“The search for beauty in art was a path I started early in life and never left, it has led me not only to meaning but to every other good thing in my life.”
NMA instructor Juliette Aristides is a pioneer in the field of traditional art education, as a Director of the Aristides Atelier at Gage Academy of Fine Arts in Seattle, WA, and author of four books on drawing and painting. She exhibits in person and group shows nationally and contributes regularly to many art publications.
Aristides’ thoughtful and philosophical insights bring a refined clarity and grace to the ongoing conversation about art, life, beauty, and meaning.
How and when did you discover your mission to educate people on traditional art?
Teaching, for me, is an extension of learning. I love the history, language, and process of traditional art-making, and teaching became a natural outgrowth of a life devoted to study. Essentially, I helped create the community I wanted to be part of.
Traditional drawing and painting is an outsider’s art movement and getting an education was not straightforward. My education was protracted, meandering, and at times lonely. Teaching and writing my books were a compilation of my studies and, I hoped, would serve as a road map for other people who wanted a shorter journey.
What experiences or events lead to this understanding?
What transitioned me to teaching was a move from NYC to Seattle. I was introduced via a fellow artist to a small school called the Academy of Realist Art (which later became Gage Academy). I drew from the life model in their open studios and taught a few evening classes. I talked to Executive Director, Pamela Belyea, and the board of Trustees about opening an Atelier, there was a lot of student interest, and the rest is history. Now Gage has seven Ateliers to meet the student demand and interest.
How would you describe art education today in mainstream schools and art schools?
Artists, historically, trained in the studio of a master painter over a period of years, rather than then discrete blocks of time in a classroom over a few months. Much like musicians learning an instrument, an artist gains mastery only through practice, emulation, and repetition. It is not just practice but perfected practice under the guidance of someone who is themselves skilled. Atelier education keeps students in the studio full time and by learning by doing.
Art programs in Universities can be fragmented and can elevate theory over practice – the student needs to know how to navigate the system. Students, if not careful, can graduate without the skills and discipline to launch a career as an artist.
What are the factors leading up to a radical change from classical art education in the past?
A simple answer is that art began to be taught in universities rather than in studios.
The more complex answer may be:
Art is a reflection of the beliefs, aspirations, and dreams of a people. The changing art education reflected a changing worldview. Cultural changes such as the dismantling of a unified religious worldview, the mainstreaming of materialism as a philosophy, the rise of science and industry replacing the spiritual and mythical.
Perhaps nothing finalized the shift like the pointless slaughter of World War 1. In this new world, the idea that human beings had sparks of the divine and transcendent seemed naïve and hypocritical. The figure was out, abstraction was in. Art shifted to reflect the fragmentation and meaninglessness and ugliness of the age. It felt honest.
A question that may be equally interesting is why there is a revival of interest in beauty and figurative art now? We are living through a time of intense dislocation, a pandemic, ecological degradation, racial tension, and so on. Why is figurative art making a comeback? People are looking, once again, for beauty and meaning in art.
What is the relationship between traditional art and beauty?
Much of Western Art was based on the observation and idealization of nature. Platonic philosophy was hugely influential, namely: that there exists somewhere beyond perception by the senses, a perfect form for everything we see on earth. We are only able to see the imperfect reflection, never anything as it truly is in its true glory. The belief that nature could be perfected and it was the artists’ job to capture this reality through a synthesis of the real and imagined created some of the greatest art ever made.
What is the role of the artist – do artists make meaning, suggest, discover, uncover, or unveil meaning? Please explain this relationship.
Artists reflect the dreams and nightmares of the age in which they live and contain the collective imagination. Often artists are natural observers, bellwethers, expressing things that are not yet evident to the culture at large. The media ecologist, Marshall McLuhan, explains it this way: “Environments are invisible. Their ground rules pervasive, their structure and overall patterns elude easy perception. The poet, the artist – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted,’ he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are.” And I would add, as they could be.
What is the importance or value of art and/or beauty in society?
Sometimes it’s easier to see the value of something by the hole it creates when it’s gone. If the arts in all their forms, from literature to film, were to disappear, the world would lose its imagination. We would be infinitely reduced and enter a world of pure utility, functionality, and sameness.
Art gives us a heightened awareness of the beauty and fragility of life. Sometimes, through art, we peer so deeply at the world that a veil is lifted and we see the transcendent. Those extraordinary moments of awe remind us who we are and what we are capable of and point to something beyond ourselves.
Has beauty eluded us? How can we reclaim and embrace beauty?
Beauty is a spirit, not a subject matter. We are in the age of information but also anxiety, perhaps emblematic is the 24/7-news feed. News from nowhere to everywhere, without context and it’s all designed to disappear as we look at it. By contrast, beauty in art is a seeking after eternity; it is what remains when everything superficial is sifted away.
To reclaim beauty, we can start by becoming very careful what we let into our eyes and mind. We can learn to love the slow unfolding of things. By choosing to be bored and unmediated, spending most of the day in the real world, off a screen, we will start to notice a world of simple beauty and pleasure. By cultivating a practice of deep, slow looking we become a more active participant in our own lives. The beauty, which has always been there but hidden, will allow itself to be seen.
How has art been your personal portal to meaning?
From the time I was a child, I looked for resonance between myself and my environment and I found it only in the presence of art or nature. It was only in the arts that I felt ‘among my people’. The search for beauty in art was a path I started early in life and never left, it has led me not only to meaning but to every other good thing in my life.
Lightning Round Questions:
Your favorite paint company, why?
I like many of the historical colors by Rublev because I know and trust the paint makers. I also use certain paints from different brands that I like. I should also mention that other brands, like Gamblin, are supportive of artists and heavily invested in artist education.
Favorite art museum, why?
Aside from the obvious museums and a few more hidden gems: San Marco Monastery in Florence because the art of Fra Angelico is embedded in the very walls – exactly as it was the day he frescoed it and the building is architecturally spine-tingling. It is art meant to be lived, not just viewed.
Favorite books and films about art or artists?
Delacroix’s journals give us a look inside his brilliant mind and a view into the times in which he was working.
Favorite genre of books or film?
I am a reader and my favorite genre of books is, by far, 19thcentury fiction.
Where do you go or what do you do for inspiration?
I routinely go into the woods. I walk miles every day outside and love to read. This is a lifeline for my spirit.
Do you listen to music in the studio, music of choice?
Mostly classical & Alt-rock (you can’t fight who you are).
Who are your artist heroes, why?
My grandmother. She made art only for the love of it, didn’t care who looked (and who didn’t), and never stopped working.
Rituals for working?
I generally work at the same time and same days, like going to a job. I also drink a lot of tea but I am not sure that helps!
Juliette Aristides is a New Masters Instructor you can view her course here.
Check out her latest educational art book Figure Drawing Atelier An Instructional Sketchbook