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Plans for art academy in old St. Peter’s Church on track for mid-September

Labor foreman Bill Munson polishes the terrazzo floor Tuesday afternoon in the former St. Peter’s Church in preparation for the opening of the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art. (Bob King / / 6
Artist Jeffrey Larson places several of his paintings on an easel fashioned from one of the old pews in the former St. Peter’s Church. He’ll show the paintings in a public exhibition this weekend. (Bob King / / 6
This is one of several murals painted on the ceiling of the former St. Peter’s Church depicting a scene from the Bible. (Bob King / / 6
Workers prepare the former St. Peter’s Church for the opening of the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art on Tuesday. (Bob King / / 6
Jeffrey Larson, who is about to open the doors to the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art in the former St. Peter’s Church, carries some of his paintings into the space Tuesday afternoon. He’ll be hosting an exhibition of his work this weekend. (Bob King / / 6
Brock Larson, who will help his father, Jeffrey Larson, teach art classes at Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art, moves some of his own paintings into the former St. Peter’s Church on Tuesday. (Bob King / / 6

The first time Jeffrey Larson saw the old St. Peter’s Church, it hadn’t been in use for five years and had fallen into disrepair. It was winter. The windows were boarded, the paint was peeling and there was an ice waterfall in the corner. He used a flashlight to navigate the dark space.

Still, he saw something worth saving from demolition.

“I said ‘dangit, this is perfect,’” Larson recalled. “I’m a sucker for these old stone buildings. It was headed for demolition, and I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’”

The biggest thing was the tall windows on the north side of the building, which is gold for an art studio, he said. Then: the high ceilings, two floors, the layout, the location.

Larson bought the former church in November for $80,000 and, less than a year later, he and his son Brock Larson are on track to open Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art in mid-September. There is an open house 1-7 p.m. today and Friday and 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for the art curious to check out the renovation of the space at 818 W. Third Street.

Signs of the old church

The future school’s past life as a church remains intact, from the crosses affixed to the central peaks on the exterior, to a sign on a the curb that reads: “No parking during church services.”

The curved ceiling has a series of religious-themed murals.

The main level will serve as the primary classroom. A section of the former altar will be walled off and the window blocked to create a cast room, and off to the left is a portrait studio.

The old church came with 64 pews and four organs. Wood from both has been used to create tall easels for the students.

During a recent visit, the terrazzo floor was getting a polish — maybe for the first time.

“We’re bringing this place back to life,” Jeffrey Larson said.

Larson wants to add apartments, both for his son’s family and visiting artists. If he can add a deck that offers a view from an upper level, he believes he can lure big names from as far as Florence, Italy, he said.

Larson also plans to incorporate a less formal night school, which would be open to the community.

Who will study here

There are five students registered to begin school in September. Two are local; three are from out of state. Four have a degree in art already, Larson said, and were looking for something more. The fine art scene is a small one, Larson said, and information about the school has spread by word of mouth, Larson said.

Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art is a four- or five-year program, and five more students are expected to join each year. Tuition is $7,600 a year, a fee that isn’t eligible for financial aid because it isn’t an accredited school.

The academy is geared toward a very specific kind of artist, and Larson said he has tried to dissuade people who express interest.

“The arts have a romantic connotation, berets, cafes and lofts,” he said. “Really, you’re going to work really hard for decades of your life, and maybe you’ll get good. You’re putting all your eggs in one basket. You don’t graduate with a degree. You need to be focused.

“You’ve got to be the type of person who cannot not paint.”  

Eric Rauvola, who minored in art at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, said he was interested in the atelier model, but didn’t think he could afford it. After reading a news article about the school, he emailed Larson. Ultimately, he had a series of informal interviews and shared his work with the Larsons before he was accepted in March.

“My goal is to be a master painter,” Rauvola said. “All the weird things that go on in my head, I’d like to have realized at the highest possible caliber. Over the years I’ve wanted to dabble in comics, animation, movies. I really feel that if I can get that really solid foundation, that anything going forward that I want to dabble in, I’ll have the best possible foundation.”  

Ken Bloom, director and curator of the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said the school will expand the local arts community by bringing in young people and adults from around the country.

“It’s an expansion of the arts industry here,” he said. “It’s like opening the accordion plates of another way of learning the skills.”

How it works

Larson and his son, who both trained in the manner of the old masters at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, will teach. The curriculum will be entirely hands-on.

“We liken it to Juilliard, where you learn to play exceedingly well, then whatever music you have in you can flow through the instrument.”

Larson has a background in teaching. He has worked at his former school, in addition to seminars around the country. Through teaching, he said, he’s doubled what 30 years of painting taught him. It was an experience he felt was important for his son to have, Larson said.

Both Larson and his son, who graduated two years ago, had been offered separate jobs on different continents when they began considering their own school.

“We started thinking, why don’t we do this ourselves?,” Larson said. “If we’re going to do it, let’s go for the best we can be and make it the best school in the world.”

The school doesn’t yet have a set start date, but the target is mid-September. Then, “We’ll give them a pencil and paper and start working,” Larson said.

If you go

What: Open house at Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art

When: 1-7 p.m. today and Friday and 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art 818 W. Third St.