Duluth, MN — Towering over Duluth’s Observation Hill neighborhood is a stone, neo-gothic church with a majestic view of Lake Superior. Inside, you’d expect to find a congregation bowing their heads in prayer. Instead, you encounter something unexpected.
Nearly 100 years ago, hardworking Italian immigrants – stone masons and brick layers who lived in Duluth’s “Little Italy” – worked tirelessly on evenings and weekends, carving stones to build St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the spiritual and cultural heart of their community.
Flash-forward to seven years ago. The dwindling congregation faced daunting expenses to maintain the historic church, so it held its last Mass. Two years ago, artist Jeffrey T. Larson purchased the church. It’s fitting that the prominent place of worship now houses a school dedicated to an art form mistakenly considered historic – introducing the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art.
The building’s inherent beauty provides a beautiful backdrop for the academy managed by a father-son team. Larson and his son Brock, both graduates and former instructors of The Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis, now run one of the few fine art programs in the world.
Students from across the region moved to Duluth, Minnesota for what some call the biggest challenge of their life. At the academy, artists are pushed to see the world differently, shattering their preconceived notions of how art is created.
“We try to eliminate the creativity aspect to art. That comes later,” said assistant director and instructor Brock Larson. “It’s very similar to learning a language, and you can’t tell a story until you know the language.”
The story for his students begins in the 8,000-square-foot church’s former nave, now a fine art studio with 28-foot vaulted ceilings and substantial north-facing windows providing bright sunlight. There, you’ll find Larson, the academy’s founder and head instructor, and Brock firmly challenging their full-time students, sculpting them into artists who may one day develop a masterpiece. Downstairs, artists can seek respite in their new lounge and kitchen, or pursue inspiration in the gallery hall and rental studios, which are built near the on-site student apartment.
The academy provides opportunity for about a dozen carefully-selected students to work the program, which focus on small groups for more one-on-one time. The students learn at their own pace, with the full-time program lasting about four to five years.
The curriculum begins with black and white oil painting, leading up to still life, portraiture, and figure painting – which is one of the most difficult of all subjects to master. The students learn to effectively render light and shadows while drawing geometric shapes. They also learn to create copies of Bargue plates, an exercise that teaches students how to see and render shapes accurately. It’s a stepping stone towards drawing from life, which was developed by the nineteenth century Parisian artist Charles Bargue.
“We are kind of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch,” said Eric Rauvola, a Hermantown resident and graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. There, he majored in writing and minored in art, and following his graduation he devoured books and online tutorials to personally continue his art education. During his research, he discovered what’s called the “Atelier model of fine art” and was shocked to find the rare program offered close to home.
The Atelier model gives students the opportunity to apprentice with representational painters who reintroduce traditional drawing and painting techniques. The Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art exists to uphold timeless art traditions, which date back to ancient Greece and Medieval Europe.
Today, The Atelier movement is experiencing a renaissance, with Classical Realism in the forefront after years of being eclipsed by Post- Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and other art movements that pulled the focus from fine art.
“It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, to commit to a program like this,” said Rauvola, with a pencil in his right hand and his left tucked behind his back, he thoughtfully worked on a figure drawing of a male model. “I had only very barely scratched the surface of the type of curriculum that we started with here.” He’s paying the $7,600 per year tuition to try and make it as a fine art painter, one with a supportive following which would allow him to paint what he chooses.
Each incremental step of the academy’s curriculum is carefully created to further the artists’ skills as they move from two-dimensional to three-dimensional artwork. The students aren’t simply learning to draw and paint. They’re here to train their eyes correctly, simplifying nature into shapes, colors, value and intensities into a type of art called abstracting.
“When you are looking at the model, you don’t think nose, face, eye. You break it down into simple shapes,” said Jesse Kane, a student from Wilmot, South Dakota now in his second year of the program. To Kane, the program is less about cultivating creativity, instead he said it helps students develop intense self-discipline.
“It’s really about just breaking things down and translating it with your medium,” said Kane, who studied graphic design for two years at Alexandria Technical and Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota, while working and saving money to attend a prestigious art program. He’s now compelled to follow his passion and try to make a living as a fine artist. “I’m just as hungry as I was before to get better, maybe even more so,” he said as worked in a darkened room, with spotlights casting shadows as he used a pencil, eraser and plumb line to create cast drawings.
Both Kane and Rauvola said the instructors are honest and fair, providing firm yet constructive feedback on their weakest points, guiding them to develop a new mindset and technical skillset. As a testament to the popularity of the program – when the initial batch of students began in 2016, the church was still being renovated, and students kept their determination despite frequent foot traffic from contractors who worked on loud construction projects.
“They were setting the standard, as well as dealing with the construction noise,” said Brock Larson. “There were a lot of challenges that most students won’t have to deal with. Despite that they really pulled through and were receptive to what we were teaching. They put in all the hard work that we told them it was going to take… I couldn’t be prouder,” he said.
Capping off their successful first year, the academy hosted a student and instructor exhibition this past summer. While the program is small and new to Duluth, the instructors estimated that up to 700 people, including family, friends, and curious community members, attended their first night.
“You could barely hear each other, because there were so many people talking,” said Brock Larson. “It’s kind of rewarding that people are very curious, and impressed with what they’ve seen, both with the building and the students work.”
The Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art is currently accepting applications for full-time students, and is developing a part-time program, along with workshops and seminars to make fine art more accessible. Visit their website www. greatlakesacademyoffineart.com for more information.