BY ELIZABETH “LIBBET” RICHTER
The artists arrive as early as 6:30 a.m. to get a good spot in the spacious, high- ceilinged third-floor studio. Light pours in from the skylights. Stacks of paint-spattered easels and high stools line the walls. Grabbing easels, they set out their supplies: charcoal, pastels, ink, watercolors, oils, pens, pencils, and brushes of all sizes and shapes. A model walks into the studio. Removing a robe or donning a costume, she—or her—assumes the first pose of the morning. It’s Model Marathon Day at the Palette & Chisel. Many artists will spend the entire day in this 19th-century Italianate mansion at 1012 North Dearborn.
William Waller, a prosperous Chicago businessman, built his grand Victorian home shortly after the Chicago fire of 1871, when Chicago’s Gold Coast was just being developed. Today, Waller would recognize only the exterior. In his day, the elegant home was decorated with roses for the wedding reception of his niece, Nannine Waller, according to society coverage in the Chicago Tribune. The property would pass through several owners before it was purchased in 1921 by the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts—a flourishing organization of noted painters, etchers, sculptors, and illustrators—for $35,000. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the William Waller House still remains the Palette & Chisel’s headquarters.
Today its three floors and rear coach house are filled with artists and models. “It’s interesting to see so many different depictions of yourself. Some are flattering and some aren’t so flattering . . . you come to realize that’s part of it. That’s the beauty of art,” observes Gretchen, one of the many models who will be captured on paper and canvas. Model Marathons happen on Labor Day, Memorial Day, and New Year’s Day from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with models posing throughout the building. Gretchen might start in the main studio doing quick poses—a minute, two minutes, three minutes—then move to a smaller studio on the second floor for longer poses up to 25 minutes (and perhaps end up in the sculpture studio for hour long poses). Artists can spend the day taking advantage of the full range of pose lengths and model types.
Unique in Chicago and probably the country, the Palette & Chisel is not an art school, per se. It’s a community of artists of all ages and abilities who teach art, take workshops, attend classes, and have access to 60 hours every week of open studio sessions with live models. The focus is on realism and has never included abstract, pop, or digital art, true to the founders’ mission.
Just over 120 years ago, a group of 25 students at the Art Institute of Chicago decided they wanted more time to develop their skills outside of academic restrictions. Hiring their own models, in 1895 they rented studio space in the old Athenaeum building near the corner of Van Buren and Wabash. Needing more structure, they soon formed the Palette & Chisel, renting new space in the building by the eminent sculptor Lorado Taft. They would remain in the building for 36 years before moving to their permanent home on North Dearborn.
In these early years, to escape hot weather in a non-air-conditioned city, members headed to Fox Lake, where they set up a summer camp, first in tents and later in a large club house that held up to 75 people. Although the club was for men only, women were often invited for summer festivities.
The members of the Palette & Chisel took their work seriously and most were accomplished professionals in their métier. Early members included Rocco Navigato, represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who designed posters for Chicago’s Elevated Lines.
Swedish-American painter Arvid Nyholm had studied with Anders Zorn (a favorite of Boston’s foremost art patron and collector Isabella Stewart Gardner) in Sweden before he immigrated to New York in 1891, settling in Chicago in 1903. Nyholm’s portrait of Daniel Burnham hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago’s library.
Winner of the Palette & Chisel Gold Medal award in 1927, noted sculptor Emory O. Seidel was known for his elegant and charming sculptures of children, as well as his monumental public sculptures for bridges in Chicago and New York.
Who comes to the Palette & Chisel today? All ages, genders, races, and all levels of skill. “It’s a very creatively charged environment; people are ecstatic to be here. You forget how good these people are. You walk through studios and see these people knocking out these portraits that are astounding,” says Executive Director William Ewers.
While it was an all-male organization in its early days, many women are among the 300 active members, who have storage space for supplies and unlimited access to studio time. In addition, 1,000 students every year take classes in watercolor, oil painting, life drawing, and sculpture. Professional artists mix with those who just love to make art. The motto “Learn Art. Full Time. Part Time. Any Time” makes members and students alike feel welcome.
“There are a lot of characters here . . . everyone is a little bit wacky. I’ll talk comic books with one artist, hockey with another, yet another is a Russian stereotype . . . with a beard and talking about workers’ rights, “ notes Jesse, a staff member and part-time model. A Chicago lawyer who loves to paint to unwind from a day in court says, “It’s a comfortable and convenient place to paint where you can store your paints, have access to studio time, and, most importantly, find a like-minded community of artists who support one another.”
Instructor and Palette & Chisel archivist, Stuart Fullerton, agrees: “The spirit of the open studio is that you’re not going to be judged. You can make terrible art and no one cares. You need that or you never get off the ground.”
Frequent exhibitions give ample evidence that most do in fact “get off the ground.” Student sales, group shows, and individual artists’ exhibitions give the public the opportunity to see, enjoy, and purchase students’ and teachers’ paintings, drawings, and sculpture. “One of my favorite things is seeing an artist’s artistic growth . . . I watch people struggle. It can take years of struggle and then there’s a breakthrough,” notes Jesse.
Teachers like Fullerton, who’s also an assistant United States Attorney, take classes themselves from an ever-changing mix of visiting artists who teach workshops and faculty who offer regular classes. Numerous well-known contemporary artists are affiliated with the Palette & Chisel today.
Chinese-born artist Mary Qian is heralded for her sensitive portraits and vibrant figure studies. Winner of numerous awards, she has her BFA from Brigham Young University. “For me, it’s about capturing the human spirit,” she writes on her website. She shows her work in galleries in Scottsdale, Denver, and Chicago among other cities.
Former instructor and president of the Palette and Chisel in 1990, Richard Schmid is considered among the best realist artists and authors on painting technique working today. Known for his landscapes as well as his figure paintings, Schmid received the John Singer Sargent Medal for Lifetime Achievement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2000.
Born and still based in the Chicago area, Clayton Beck studied with Richard Schmid when it was difficult to find instruction in realism. Skilled at figures as well as landscapes, Beck is in demand as a teacher across the country and at the Palette & Chisel, where he’s been known to sit for his students when a model failed to show up.
The models themselves are not immune to the culture of the place. Gretchen finds everyone “friendly and supportive. I love the atmosphere. It’s a beautiful old brownstone, and it’s like stepping back into time.”
The best way to explore the Palette and Chisel experience is to start by attending an exhibition. The upcoming faculty show, February 10-26, will exhibit art created by Palette & Chisel instructors. Faculty will also give demos on Saturday, February 18 and Saturday, February 25 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. You may be inspired to pick up a brush yourself.