said. “And that’s why we were brought up here because they wanted to carry on the original mission of the school — that’s what we do, so they found us.”
The school is pursuing accreditation as a certificate program rather than a degree-granting program, Sokol said, as well as Student and Exchange Visitor Program certification to allow international students to apply for student visas.
Sokol said the finances of the school are doing “extremely well” and that the endowment had remained intact.
“We’ve been applying for grants and getting grants. We’ve been doing fundraising. Our enrollment is doing good, both in the core program and continuing ed. We’ve run a couple of workshops and we’re running some more. So programming wise, it’s going well, and fundraising wise, it’s going well.”
The vision for the school is to be internationally recognized as one of the best figurative art schools in the world, Sokol said, and was included in a 2020 manifesto released by Michael Duffy, president of the board of trustees.
“We feel that we have a strong enough faculty. We have some of the most impressive studios [compared to] any other sort of academic artistic education. We feel we have the right ingredients to really get international recognition for what we do,” he said.
Creating a program
“We’re looking for a particular type of student that’s very, very serious and committed. They’re looking for a career as an artist and they’re willing to kind of commit to the rigorous schedule,” Sokol said.
The program schedule runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. three days a week and 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on the other two days.
“The main hours of the day are spent either on the front of a model or a cast, studying anatomy. The rest of the day, they’re just focused, either drawing or sculpting. A lot of the lectures happen in the evening. It’s intensive,” he said.
Students come to the program with varying levels of experience, but everyone starts from the beginning of the core program. The first year is drawing, the second year is painting, and the third year and beyond is independent or advanced study.
“The first two years are really there to set a foundation. It’s very intensive, really long days because even with two years, it’s just not a lot of time to develop this kind of skill,” he said. “So the idea with those two years is really just to create a fundamental foundation for students to be able to build upon — the expectation is that after those two years, they will need to continue to just practice all the things that they learned in those two years.”
Students who stay for third, fourth and fifth years will be offered more advanced projects, working more independently with guidance from the school’s faculty, Sokol said.
“The program is really a sort of accumulation of all of the experiences that Amaya and I had teaching at various different schools and academies,” he said. “It’s sort of based on the conclusions that we’ve come to in our own process through the types of education that we’ve had and then how we’ve kind of evolved as artists. So we’ve taken just all of that, and tried to create a curriculum that streamlines the process.”
Typically, art schools teach figure drawing using either the “sight size” method, comparative measurement, or a more structural approach, said Sokol, who formerly co-directed the Florence Academy of Fine Art in Jersey City with Gurpide.
“We decided to ultimately use comparative measurement,” he said. It’s not that we invented that way of working, but of all the different ways of teaching, we feel that that will allow for the students to be the most versatile once they leave here.”
He said comparative measurement involves taking a single unit of measurement and using it to compare other proportional relationships, in this case within the figure.
Sokol said that the program is a very specific skill-based education and that students who apply know exactly what the program includes.
“It’s not a sort of ‘let’s explore our feelings and sort of understand how to translate that into a concept.’ We’re focusing on the technical aspects,” he said. “The students know that it’s going to be a year of drawing, they know how important that is, they know how short of a time one year is. So they’re not necessarily trying to rush ahead into the painting. So we attract a very particular type of student that’s interested in doing this particular type of education.”
Relating to the art world
“[The contemporary art world] sees figurative and representational art as being something of the past — and we disagree. We feel that there’s a lot of artists, particularly young artists, these days, that are using the figurative tradition in a very contemporary and modern way. They just happen to be using a sort of traditional language or historical framework that they’re communicating with,” he said.
He said shows in the school gallery will be curated to showcase the work of contemporary artists who use figurative language, which connects to the teaching at the school
“These exhibitions also give an opportunity to our students to see work by artists that maybe they know but have never seen their work in person. And it’s almost just like this little revolving museum that our students can come and kind of study other painters, how they’ve accomplished the things that we’re trying to teach them how to do,” he said.
He said the school was receiving international recognition for the Lennart Anderson exhibition, which runs through March 18.
“We’re getting a lot of requests from this exhibition. The previous exhibition was very well received. Our Instagram following, for example, is growing by the thousands,” he said.
The shows in the gallery, curated by Sokol and Gurpide, will help spread the word about “the thriving community of contemporary figurative artists,” according to Sokol, who said he hoped that figurative work will gain more recognition in the contemporary art world.
“There are people that are using traditional language and communicating something very relevant and very vital with their work. My hope is that will continue to happen and that people’s work will be judged based on the quality of the work rather than whether it’s rather than the genre. Just because it’s figurative shouldn’t necessarily mean that it’s inherently sort of anachronistic,” he said.
Sokol said that there is a huge market for representational work among collectors, and the controversy over figurative work is sometimes more rooted in the educational realm.
“You have larger institutions, colleges, universities, where the teaching is maybe a little more hostile towards representation,” he said. “But, it works in our favor, because the students who want that come here.”