Stepping into the Southern Atelier’s industrial park suite is like stepping back in time. Oriental rugs cover the dark wood floors, oil paintings and charcoal sketches line the walls and Javanese antiques litter the floor. Discreetly tucked away in a strip mall in north Sarasota, the school is one of only two atelier method art schools in the state.
Charles Miano, the Southern Atelier’s artistic director and founder, is a New York-born painter and firm believer in the classically inspired realism promoted by the atelier method, a program of fine art instruction based on the 19th-century European approach to art education. The focus is on long-term apprenticeships under a master artist with lots of time for hands-on studio work—in opposition to the theory-centric, classroom-based learning Miano believes is the backbone of the contemporary American art school education system. In addition to drawing and painting from live models, Miano’s students copy Old Master works, casts from classical sculptures and still life scenes as part of their intensive course of study. Through copying work from the past, Miano explains, his students learn how to translate life into art by following the same idealized representational aesthetic of the classical and neoclassical periods.
Honoring the master-apprentice relationship that is at the core of the European atelier model, the Southern Atelier hosts 10 to 12 full-time apprentices at any given time—in addition to the approximately 50 part-time students who take weekly classes. Apprenticeship positions are available through application only and, while all are welcome to apply, a full portfolio and artist statement of purpose are required for consideration.
Li Volk, executive director of the Southern Atelier and one of Miano’s former students, is a strong proponent of the atelier method for both abstract and representational artists. “Regardless of what kind of art you are trying to do, foundation is key,” Volk says.
In addition to helping students build a strong artistic foundation, Miano views the work he and his students are producing as part of a classically inspired realist tradition that stretches all the way back to the Renaissance. “In the Renaissance, artists dug up sculptures from the Roman times and the Greek times and they learned how those masters translated life into art,” Miano explains. “For me, I’ve just always loved the Old Masters because I’ve found that there is poetry in their art, there’s feeling and spirit there. When you go to the Ringling Museum and you look at the Rubens, there’s so much there that goes on beyond just representation. There’s the abstraction, but there’s also these grand themes, there’s visible emotion on the canvas, there’s rhythms, gestures, life, consciousness, spirit.”
This interest reflects Miano’s broader artistic philosophy, which places somewhat nebulous concepts like universality and Truth—that’s Truth with a capital T—at the forefront of his artistic process. This is what motivates Miano in both his personal work and in his atelier method classes. His approach is sparked by a profound belief in the universality of the natural world and the objective accuracy of the human perception of reality. “I feel that nature is the only legitimate language for painting,” Miano says. “It’s universal. It speaks to everyone. Beauty is kind of a negative word in a lot of modern art, but what I’m saying is that beauty is Truth. If we can achieve beauty here in our atelier, then we’re speaking the truth to people.”
With students ranging in age from teenagers to septuagenarians—and some driving in from Naples and Orlando multiple times a week—his methods have seemed to garner a devoted following.
The Southern Atelier is located at 7226 21st St. E., Sarasota. For more information about the atelier, its apprenticeships, and its course offerings, call (941) 753-7755 or visit southernatelier.org.