Say what you will about Vermeer, no one at Palette & Chisel, the city’s venerable north-side artists’ club, would be caught dead practicing the coloring-book version of fine art. Within the club’s handsome Victorian confines, artists who project images on canvas before painting them are regarded with a mixture of pity and contempt. “The crux of Palette & Chisel is painting what you see, not tracing photography–that’s cheating,” says the group’s president, Val Yachik. “The best training you can get is learning how to look at a landscape or a model, how to discern what it is you’re seeing, and how to put it on canvas. We’ve seen some well-known artists come here to work with the figure and then sneak out the door at the break because they couldn’t do it.”
Since its founding 110 years ago by students at the School of the Art Institute, Palette & Chisel has focused on painting from life. Its third-floor ballroom studio is Chicago’s longest-running open workshop (and a huge bargain even for nonmembers: ten bucks gets you a three-hour group sitting with a live model). While the 20th century marched off into abstraction and conceptualism, P & C stuck to its figurative and representational roots–the stodgy domain of illustrators and dilettantes. Now that figurative work is back in favor in certain quarters of the art world, P & C members are still unfazed, continuing to paint and sculpt what they see. They might supplement a sitting with a photograph, Yachik says, but they’re not interested in producing photo-realism: “This is the world as seen by the human eye.”
Originally a club for male artists who wanted to paint nudes under natural light–and throw a few racy parties–P & C first met in rented space in the studio of sculptor Lorado Taft. It’s been in its current home, a landmark 1870s mansion at 1012 N. Dearborn, since 1921, when a member mortgaged his house to make the purchase possible. After surviving the Depression by forgiving dues and providing members with a free daily meal (thanks to the generosity of its board), P & C began admitting women in the 1960s. But by the 1980s membership had dropped so low, says executive director Bill Ewers, the group was considering closing its doors. Richard Schmid, a faculty member at the Loop-based American Academy of Art, came to the rescue, bringing a contingent of instructors and students with him, revitalizing the club, and cementing a long-term informal relationship between the two organizations. The roster of P & C members and teachers is still loaded with American Academy graduates.
Though the name had been changed in 1933 from the Palette & Chisel Club to the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, it wasn’t until the 1990s, under the leadership of member Torsten Muehl, that the academy became a reality. P & C had always sponsored workshops, but as recently as 15 years ago it offered only one course, a Saturday-morning painting class. It now has 20 part-time teachers and four sessions annually, with about 150 students enrolled in each. Fine-arts fundamentals instructor Dale Popovich, who migrated to P & C from the American Academy, says, “Palette & Chisel offers studio learning as they did it in the 19th and early 20th century. There’s no grading, people are there because they want to be–it’s like the original apprenticeship programs.”
P & C now has 263 members, 50 of them from out of town. “I think of it as like a health club,” Ewers says. “If everyone showed up at once, we’d have to close the doors.” That doesn’t happen, he adds–as in most organizations, there’s an active core group; the bulk of the membership is there less frequently. The annual budget is about $400,000, and the club’s running in the black, with income coming from dues, classes, gallery commissions, studio rentals, and donations. The 17 studios scattered through the house’s bedrooms, basement, and coach house rent for $144 to $440 per month, and there’s a long waiting list for vacancies. “Our philosophy is to provide services as inexpensively as possible,” Ewers says. Dues are $360 a year and haven’t been raised for more than a decade; they’re primarily used to pay for the club’s 60 hours a week of workshops with live models. Studio rents recently went up 10 percent, but that was the first increase in eight years. Classes bring in the most revenue–$129,000 last year.
The club has spent about $100,000 on its Italianate mansion over the last three years in an ongoing restoration project, but it’s bumping up against its space limitations: “We recently started a new children’s program, but don’t have room to increase it much,” Ewers says. Meanwhile, membership grows at a steady 10 to 15 people a year. While Chicago is “still more into modern art,” Ewers concedes, “Palette & Chisel is true to what it prefers. People who might want to change that find their way somewhere else. We can accommodate more students and more members, but aren’t looking for huge growth. We want to find people who are going to be happy here for the long haul.”
“Art Is a Gift of Love,” an exhibit of work by Palette & Chisel faculty, is on display through February 28; there’s a champagne reception from 5:30 to 9 PM on Friday, February 11.
Art Is a Gift of Love
WHEN: Through 2/28: Mon-Fri 2-7 PM, Sat-Sun 1-6 PM
WHERE: Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, 1012 N. Dearborn
PRICE: Free, but donations requested
INFO: 312-642-4149 or www.paletteandchisel.org
MORE: Reception Fri 2/11, 5:30-9 PM; reservations recommended
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.