Architecture was long known as the queen of the arts. Under its roof the fine arts found a welcome home and raison d'etre for millennia. Sculpture and painting put beautiful ideas on the walls and facades of buildings, inside and out, while music and poetry animated the life and the lives within. This generally harmonious status quo prevailed as the lingua franca of human settlement for centuries and centuries.
After an ugly divorce decades ago, art and architecture today are strange bedfellows. Architecture fled beauty and spurned art. Art, trying to retain a place in the sterile bosom of architecture, accepts the sloppy seconds of the queen abdicant.
Under the reign of modern architecture, art is the turd in the plaza. Art is an afterthought of architectural design. Modern architecture succored modern art in order to mock the fine arts, seeking to persuade the world that modernism is art and science combined. Nothing could be more absurd or further from the truth, and most people can see that the emperor wears no clothes.
The fine arts did not disappear but have retreated to monasteries in the countryside. A noble but enervating existence, because art is proud, and deserves to be at the center of life.
To the rescue rides the Academy of Classical Design, whose purpose is to return art and architecture to their proper relationship.
The academy was founded by D. Jeffrey Mims. In the 1970s he attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), in Providence, an institution that today is the opposite of what he intends the Academy of Classical Design to represent. He also attended the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), which today may well mirror RISD in its rejection of the fine arts as they were for centuries. Mims's biography on the website of the academy uses the words "attended" rather than "graduated" - which may mean that he took his classical ideals to both places and found the faculty unreceptive.
Many current or former students of architecture have told me that their classical tastes were greeted with unapologetic hostility by faculty at schools of architecture, and the same may have been true of academies of art. In a 2010 issue of Fine Art Connoisseur, Mims wrote that in his youth he "made [his] way to Europe following a rather disappointing experience with art schools in America." Describing his work copying the Old Masters along with other students likewise disappointed by available art education, Mims adds:
It has been rewarding to watch many of these same artists — including Charles Cecil, Daniel Graves, Benjamin Long, and Edward Schmidt — establish their own successful and distinguished schools of art in response to the swell of younger people seeking an education not available at universities. The past several decades have seen significant, even heroic, progress toward recapturing the ability to imitate nature, and in particular the human figure. The question remains, however: What are we to do with this ability?
Preserved in museums around the world are a variety of role models that might offer answers to this question. Yet to study an artwork in a museum is a very different experience from seeing it in the specific context and environment for which it was created. It was Italy, and especially Rome, that began to open my eyes, like those of so many earlier artists, to the connections between art and architecture, between the decoration of public spaces and the endless possibilities of design. Last autumn, seeing Rome’s sites again through the eyes of my subsequent experiences as a mural painter, I marveled at the orchestrations of overall effect, of which I had been only dimly aware as a student.
The Academy of Classical Design is his effort, in Southern Pines, N.C., to bring traditional classical art education back to life. His school's curriculum emphasizes travel to places in the world where art remains part and parcel of architecture, and where the sense of place is vitalized by that evolving relationship.
In 2014, Mims's academy built, in an old Southern Pines commercial space, a cast hall and library. The hall aims to inspire students' understanding of classical form - a cast is a plaster model of such a form - and to display their work. The hall and library design and construction were featured in Traditional Building in "Creating a Classical Academy" by Mims. It describes the raising of the eight-foot ceiling of the old space to a vaulted 12-foot ceiling, with fresco murals performed by advanced students on surfaces specially produced in association with Patrick Webb, a blogger for TB and faculty member at the American College of the Building Arts, in Charleston, SC, where I met him at the first conference of members of the TradArch list in 2015,
Webb, whose own blog has been featured on my Architecture Here and There blog (see "Webb and the Zen of craft") and is on my blog roll, is joining the faculty of the Academy of Classical Design in North Carolina.
The academy in Southern Pines may reflect the life of the monastery far from the shining lights of the big city, but it also reflects the true love of art for architecture and architecture for art. And someday, armed with the historic strength of that relationship, it may recapture lost groves of academe in places like RISD and PAFA.