Ravenswood Atelier, studio visit Chicago
The first thing that hits you when you walk into the Ravenswood Atelier is the inky darkness and the sheer scale of the place. It's enormous! The cavernous space is draped with black cloth and lit carefully by artificial or natural overhead light. Magda was away and the dramatic and long-locked Matthew Almy shared a very generous hour with us, even as he was getting ready for a 6 week teaching stint in Australia.
These two lovelies by Magda Almy welcomed us as we came in.
Matthew describes himself as a naturalist as opposed to a realist, giving examples of Titian and Rembrandt as naturalists and David and Michelangelo as realists. After studying at the Florence Academy, the Ravenswood Atelier was setup 7 years ago, accepting serious students into full time training. Students start with lots of drawing and copying and work up, by merit, through the different progressive stages of teaching. Just like professional musicians who expect to study classical violin, as Matthew did for 20 years, he hopes this intense training he will produce artists even better than Rembrandt. A high goal but what a goal to aim for!
Students often draw for 2 years, copying old masters and plaster casts before they begin painting in a limited palette. When I asked Matthew how many serious atelier school like this there were in the world, he suggested maybe a dozen. They accept a maximum of 9 students at a time. A new studio space will be opening next door for past students and other artists to continue their work and development after their academic training at Ravenswood.
The scale of his largest paintings is ultimately determined by the size of his freight elevator and moving trucks. Matthew Almy does not work in small scale. His works are on a grand scale in both physical size and narrative concept. He draws on biblical stories, mainly from the Old Testament as well as 19th century poetry as the source of his narrative works. His mastery over painting flesh and surfaces left us gobsmacked. With a devotion and passion for details, Matthew either finds or makes his own props, even going as far as building stage sets for his models or props as he almost exclusively works only from life and not from photographs.
Here are three skeletons he has created for an upcoming piece inspired by poetic lines like “Put no confidence in princes, nor in man for help depend. He shall die, to dust returning, and his purposes shall end.” The three kings here appear to be from Medieval times, Bronze age and the oldest one from Mesopotamian times. He called some fellow who had worked on the Raiders of the Lost Ark films who was thrilled to share tips on creating these very life like skeletal remains for him to stage his scene with and paint from. The skulls started out as inexpensive plastic novelty skulls but are distressed and embellished into these works of wonder in themselves.
This dark piece on left is titled The House of Mirth, obviously with a sense of humor.
He wraps his brushes with a bit of spit and paper, carefully pressing them back into shape at the end of the painting day. Matthew is starting to embrace digital imagery as a reference for his works and his eyes light up when he talks about all the ideas spinning in his mind for future works. I can hardly wait to see them!
Many pieces were in some stage of progress, this largest one, above, is 4 years along its journey and not done yet. The one on the right is finished after a mere 2 years of work. Already it looks like it should be on some museum wall which is Matthew's ambition for his masterful body of work.
Here we see David and Bathsheba, balancing precariously on the edge of the abyss into which they are about to fall for committing adultery. Smoke only just carefully covers her breasts, helping to suggest more subtle allure than the gratuitous nudity portrayed by so many old masters in the name of biblical narrative, when we all realize it was also a great excuse for the artist and the patron to be able to enjoy some great fleshy nudes in public.
Matthew takes pictures every day as the works progress. He marvels at the amazing tools we carry in our pockets today that can, in an instant, snap a picture, convert it into black and white for a serious look at tonal values, find that niggling little spot to correct and then carry on. What the artists of older times would have given for these wondrous toolkits!
We ended our visit in the lounge where they often enjoy some fine Scotches, a gift from a friend, in this rich atmosphere of deep luxurious couches. They often pull down a large screen and enjoy movies here. The building is quite a work of art in itself, from the 1920's. Ravenswood has been here for 8 or 9 years, thankfully with great landlords. Matthew and Magda each teach for 2 full days per week and are also available for the fifth day in case a student is in need of help and that strikes them as a good balance between work on their own artwork and guiding their students along their paths.
Like many other artists and other web neophytes, they had used a source to set up their domain name some time ago and somehow the renewal date had slipped past! They have just traced the domain name and gotten it back. Please don't let this happen to YOU! Who needs the stress! Just put your domain name and hosting on auto-renew and then cancel it if and when the time ever comes. You've invested in your domain name, good will and website followers so please keep track of this important stuff, unless you have a good secretary who is doing all this for you.