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Al Gury: Nurturing the Artist’s Spirit

Al Gury, Afternoon Light, 9 X12 inches, oil on panel

Al Gury grew up in the Midwest, and graduated from Saint Louis University. At SLU, Al met a teacher who encouraged him to come to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He found a home at the PAFA first as a student, then as an instructor and most recently as Chair of the Painting Department.

Al is a generous person, an animal lover who volunteers many hours at Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). He is a respected teacher, author and painter. I don’t know how he finds the time to do all of it.

I run into Al every few months and it’s always nice to find some time to chat. A common theme for both of us is how we find balance and create an environment that allows us to work and be nurtured as artists.

Al says, “One way, is to try to keep it simple and focused, even though it comes from complex and often confusing sources.” Simplicity, he says, “means treating what I do in a workmanlike way. I don’t make any drama about the artistic process or what I do. I see it all as my job, and I get up and go to work. Of course I worry, etc., but I don’t put things off for long. Painting, teaching writing, caring for friends and family, administering, building community, are the big headings in my life that I try to keep as simple as possible. Under it all is dealing with stresses, self-doubts, fears, deadlines, goals, anxieties, bills, health, losses, and all the other things that betray simplicity.”

Al Gury and Fred at the gallery

Al also finds that his relationships nurture and keep him focused, “Friends and family also keep me learning and loving. Building and maintaining relationships is very important to me. It’s a dance with trips and falls, false steps and stubbed toes. And family is anyone who you love.”

I was one of Al’s students 20 years ago and I was thrilled that he put his wealth of knowledge into two great painting books in the last few years: Alla Prima-A Contemporary Guide to Direct Painting, Random House, 2009, and, Color-It’s Traditions and Practice in Painting, Random House, 2010.

Al reflected on teaching and writing, “As a young kid in grade school, reading and writing was a challenge – part of it was the one size fits all approach of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Ironically, reading became a passion and later keeping journals of my daily life. The idea that I could actually write articles and books that would be published was a grateful shock.

“I developed a passion for describing complex technical and aesthetic ideas in the classroom in clear language for students to understand. Since so many of my art teachers had spoken in metaphor or not spoken much at all, I vowed I would not be that kind of teacher.

“Writing books and articles have helped me provide as much clear guidance for students as I can and to record an ongoing exploration of teaching methods.” The “one size fits all approach” was not a positive experience in Al’s early education. As a teacher, Al takes time to help each of his students and create an individualized approach to learning. As he finds ways to reach his students it also helps him develop as a painter.

“Painting and teaching have always fed each other. Something that happens in a painting I’m working on ends up being a story I tell students who are struggling with a confusing technical problem. My students inspire me all the time, both with awe at what they are trying to achieve and what someone does in a painting class. I learn so much from them and try those things in my work. Teaching is an art, a relationship and a great love, as is my work in the studio. No one is more surprised than me that I love administering educational programs, chairing, and guiding, all for the good of the students and PAFA. When there are bad days, as we all have, I just remind myself that it is all for the PAFA students and I feel fine.

“With all the things I do, I’ve learned that the myth of painting every day all the time doesn’t work for me. I’ve become conditioned to thinking about painting every day, sketching most days and then making studio time count when I can get it. So, when I get into the studio, the work is already half born from carrying it in my mind often for weeks or months.

“Making a painting is something like building a piece of furniture. It has to be solid, able to withstand inspection and be interesting to look at. Direct alla prima paintings and small oil studies are a great love of mine. My flower paintings, portrait and figure studies allow me to craft a painting through the directness of drawing with the brush. Their small scale allows for a quick completion that is a rich aesthetic in its own right. Planes of color and tone have clear simple meaning in this context.”

I asked Al about journaling and its importance in nurturing his art.

Al reflected, “A journal is a way for me to sketch out ideas and record thoughts and I do that almost daily. It is very important as a form of self-reflection. Self-reflection is essential [for any artist], but again, I try to apply things and not live solely in my head as many artists do.” Al encourages his students to keep a small sketchbook wherever they go. This is to practice quick thumbnail sketches of faces to learn likenesses and to record ideas for compositions and that will help them think through and reflect on things in their life and work.”

Al Gury, Peonies and Sunflowers, 12 X 9 inches, oil on panel

Al’s body of work encompasses the figure, portraits, still-life and landscape. Over the last 20 years that I have known Al I have seen him move from painting large figure paintings to his lush landscapes. For this most recent show at F.A.N., Al is showing mostly landscapes and a smaller number of still-life pieces.

“My larger works, landscapes, figure paintings and formal portraits demand an expansion of the direct approaches to encompass much more complex layering and effects that cannot be achieved solely by a quick brush. Even so, I want them to have the energy of the simple direct paintings and clearly by the same hand.

“The current group of paintings at F.A.N. Gallery includes two of the subjects that I love: landscapes and small flower still-lives. [The landscapes are] more layered, the other [still-lives], very direct – representation has many nuances.

“As much as I use observation of nature as a base, the more abstract elements of shape, pattern, color harmony and paint surface come to the fore for me as powerful needs in my work.”

Al Gury’s methods of working: reflection, teaching, writing, drawing, painting, and his relationships with others sustain and nurture him as an artist. The cycle of work continues to feed his painting.

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