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Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art wraps year one of operation with student-instructors exhibition

Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art student Nick Fettig works in the school’s cast room, where students use charcoal produce drawings of the play of light and shadow on a three-dimensional cast. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art student Cameron Conlon listens to academy founder Jeffrey T. Larson describing how to decide how much matting to place over one of her works. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Two pieces by Great Lakes Academy student Kelly Schamberger shows her development over the course of the year. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Various treatments of the human form rest against a wall at the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Cameron Conlon thought the artist Jeffrey T. Larson was dead.

The latter, classically trained at The Atelier in Minneapolis, had an exhibition last summer at the Tweed Museum of Art. Conlon, then a security guard at the gallery, said she was surprised when he got up to speak at the opening reception.

"I didn't know he was a living artist," she said.

Not only is Larson alive — at the time he was in the early stages of starting the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art in the old St. Peter's Church, a process that included student recruitment and building renovation. Now, 11 months later, Conlon and her five classmates — ranging in age from 19-31 — have completed their first year of intensive training in the four-year program.

There will be a public exhibition May 26-28 showcasing pieces by the students as well as Larson and his son, Brock Larson, who is also an instructor at the school.

Learning to see

Larson teaches students to create realistic representations of what they see — but first teaches them how to see. For these purposes, a face isn't a face, it's a collection of shapes and shades. It's hands-on, with the students spending the equivalent of a work divided between figure drawing in what was the old church's nave, and cast drawing in what was the chancel.

On Tuesday afternoon, the front door of school was propped open with a wrench, "Piano Man" played loudly, and it smelled of fresh paint. The students, four days into summer vacation, were cleaning the space, matting art and revisiting unfinished work.

Those interviewed planned to return to the studio throughout the summer.

Conlon was in the cast room — a box-like space, painted a shade of gray called Secret. It holds individual work stations with lamps, cast models and supplies. The artists learn to work in a situation where the shadows stay unchanged.

Conlon stood with her back to her drawing and studied it over her shoulder through a hand-held mirror.

"Backward and reverse," said Conlon, who likes a different perspective. Sometimes, she takes photos with her phone and stares at the images later at home.

The mirror proved effective — she quickly spotted flaws in her version of the bottom segment of a face. "The value over here is way too dark," she said, indicating an area beneath the lower lip. "I have a long way to go on it."

Conlon earned a bachelor of fine arts, emphasis in oil painting, at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She also worked with glass when she moved to Duluth a few years ago.

A few stations away, Patrick Glander has spent 2½ months on a horse head. Last summer, he was an art hobbyist who was working with a crew to renovate this space. Meanwhile, he was becoming increasingly interested in attending the school. As for his first year:

"It's amazing," he said and smiled. "You think being a professional artist is kind of silly or something. You'd have to be lucky. Right away (I learned) it was not as much about luck as hard work."

Report card: Year one

Kelly Schamberger showed side-by-side comparisons of two figure drawings of the same model she had completed this past year — one early, one more recent.

"To me, I see night and day," she said. "The proportions are better, the pencil handling is better."

Schamberger was a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who intended to go to The Atelier, but opted for Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art because she had always wanted to live in Duluth, she said.

"It feels like I'm living a dream," she said. "I like that the day is set up in a way we'll rely on as a professional artist. It's nice to get to make art all day long."

The first year went better than he had hoped, Larson said.

"We added and subtracted from what we knew, and we put together a system," he said. "We tried to create a school we wish we could have had."

Now that the school year has ended, Larson and his son have begun interviewing artists for next year's five open slots. School starts Sept. 11, and the current students will graduate out of the cast room and move into the main room — where shadows and light are in flux. They're ready.

Meanwhile, Larson isn't looking for a strong portfolio from candidates.

"It's how bad they want it," he said.

"Work ethic," agreed Brock Larson.

If you go

• What: Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art student-instructors exhibition

• When: 5-9 p.m. May 26, 1-8 p.m. May 27, 1-5 p.m. May 28

• Where: Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art, 810 W. Third St.