Writing Archive Journal Archive

The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 1998

“It’s a wonderful first moment, when the students come to the entrance, and they look up at the Villa...” John Pack’s voice trails off, his eyes light up, and you know that this is no ordinary educator. John is the Director of the Aegean Center for the Fine arts, and he is referring to the Villa Rospigliosi, the 16th Century estate in Pistoia, near Florence, where he conducts his Italy Session each Fall. His main teaching method is to expose the student to as much beauty as possible. This extends to the esthetics of the student’s arrival on what will be the school grounds for the next four weeks.

Left by the bus or taxi at the Villa’s entrance, one is met by a long, straight, gently inclining path of white gravel. Crowning the path in the distance is the Villa itself, a four-story, ocher, flat-faced building whose simple design evinces dignity and comfort, and whose color glows golden against the landscape. The walk from the road to the door, done briskly, takes five minutes. Orchards and gardens flank the path; grapes, pears, apples, zucchini flowers, and figs grow within view. Inside the front gate is a courtyard with stands of carefully tended rose bushes. Once through the large, pine-green front doorway, one can see down the breezeway to a backyard with flowers and a stone fountain.

During their four weeks here in Pistoia, they will begin to work with a small group of extraordinary instructors. They will be led through Tuscany to Prato, Lucca, Pisa, Siena, and briefly to Florence. Afterward, they will tour the cities that represent the flowers and the roots of the Rennaisance: Florence again, Venice, Rome, and Athens. From Athens they will go to the Cylcadic island of Paros, which is home base for the Aegean Center. There they are given studio space and a little over two months to work on painting, marble carving, photography, writing, art history, or some combination of these.

The course offerings aside, living on Paros is itself an education about history, humanity, beauty, and the fact that everything we call “modern” came into being an insignificantly short time ago. On Paros you can attend services in the oldest continuously functioning church in Christendom, founded, according to legend, by Emperor Constantine’s mother Helen. You can descend into the quarry which supplied the transparent, sparkling, snow-white marble which was fashioned into the Venus de Milo, the Parthenon frieze sculptures, and many other works of classical genius. A short hike and a scramble over a stretch of coastal boulders on the north side of the island will bring you to the cave where the poet Archilochus gazed out at the Aegean Sea and penned his verses. Despite the tourist restaurants and motor-scooter rental shops, the ancient survives: the turquoise Aegean, farmers hauling vegetables into town on donkeys, evil eye wards pinned to children's shirts, fishermen catching octopus just off the shoreline rocks. Much is as it has been for a thousand years. Leaving a contemporary art culture obsessed with the new, the artist coming to Italy and Greece can be relieved of that burden and concentrate on what moves his heart.

This curriculum, which combines the stated course offerings with the opportunity to be educated by beauty itself, is the creation of John Pack. At fifty, he retains his youthful mindset, boyish good looks, unquenchable sense of adventure, and the impatience with ruts which made his career in mainstream acedemia so brief and the rest of his life so rich. “One of my favorite quotes is from the ancient Greek and I use it extensively: ‘To marvel is the beginning of knowledge, and when we cease to marvel, we are in danger of ceasing to know.’ I love this quote. It possesses a sort of magic for me. It is exactly what has driven me around each corner in my life, no matter how frightening, and is exactly what I want to instill in all the non-marvelling, TV- and media-abused young. This may be the greatest gift we can give them.” He is proud of the Aegean Center’s geographic, philosophical, and temporal distance from New York City in particular and American society in general. This remove enables the students to find their worth, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

Typically, college students (especially, John has noted, art-school students) come to the Aegean Center loaded with concepts of greatly varying merit. They are experts in the low art of justifying their work, regardless of its quality. These vices were bred in them by the academic climate they have had to survive. One student recounted to me how, at her home institution, her teachers spent two years pushing her to use violent, discomforting imagery in her painting. It was not until arriving in Italy, drawing the stone fountain and urns in back of the Villa Rospigliosi as they were warmed by the Mediterranian sunlight, that she realized that no one had ever taught her how to draw or paint in the first place. Her technical questions to her teachers had been perpetually put off. "Just paint it; you'll figure it out," was a common response.

Her story is widely shared. "I have never had an advanced painting student," remarked painting, printmaking, and sculpture instructor Jane Pack, despite the fact that some students come to the Aegean Center after years of art school. She described how many art schools have adopted increasingly non- or even anti-aesthetic programs. The result is that painters who were considered advanced by their home institutions inevitably ask her for basic information that their previous instructors would not, or could not, provide.

Fortunately, they are in good hands at the Aegean Center. Jane, who came to the Aegean Center as a student in 1984 and returned there as an instructor in 1986, paints scenes of Parian life in egg tempera. (She married John in 1989; their son, addressed as Gavreel, Gabriello, or Gabriel by his many Greek, Italian, and American admirers, respectively, was born in 1992.) Her paintings are informed by the formal rigor of the Italian Renaissance, which she is able to study during her annual stays in Italy, while capturing a gentle intimacy which recalls early Vuillard. Largely self-taught as a painter despite an MFA from an institution she describes as "mostly political," she has a keen understanding of how to present the daunting world of painting to the beginning painter.

To watch her teach is to watch a masterful craftsman at work. Her tone is gentle, her information is concise, her presentation is clear. She is an authority with no air of authority. Her demonstrations - how to draw a hand, file marble, apply ink to a zinc plate - are so plain as to be perfectly comprehensible and warmly inviting at the same time. “You have to remember how truly fragile everyone is,” she says. That wisdom shows as she devotes single-minded attention to each person gathered for a life drawing class, peering over their shoulders at their paper, talking to them as both a teacher and a fellow artist.

Her tone evinces her generous nature and her first-hand knowledge of how difficult good painting can be. "I remember one time when I was working on a painting which had a stretch of bare dirt in it. I thought, no problem, I'll just paint it in. And it died; it was a dead patch of brown. After fighting with it for a while, it occurred to me that I had never actually drawn dirt. I figured out that dirt wasn't a brown mass. I had to go out and do studies of dirt if it was going to work in the painting." This kind of thoroughness can be seen in her preliminary sketches, collaged together one way and then another in order to test their effectiveness, before any egg tempera is applied to a panel. It is also apparent in the final results, powerfully capturing, with observant draughtsmanship and carefully realized color, the particulars of Paros: the brown hills, shrouded women, dark trees, whitewashed buildings, and the impenetrable blues of the Aegean Sea and its sky.

The Packs are against the pomposity that passes as pedagogy at many institutions, and offer two cures. The first is seeing the old masterpieces in person, which is the only way to behold their striking beauty and colossal power. The second is to concentrate on giving useful information and intelligent support to the student, both generously supplied without the musty professorial air. Aesthetic appetites are whetted, and then sated. Learning occurs at a ferocious rate.

And at the Aegean Center, there is an astounding amount of information to be had. Jane is prepared to discuss egg tempera, printmaking, watercolor, pastel drawing, marble sculpture, and any oil painting technique going back to the trecento. Photographer Liz Carson is equally knowledgeable about her field and possesses an outstanding critical eye. Jeffrey Carson, a gifted poet and translator, teaches Mediterranean art history, creative writing, and literature. He also conducted impromptu music appreciation sessions in Italy.

Looking beyond the academic model toward a vision of lifelong learning, the Aegean Center does not require institutional affiliation. During the 1997 Italy Session, students ranged in age from seventeen to thirty-three. Some were about to enter their first year of college, some were long done with it, some had never attended it. Most were North Americans who found out about the school via the Internet (at www.aegeancenter.org) or by word of mouth.

Talking with the faculty of the Aegean Center and the locals, one gets the sense of there being a hand of fate which taps certain souls and nudges them to Paros. John planned to stay at the Aegean Center for a year or two "and then get on with my life," as he put it. He is approaching his sixteenth year at the school. Jane was looking at programs in Spain when she was invited to Paros; she, too, was planning on spending a year or two there. Paros is not a well-known island; tourism arrived there relatively recently. But many of us who have visited better-known places in Greece find ourselves glad to be back on Paros. Paros possesses an intimacy and coziness which is utterly lacking in touristic Santorini or metropolitan Athens. The story of the person who was just passing through and stayed for years is a common one.

One such person was Brett Taylor, who came to Paros and founded the Aegean School for the Fine Arts in 1966. (The name was changed to the Aegean Center for legal reasons pertaining to its operation in Greece.) Taylor, a painter and musician, came from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where he was impressed with a passion for Greece by one of his teachers, who himself had wanted to start a school there. He is remembered as charismatic and passionate. "He wanted to have American students of the arts slapped awake," recounts John. Taylor's writings described the intentions for his program: "...to get away from mass production and to meet a need for individualized instruction in an unfamiliar and very different setting which fosters a fresh perspective and independence..."

In 1966, on Paros, students would have found this in spades. Electricity had just come to Paros in the mid-1960’s, and it was subject to frequent, prolonged failures. Students would live where the locals could put them up, with no more amenities than the average Greek peasant. That very few Parian Greeks spoke English would have only added to their hardship.

Taylor died in 1982, and his successor, Andy Whipple, hired John to teach advanced photography in 1983. "Unfortunately, it was not possible to teach advanced photography, or photography of any sort, in the horrible lab I discovered upon my arrival," said John. Fortunately for the school, John possesses a nearly supernatural ability to create solutions. Throughout his life he has adamantly followed his passions, and he has learned many skills along the way. In this respect, he may be one of the few people anywhere in the world who possesses the abilities and the spirit to continue the vision of Brett Taylor.

John grew up in the Brandywine River region of Delaware and Pennsylvania. (He and Andrew Wyeth were acquaintences.) He attended the University of California at Berkeley in the late '60s and early '70s, and went on to spend time in the backcountry of the Ozarks. He was mentored by renowned photographer Ansel Adams at his studio in California. He spent seven years in Navajoland in the desert southwest, where he formed his Ganado Portfolio, a photographic portrait of the people of the Ganado Reservation in Navajo country. Afterward he taught at the Gallup Branch of the University of New Mexico. ("It was as mainstream as I could possibly handle after my time on the reservation," he recalls.) He nevertheless felt constricted by the stultifying academic environment, and in 1983 he contacted the then Aegean School, which had been attended by one of his students at Gallup. He was hired shortly after. Whipple asked John to become director the following year.

John has since reconstructed many of the school facilities, including the darkroom, a few times over, slowed but never stopped by the technical limitations of the Greek hardware stores. Students now stay in comfortable, charming, private studio apartments near the Aegean Center. He has also developed the administration of the school. Application is mostly conducted over the Internet, and scholarships are available; one of these is the Olivetti Scholarship, offered by a generous gift from Mrs. Rosamond Olivetti and the Olivetti Foundation.

His grand achievement, however, is surely the Italy Session. John was inspired to create a program which would link the Renaissance to the Classical period in a way students could experience directly. With a $1200 gift from his Board of Directors, who frankly doubted he could do it, he set off to Italy in search of a city which would welcome his program. "I wanted Tuscany, and did not want the hubbub of Firenze, Siena, or Lucca. I did not want all the tourists or the Disneyland atmosphere." Through the American Consulate in Florence, he was put in touch with the officials of Pistoia, who welcomed him as a dignitary. “I have learned to be very suspicious of such nice bureaucrats,” he says. “But the bottom line is that they care. They care enough to be honored that I had chosen Italy, and their city, in which to locate my program." He founded the Italy Session in 1992, and it continues to be the major draw at the Aegean Center, with applications far beyond capacity.

His next project is the creation of a permanent center in Pistoia. The Pistoia Center will retain the smaller size and open format of the Aegean Center, and form a permanent link between the two. Music and language will be added as subjects. A steady stream of visiting artists will be invited to work and teach. John's vision is to recreate the Grand Tour, the voyage through southern Europe which was a crucial part of the education of many great artists and thinkers. The project has the blessings of the Pistoian mayor's office, a historical site at the Villa Rospigliosi, and approved architectural plans, and only awaits the necessary funding. John, as always, remains true to his passions: the beauty of Europe, the power of art, and the benefits of good teaching. "I want the students who attend the Center to begin to understand not only the historical roots of Western art and civilization, but also what has become the darkest word to murmur in this day and age: beauty." We can imagine with him a pair of centers where artists, musicians, writers, and students of all kinds can gather and enjoy the best that Italy and Greece have to offer.