Brush Up: A Place for Artists in Sag Harbor


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By Annette Hinkle

Over the course of the past decade or two, Sag Harbor has garnered a reputation as a village with decidedly artistic leanings. There have long been renowned artists living and working in the village and environs and a number of art galleries have followed, establishing spaces to view and buy art in the business district in recent years.

But now, painter James Daga Albinson has brought something new to Sag Harbor — an art school.

Classes began just this week at The Hamptons Studio of Fine Art which is located on Bridge Street in the building many will remember as Spots, a favorite local eatery a number of years back. The space has been totally renovated and reconfigured, and today, it’s filled with easels and long stretches of wall space that allow for specific lighting set ups and shelving for source material.

“It’s controlled lighting for observational drawing and painting,” explains Albinson who notes that light consistency is very important for students. “North facing natural light is great, but here, we turn on the light and the light never changes. It helps students understand the nuances.”

When it comes to art, Albinson knows what he’s talking about. He’s taught and developed course methodology for a number of different art schools (including his own which, until recently, he operated in Riverhead). Albinson’s paintings have also been featured in several shows at the Grenning Gallery and he can often be spotted painting outdoors as he captures the view of Main Street and other views in the are. Albinson is also a long time resident, having lived and worked in Sag Harbor for more than 20 years. Albinson owns Jimmy Jim’s Deli on Noyac Road (part of which now houses a gallery space) and his two children attend Sag Harbor Elementary.

While HSFA is, in fact, Albinson’s painting studio, it is primarily a serious school where aspiring artists of all ages will be encouraged to learn the basics, improve their skills or perfect their work on their way to becoming a professional. Albinson notes how his approach to teaching differs from that of many art schools in the U.S.

“In most schools here, the students work to create paintings and come in at the end and get a critique,” explains Albinson. “But the limitation is the student is done with the work and though the critique may be valuable, the student has reached the end of their ability. They put the piece up, get critiqued, and don’t work on it again. Or if they do, the teacher comes back and says it’s better here.”

“We don’t take that approach,” explains Albinson whose goal is to redirect students in the midst of creating, before they go too far astray. “I constantly walk around and spend 20 minutes with each student. If they’re doing fine, I don’t say anything. But as soon as I see them making a mistake, I sit down with them and give them the lesson they need to do it correctly and they continue.”

“When the drawing is done, they’ll come up and say ‘I think I’m finished.’ This is the time when they can start learning,” he adds. “As an instructor, my job at that point is to push them further and expand their ability. And then when they think they’re done again, I’ll push them again.”

“That’s why we have a 10 year old who can paint an apple and orange like that,” says Albinson pointing to a still life in progress. “I get them to a point and push them beyond.”

Though Albinson’s students are typically age 12 and up, helping him to run HSFA is Cindy Neuendorf, herself an artist, who will teach art to younger children in preparation for Albinson’s classes. Albinson has found that keeping kids focused and progressing in their ability is key to having them stick with art. While HSFA holds after school workshops specifically for middle and high school students, there are several other sessions, including open life drawing, where teens and adults will work alongside one another.

“With some of the kids, about eighth or ninth grade, the parents will say they can draw well, but then the kids just stop,” says Albinson. “The problem is they’re not getting better where they thought they were really talented. This thing in their head doesn’t come out right on paper. It gets frustrating and then they think, ‘Maybe I’m not good at it’ and they give it up.”

“But if a drawing has something wrong with it, I give them the tools to analyze it,” he says.

While the fundamentals class at HSFA focuses on accuracy in capturing the real world through drawing and painting, Albinson stresses that he doesn’t expect his students to be slaves to realism in their work. After mastering technique through observational skills, he encourages his students to push the boundaries of artistic expression.

“I think its important to combine the contemporary world with this,” he says. “I know [local artists like] Dan Rizzie, Paton Miller and Eric Ernst, I want to bring them in and have them talk with my students. I give them this wonderful toolbox of turning images into art, now what are they going to do with it? Are they going to challenge themselves and society to come up with something creative?”

Preparing middle and high school students for college is a major part of Albinson’s focus. He notes that developing and perfecting portfolios, teaching students to handle their work professionally and helping them learn to speak about their art in insightful and intelligent ways are all key to getting into art school.

“They have to treat their drawings with respect if they want to be treated with respect as artists. As long as they take a class here, they’re considered a portfolio student and my goal is to get them into college,” says Albinson who is meticulous in working with a student on his or her portfolio.

“They bring in all their work and we look at it numerous times over the year and look at where the holes are,” he says. “I have a good relationship with a lot of colleges.  I know what they’re looking for and specifically design the portfolios for each college. Even the order the work appears in has to change depending on the college.”

Albinson notes that the hard work pays off and 95 percent of his students have received scholarships to study art at the college level.

“Even if they minor in art, they can still get a merit scholarship which is $6,000 to $8,000 a year,” he says. “That means a little investment here can save $24,000 in college.”

Albinson knows first hand how important good instruction is for students and believes that learning correctly from the beginning can save years of frustration.

“I got a scholarship at SVA, but my parents knew nothing of art school or where to send me,” recalls Albinson. “I wanted to paint like the old masters, but no one taught that.”

“There was always that tug of war between being too tight and realistic, and not loose enough. That’s where I walked out of SVA in the beginning of my third year,” says Albinson. “I’d go to class, the teacher would not be there, so I’d go to the Met and look at the Sergeants and Rembrandts.”

“I didn’t understand how to get  that stroke,” he recalls. “Nobody was teaching me that. I walked away from the school and started another business.”

That business was the Noyac Deli which Albinson ran for many years. Then when he was in his early 30s, Albinson met artists from the Florence Academy (several of whom show at the Grenning Gallery) and finally found the style he had been searching for. He began studying with Attila Hejja in Oyster Bay. Hejja had apprenticed under Harold Stevenson who, in turn, had been Norman Rockwell’s protégé.

“After Attila had taught me for three months, I went to the Met again, and this time, it was everything he’d been talking about,” says Albinson. “Shadow, pattern, everything he was telling me was there.”

“It was the first time I felt I understood,” he adds. “Driving back that day I decided to sell the business.”

In many ways, Albinson has since come full circle, having recently repurchased the Noyac Deli (he renamed it Jimmy Jim’s and installed the small art gallery), and relocated his art school from Riverhead to Sag Harbor.

“I want to have my studio in my hometown so I can paint,” he says. “I want to be able to pick my kids up at school and just teach local kids.”

And hopefully, along the way, Albinson will be able to save some of those young artists years of frustration.

“I’m a good teacher because I spent my life looking for it,” he says, “taking life drawing for a year and not getting any better — searching and searching. To finally get the answer, now I know the struggle. I know what’s it like to go through and not know if it’s the right instructor and the right information.”

“The best I can to is teach the absolutes. From that they get the toolbox where expression comes,” he adds. “Color, harmony, the use of the brush — as these more advanced things come through that’s more in the toolbox. They go on to express themselves, and will hopefully have a better understanding of visual language and the tools available to them.”

For more information about the classes at The Hamptons Studio of Fine Art (23 Bridge Street, Sag Harbor), call 603-5514. On view through March 2012 at the Noyac Community Gallery (3348 Noyac Road) is a show featuring the work of Albinson’s teenage students from his Riverhead school.

Top: Jim Daga Albinson leads a drawing class on Friday, February 17, 2012 at The Hamptons Studio of Fine Arts in Sag Harbor.