About four years ago in Florence, I was hanging out in the sculpture studio of the Charles Cecil Studios.  There was a knock at the door, and Charles Cecil came in with another man whom I had never before seen.  The man had a mixed look of awe and bewilderment in his face, and I knew instantly what was going on- this fellow was from one of the other art schools in the city, and was touring our school.  I myself had once been a wanderer in the stone alleyways of Florence, searching for direction.

There are, for the record, no schools in the city of Florence.  There are cults.  You pick your high priest, swear loyalty to him (never “her”- unfortunately the established pagan priest order is obtusely patriarchal), then you donate the finest animal from your flock, brush vermillion paint (other schools prefer English Red) over the doorpost of your apartment, and give your master five years of your life.

On top of this, you had to prove your loyalty to your new high priest by cursing the names of the other pagan cults in the city.  And so around the Cecil studios, throwing in some slurs into random conversations was always a good idea- “Good heavens, those Florence Academy students, those blokes don’t know anything about painting eyes…  Quite right, John Angel students are a bunch of pencil-rendering twits.”  Part of being a Cecilite was bearing artistic persecution from the other painting cults.  We bore these verbal attacks like brave martyrs, indeed.  “Man, you Cecil students know nothing about figure composition… you Cecil students use such goopy painting medium, what’s up with that?”  We would stand our ground under such burnings-at-the-stake, aware that our present sufferings only validated our stewardship of artistic truth.  In short, Cecil Studios, Florence Academy, and Angel Academy were all fighting for the right to be called the sole heir of the holy way of the Old Masters.  We made regular petitions for painterly power to Michelangelo and Velazquez.  Some cults called upon stranger sources for power, invoking the names of Sargent, Sorolla, even Repin.

So, this man “Gary” was contemplating leaving the cult of John Angel Academy, and converting to CharlesCecilism.  Conversion was no small matter- people had been castrated, keelhauled, even racked for such disloyalty.  But his conversion was understandable- the rituals of engagement to be an Angelite are quite onerous, indeed.    You see, John Angel required his followers to observe all of the burdensome minutae of the John Angel law (one must do pencil drawings of plaster figure statues for a full decade, before one is allowed to view a nude woman in the flesh.)  But in order to attain enlightenment, for Cecil it was more a matter of having your heart in the right place, rather than observing innumerable artistic rites.

So Gary defected from Angelism, and came to study with Charles.  We instantly became friends.  He was from the high desert in central Oregon, I was from a suburban desert in central Long Island.  He was fond of Paul Simon, I was fond of Johnny Cash.  We shared a distaste for Rubens.  He married a woman who is more beautiful than he is handsome, so did I.  He loved lampredotto, so did I.  And we both shared a love for stout, and playing the guitar and fiddle.

Gary came with his wonderful wife, Janna, and stayed with us here in New York for the past two weeks.  We had such a great time- we played music, painted, and laughed.  And here you can see him sitting for a portrait demonstration in my class at the Hampton Studio of Fine Art, in Riverhead.  It was a two hour session, and I think that the classroom of students really benefited from the demonstration.

Gary and Janna had such a wonderful time that they are planning on returning to Long Island for a month, every summer.  Gary feels like Islip is a refreshingly unsophisticated artistic utopia, where you can paint in the peace and quiet of a small clamming village on the south shore.  To be a bit more ecumenical about the matter, Long Island has a bunch of different Florentine schools represented.  Most are aware of the fact that, Florentine or not, we’re all a bunch of bumblers trying to do the same thing.  But who knows, maybe more artists will come over and paint in Islip too, making more converts to the Florentine way…

Gary Thomas, Gustavo

Gary Thomas, Gustavo bust in clay

Gary Thomas, Above the Chaos