NEW YORK—Pomegranate seeds look like they had just rolled off onto the marble surface after the fruit was just cut. The knife rests on the side, with its tip hanging over the edge. The seeds glisten deliciously, almost emanating their own light.
In another painting, a package of flour had been ripped open, leaving a mound of flour on a wooden surface. The orange-red paper reflects on a glass half full of water, while two eggs sit side-by-side as if witnessing the whole scene. The flour looks so vibrant; for an instant, you might think you could dig into the painting to grab a handful.
In another one, thick blank sheets of paper are simply left resting on the edge of a wooden surface, bathed in a warm light. The scene is full of anticipation. The sheets do not feel blank at all. They invite a story.
He juxtaposes unrelated objects for his still-life paintings. “Maybe that’s just a tiny cryptic poem that’s going to be hard to know what bigger message it might have, but it’s something,” Collins said about his still-life paintings. He also paints landscapes, interiors, portraits, and nudes, with skills of the old masters and a subtle chiaroscuro that seems to animate whatever he paints.
His renovated home studio was once a stable for horses. Now it keeps his car and expands back into two large areas: one designated for night paintings with artificial lights, and one for day paintings with a big skylight above.
He settled comfortably on a stool in his studio in front of an unfinished painting of two striped bass. The fish decomposed too fast and he has yet to find another pair of the same size. It takes time to skillfully create a painting, and a lot of patience.
Collins started talking about “the many kinds of traditional art” in a multitude of sentences that trickled off, intricately threaded to convey his thought process.
In a time when modernism or the avant-garde predominates in the public discourse on art, you might think he belongs to a time when people rode in horse carriages in the city—but not quite.
Representational InventingWhile Collins’s paintings at first glance look traditional, there’s a contemplative freshness about them.
He talked about how his artistic process is akin to how children inhabit their imaginative worlds as they draw and make sound effects—of the wind, for example. He said that’s a sign they are feeling the intersection between the world that they see and feel, and the images that they are creating on the paper.
“It has to do with inhabiting the world that I’m trying to invent. That’s a funny thing,” he said.
Collins started drawing profusely when he was 7 years old, all the while making sound effects. “I still make sound effects,” he said laughing. “I’m always grunting, or sighing, or ... I want to make it look the way the thing looks, and then feel like something that I imagined when I undertook to make the picture.”
He pointed out how some paintings that are “super detailed and accurate, because they are extremely devoted to copying the photographic reference, don’t feel particularly realistic. … They feel inert in a way that the world doesn’t,” he said.
There’s a whole other genre of representational art today that relies heavily on computers, technology, and high-definition photography to create paintings. It is a movement that Collins feels has created some marketing confusion. It “doesn’t have a kind of earthy, gritty quality in the art that I’m engaged with has,” he said. There weren’t any photographs in sight by any of the easels in his studio.
When asked how he infuses vitality in his work, Collins reiterated slowly and deliberately, “It’s the sound effects.” He laughed.
It’s that intersection “of the nature of the observed world and the quality of the material that I’m using,” he said.
You can have 10 artists paint the same apple and each of their paintings will look different, reflecting each artist’s imagined world, character, experiences, and skill.
“Your mind and your imagination and your spirit is hopefully charged in the making of an object,” he said. In that way, the viewer of the painting can experience that.
Collins said artists have to be open to experiencing the world—without any preconceived notions. “It doesn’t have to be feeling the thing the way it exactly looks, but it’s the feeling of how you feel about how it looks, or how you feel about how you might want to make it look.”
Mastery: From Spider-Man to RubensExposed to art at a young age, including a trip to Rome and Florence, Collins was naturally drawn to artwork starting from the Renaissance period. As a teenager, he liked to draw Spider-Man.
“There’s something very Renaissance about Spider-Man. It’s all about extremely dynamic humanistic poses, expressing male power, and the compositions are full of energy, and movement, and anatomy, and perspective,” he said.
Then at a certain point his grandmother, who was an artist, gave him a book titled “Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters,” by Robert Beverly Hale. Recent editions include a foreword by Collins himself.
The book showed him the “clever but subtle anatomical insights” of Peter Paul Rubens, Michelangelo, or Leonardo da Vinci, and so forth. He said that each page he would turn was marvelous, giving him a little glimpse into the depth of understanding of the masters.
“Right around that time, I thought ‘Wow, Rubens is way better than Spider-Man,’” he said.
“When you are 13, 14, or 15, you are just finding the next thing, taking you along in terms of what’s an even better version, to wow that’s an even better version, and that’s an even better version. And the next thing you know, you are looking at Titian and Velázquez because you are letting yourself get pulled along by your own desire for excellence—for mastery—which is naturally a human thing,” Collins added.
The more Collins improves his artistry, he said, the more mysterious it becomes. “Achieving mastery is ultimately a metaphysical event. … You do have to go through many stages to get there, but it’s not as if you’ve achieved the last stage and you are there,” he said smiling. “I spent years copying so many Rembrandts. He is so soulful and great … talk about incomprehensible mastery! Who knows where that comes from,” he said with a nostalgic expression.
Modernism and the avant-garde called into question the whole idea of mastery, which to Collins has always been the natural inclination of “wanting to be the most excellent and masterful practitioner of something,” he said.
“There are so many things now that are a constant threat on your innate sense of justice, always faced with somebody putting something in front of you and defying you to question it. It’s like here’s this crap,” he said, referring to art that is made without any understanding of the fundamentals of drawing or painting.
But as much as Collins reveres the old masters and has learned from them, he is not trying to create paintings exactly like the old masters. He has contributed to forging an artists’ milieu that is re-establishing the continuity of artistic mastery that belongs very much to our current time.
Expanding an Artists’ Milieu in the WorldThe representational art tradition has been resuscitated in the past three decades to some extent, and Collins has had the fortitude to help re-establish that. As the founder of the Grand Central Atelier—the latest incarnation of the Grand Central Academy, and formerly the Water Street Atelier—Collins has served as a prominent beacon guiding that revival.
“My life’s challenge has been to invent myself as an anachronistic person who’s doing something that you are not supposed to do” within the contemporary art establishment, Collins said.
At 18, he went to Columbia University to study history instead of art, because at that time he had accepted the widespread myth, he said, that anyone who knew how to really draw and paint had all evaporated right after, say, 1913.
“The avant-garde art establishment was the singular factor. There wasn’t any other place to turn to … and there was somewhat of a narrative that included the extinction of a tradition of skillful art, the ancient art vision that I wasn’t letting go of, so I assumed that I was going to be very isolated,” he said. “‘You are going to have to teach yourself, you are going to have to teach yourself’ … I had heard that a lot,” he added.
So initially, Collins did teach himself. Inevitably, he found a small group of like-minded artists, including art teacher Ted Seth Jacobs and his students. It was exactly what he was looking for.
“He [Ted Seth Jacobs] had a little world around him in particular with his lead student at the time, Tony Ryder, and they were talking about drawing and painting in a certain way,” Collins said. But in addition to their artistic method, that group was a lifeline for Collins.
Gradually, he found more like-minded artists and then realized that the myth of a lost tradition was not true. “There were tons of people creeping around the edges, because they weren’t getting enough attention, but who still knew all about how to draw and paint.” That was in the 1980s. Then later, with the Internet it was easier for these artists, who were questioning the orthodoxy of the avant-garde, to find each other.
“So then I realized I wasn’t going to be a sort of autodidact who reinvented Michelangelo,” Collins said.
Now he is surrounded by friends, fellow artists, and students “who are in the process of constituting an alternative art scene,” he said. “It’s very small and it doesn’t have a lot of patronage and it doesn’t have a lot of press and museums, but it is something. It is a real thing.”
Collins is very grateful for the community he has helped create. While he has an interesting relationship with time, not only in the making of his art, but also generally in what he jokingly called “a future phobia,” founding the atelier and all the activity surrounding it has been part of his process of becoming an artist in the world in this century—expanding, and re-establishing a timeless tradition.
“I’m not a believer that artists can be isolated actors,” he said. Michelangelo was not a solitary genius, but had a whole scene, a whole world that he was a part of. Understanding that artists need a feedback loop, Collins was motivated to develop the Grand Central Atelier in a way that facilitates a nexus between the artists, the public, and the culture.
“I have a very nice community, and it’s not as if it’s easy for everybody, and not like there’s not nearly enough support from patrons, philanthropists, collectors, writers, and curators who are turning their attention to this ... I feel like I’m doing great, but it would be nice if this phenomenon were to grow, not necessarily hugely, but just a little bit more,” he said calmly with light streaming in from his skylight.
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