Art Training in a School Without Walls

Wilmington, NC – Raoul Middleman has little use for meticulous detail. The painter can wring an entire landscape out of a canvas in under an hour, without breaking a sweat, a talent he's currently demonstrating to a circle of slightly awed artists in a weedy lot next to acme art studios.

Middleman's audience is the inaugural class of the North Carolina School of the Visual Arts - fifteen local painters, ranging from professionals to amateurs, who've each paid $500 to spend a week with the Baltimore-based master.

if you've never heard of the North Carolina School of the Visual Arts, you're not alone. Until this week, the program consisted of little more than its hefty name and the equally hefty ambitions of its founder, Wilmington painter Chappy Valente.

Starting with a series of week-long workshops like this one, Valente hopes the school will eventually grow into a major arts force in the southeast. It's an ambitious dream, one based in Valente's own desire for continuing education.

While working as an artist in Wilmington Valente says he would often have to do is go to New York or go to Chicago, all for the specific purpose of getting to work with other artists and receive instruction from artists who I consider better than me.

now Valente's trying to bring the mountain to Mohammed, seeking national-caliber teachers to run quarterly intensives in everything from landscape to portrait painting. It's an effort modeled on the Art Students League of New York, a century-old organization which offers classes and memberships, but no specific course of study or certification. The league's executive director Ira Goldberg says programs like his are popular, but require a lot of benevolence to maintain.

It's very difficult to deal in today's economy with an organization like this, Goldberg says. It would be very difficult to set this up today without a major investment.

Still, Valente believes the demand is there - not only in Wilmington, but in the entire region.

In fact, if you go to magazines like Art In America, Valente points out, and you go to the back where the director of all the atelier programs are, or the workshop programs, it's broken down regionally - Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest. Well, there's absolutely no Southeast category. It just doesn't exist. So this really is going to be a first.

Back at the lawn next to Acme Art Studios, a small forest of easels has sprung up, each with a landscape struggling into life. Middleman winds his way between them, dispensing advice and gentle criticism.

As she squints critically at the tin roof she's trying to capture, portrait painter Aiden Kenny says taking a plein air class is a stretch, but when she heard about the school, she was quick to sign up - you have to support efforts in your own backyard, she says.