The Lyme Academy Story
Elisabeth Gordon Chandler


Throughout the Ages, since the first artist ground his colors and painted on ceilings and walls of the caves in Spain and France some 30,000 years ago, art has always had deep meaning and has continued to represent the best of its era.  To achieve this continuum, students learned from the artists who went before them.  In ancient Egypt stones have been found with student’s first efforts at drawing, painting and carving, work that would prepare them for the tombs and temples along the Nile.  The Greeks further perfected their art based on nature and the human figure. Medieval monks spent long hours copying manuscripts, adding small and exquisite miniature paintings to the parchment pages, all done with a sense of reverence and love.  It was during the Middle Ages that the rediscovery of the art of Ancient Greece and Rome sparked a great movement that became the Italian Renaissance, spreading across all of Europe and eventually reaching the shores of the New World in the late seventeenth century.

During these many hundreds of years young artists learned from their predecessors, whether in the ateliers of their masters or at the academies of Europe and this country. Each age and each new movement in art followed its own morés but still represented the best of its time. Each age, that is, until the last half of the twentieth century when even the sacred halls of the National Academy of Design in New York City and the art departments of academia all over America broke up their casts of the Antique (from which generations of art students had learned to draw) or else left them to the dust and dampness of the cellar.  Art schools relegated the study of anatomy to the medical profession and frowned on anything having to do with the human figure; plus, students were discouraged from drawing from life.  To create, students were taught, one must be free of all past knowledge; one must become as a child again; learning from the past was to stifle creativity.  Students were told to express themselves without being given the knowledge necessary to produce good art when they did.

Unsurprisingly, then, an entire generation of artists without technical knowledge became the “masters” of the second half of this century; they were touted by the critics and dependent upon the “Painted Word” in their critic’s reviews to get their work into museums and private collections.  Anything that was different or had a supposedly “hidden meaning” was suddenly called “art.” This mistaken nomenclature has even been applied to temporary acts or actions: the wrapping of an island in plastic, lying down on the street with loaves of bread by each outstretched arm, and shooting a dog tied to a stake, to mention only a few.  In this manner art, as such, reached the lowest and most decadent level in the history of the human race.  The law of “anything goes” became the norm, and the critic’s word ruled the art scene.

It was into this void—and to overcome this deficiency—that The Lyme Academy of Fine Arts was founded, in 1976, in the small town of Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Since the late 1800’s, the area around the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme had been known for the landscape painters who settled there around the turn of the century.  First named the “Barbizon School” after the part of France where they had studied and painted, the group turned into a major art colony now known as the Early Lyme Impressionists.  Artists such as Childe Hassam, Frank Vincent DuMond, Carlton Wiggins and his son Guy, Henry Ward Ranger, Bruce Crane, Gregory Smith, William Chadwick, Ivan Olinsky and others first stayed in the boarding house of Miss Florence Griswold, now the Florence Griswold Museum on Lyme Street.  Eventually the artists bought homes and built studios in the area, spending their summers painting and developing a camaraderie that helped them all perfect their art.  In 1902 they formed the Lyme Art Association. Twenty years later they built a large art gallery on land donated by their, former boarding-house keeper whom they affectionately called Miss Florence. Architect Charles Platt provided designs for the new gallery building as a gift to his neighboring artists.

What more natural place to start a school that returned to the basic fundamentals of art in its teaching, those same fundamentals that had provided the training for all the great artist from time immemorial? It was in the unfinished basement of the Lyme Art Association’s gallery building that the newly formed Lyme Academy constructed a sky-lit classroom, a library, a commons room and office space. The Academy leased two of the upper galleries for use as classrooms during winter months when the gallery was closed. In these three classrooms the new school offered its first sequential program for the serious study of art in drawing, painting, sculpture, anatomy and art history.

In its debut year, eighteen students studied under a faculty of seven older artists who boasted among them four National Academicians and a Master of Fine Arts, all from the “old school” who had learned from the study of nature in the time-honored way.  Included were Robert Brackman, newly retired from teaching at the Art Students League, and Tosca Olinsky, daughter-pupil of her father, Ivan Olinsky, one of the Early Lyme Impressionists. Harold Goodwin, a graduate of Tyler, became president of the new Academy and an instructor in life drawing and art history.

The enrollment quickly doubled, showing promise of future success.  By the third year, however, the Lyme Art Association, (the school’s landlord) decided not to renew the lease on the two upper galleries. With only the original sky-lit studio-classroom remaining the new Academy would not be able to offer its full program. A patron agreed to purchase a nearby garage building and remodel it to the Lyme Academy’s classroom specifications, adding also a fully-equipped graphics room as that was the patron’s major interest.  In autumn of 1981 the school opened its new quarters with an enrollment of 180. In those early days of the Lyme Academy the administration consisted of retired executives assisted by one, paid employee and the faculty.  Soon, with full-time enrollment increasing each year, a strong curriculum, active community support and a promising future, the Board moved forward to strengthen the administration by engaging a full-time, paid director. Students were applying from many states across the country, and the 1981-82 school year drew to a very successful close, with students, faculty and the Board enthusiastic about its future.

Then the patron raised the $200 monthly rent to $2,000 a month in the very same week that a 100-year record flood hit Connecticut, causing five and a half feet of water to surge through the entire lower floor of the Lyme Art Gallery building, washing out the school’s small library, and leaving havoc in the rest of the Academy’s original space. With the school unable to remain in the remodeled garage and the one remaining classroom plus the balance of the original school now filled with mud and debris, the Executive Committee seriously considered closing the Lyme Academy. But both faulty and students offered to go out and raise funds so their Academy could continue; that devotion, along with the deep need for this exceptional and unique school, convinced the Board to find some way to keep it going.  There was, after all, still a fourteen-year lease on the original space in the gallery building.

It became obvious, however, that the school could no longer rely on leased space and should acquire a permanent home. Dr. Wayne O. Southwick, an orthopedic surgeon known for his tremendous drive and efforts on behalf of good causes, agreed to take over the chairmanship. He knew the school, having taken classes in sculpture there; he also knew how the students felt about the Academy and what its methods of teaching could mean to the future of art.  He engaged Nancy Hileman as Director, and she took over the running of the school with enthusiasm. In this summer of hardship, there was to be one more tragedy.  Robert Brackman, who had taught advanced figure and portrait painting from the very beginning, died suddenly after a minor operation.  Fortunately the son of Dean Keller of Yale joined the faculty; having good training from his father, young Deane was able to step in and take Brackman’s place very ably. 

In order to keep most of the curriculum going for the 1982-1983 school year, two class-rooms were rented eight miles away in the town’s Elementary school and a search for permanent head-quarters for the school began. The John Sill House, an 1817 landmark building well-suited to the needs of the Academy as an administration building, with ample space for classrooms, a small gallery, and student library on its four acres came on the market.  Arrangements for its purchase were promptly made, and an active “Landmark Campaign” undertaken to raise funds to build north-light studio classrooms.  By the autumn of 1984 the school was able to open with a full curriculum once more, with painting, drawing and art history classes in the new studios and an enlarged sculpture department now using the entire lower floor of the art gallery.  This brought the school closer together once more, but the gallery building and the John Sill House are divided by the Interstate Highway that bisects Old Lyme.  The situation was not ideal but workable.

A series of excellent chairman and a supportive Board started the school back on its upward course. Soon students from nearly every state in the country were applying for admission; this new influx of out-of-state students made it obvious that student housing would be needed eventually. A small ad in the local paper about 13.8 acres being sold by the Town for back taxes caught the eye of a member of the Board.  The land was ideal for student housing and was already zoned for multi-family use. In the ten short days before the tax sale a scenario worthy of Hollywood unfolded: The owner of the adjoining land with frontage on Lyme Street was a patron and member of the Board; a telephone call served to obtain agreement to a right of way for a driveway to the land. A Quit-Claim deed to the 13.8 acres was obtained and registered at the Town Hall and the back taxes paid the day before the Tax Auction, effectively removing the property from the sale.  In those few days the Academy acquired clear title to property worth many times the $3,400 it cost.  Next, it became apparent that the school must become a degree-granting institution to satisfy the needs of the talented young men and women who were leaving other schools in order to attend the Lyme Academy.  No one realized this more than the Director, Nancy Hileman, so in 1991 she stepped down, and another president and an academic dean were engaged to move the school ahead with accreditation. Henry Putsch and Sharon Hunter worked diligently; by 1994 the Lyme Academy was not only accredited by NASAD (National Association of Schools of Art and Design) in the State of Connecticut but also handed out its first three-year Certificates.  In the fall of 1995 a full, four-year program leading to a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree began being offered.

Currently, during the Freshman year all students receive basic, fundamental training in drawing, painting and sculpture on which to build the four-year BFA program. Anatomy is a lecture course, one that can be awe-inspiring to a young student who, from birth, has taken the body for granted. Introduction to composition and design is also included in the Freshman year, and introductions to oil painting and sculpture, (as well as color theory) complete the studio classes. 

The first-year sculpture course starts students looking at things in a new way, seeing them in depth (three dimensionally) often for the first time.  Even a landscape painting begins to stand out to them as if viewed through a stereoscope. Students learn to use their hands and tools to create form, knowledge they will then translate into their drawings and paintings.  Often students intent on becoming painters find themselves drawn to sculpture instead.  A survey of art history over two semesters gives students a preview of the great world of art from early times to now, a world into which he or she is about to enter, carrying on fine traditions while moving ahead to the greater challenges of the future.

As important as it is for artists to be able to express themselves in their chosen discipline, it is also important for them to express their ideas clearly and literally in writing, so English composition in the first semester and Literature and Composition in the second help students learn the necessary skills.

With the start of the Sophomore year the student must decide on a major.  Although all sophomores take the same drawing, anatomy, and general studies, the painting and sculpture majors begin to follow different programs in their studio classes. Plus, a full semester each of Elementary and Business Math prepares the Sophomore for this additional but necessary part of an artist’s education, and a course in the Humanities provides the necessary studies and credits for a BFA degree. Anatomy is again a requirement of all Sophomores.  They will attend lectures geared to more advanced study of the subject, drawing and learning to see live models in various positions.

Juniors continue their studio classes, developing progressively more advanced work and exploring all media of painting in portrait and figure as well as landscape and still life.  The sculpture majors, having had a year studying the figure are now ready to enter the Creative Sculpture Class, where they will be shown how to follow through on works of their own creation. During this year, too, Juniors will complete their required academic classes by taking a semester each of General Psychology and an Introduction to Sociology.  Art criticism will help them analyze and critique their own work, something every painter or sculptor must do throughout his career if he is to become a serious artist.  The Business of Art, again, is important for the young artist.  He may have learned to paint the most exquisite canvases or is able to create fine works of sculpture but unless he learns how to market them, they remain, unseen and unappreciated by the general public.

Most of the required academic classes are held at the Avery Point Campus of the University of Connecticut in nearby Groton.  With all necessary academic courses for the BFA degree now behind them, the students are able to concentrate exclusively on their art for their Senior year.  At this  point, they are mature enough as artists to understand and  appreciate art more fully:  They will undertake and in-depth  study of a specific period in the History of Art throughout  the entire year;  an advanced class in anatomy for seniors  in which they actually build up the muscles on a skeleton in  various positions, learning the forms they take and their  points of insertion, is valuable to all students but  especially for sculptors; further, students prepare their  portfolios of work for the Senior Exhibition in the spring semester.

Many students come to the Lyme Academy with sufficient credits in General Academic studies that can be transferred, in which case their curricula can be tailored to provide more time in Studio, Anatomy, Art History and Electives.   The latter include such courses as Chinese Brush Painting, Pastel Drawing, Drawing from Nature, Life Size Figure Painting, and study of Italian (useful to those who wish to travel in Italy to see the great work of art there); other electives can change yearly. In all, during a full four years at the Lyme Academy, the student will earn 77 credits in Studio and related courses, 15 credits in Art History, 30  credits in General Studies and 6 in electives for a total of  128 credits in all.

And the school itself?  Ever planning for its future, two of  the painting studios have been doubled in size, and a new and larger north-light classroom was added as Phase I of a  campaign that will bring the entire school together on  one campus by autumn, 1996 when the twenty-year lease on the  gallery building space runs out.  Phase II is under  construction for new, larger sculpture studios, a 10,000-book Fine Arts Library and a Commons Room joining the  Painting and Sculpture Departments on opposite sides of a Sculpture Garden.  These will be ready to receive students for the beginning of the 1996-1997 school year.

But with all this expansion, the Lyme Academy must remain small.  Studio classes are limited to fifteen students, enrollment to between 200 and 250, with up to 60 enrolled full time in the BFA program.  A Master of Fine Arts is on the agenda for early in the next century.  The caliber of serious, talented and dedicated students who choose the Lyme Academy for its strong program deserve no less. They will become the painters and sculptors of the twenty-first century; they will be the positive force in the art world of tomorrow.  It is they who will have the knowledge and the training in the traditions of the past needed to celebrate and to teach as we enter the hoped-for Renaissance in the Fine Arts of the third millennium.

Ms. Chandler is Founder and Chairman of the Sculpture Department at LAFA.

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