Play the patron at PAFA’s Open Studio Night

PAFA's Cherry Street walkway (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Each student’s life is a work in progress. That’s the beauty of Open Studio Night at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). You get to enter any of the 175 private studios at the school and chat with students at various stages of personal development.

You also get to look at their art.  

If you’re interested in the creative process, nothing could be better. But the difference in visions can be hard on the neck. You’ll see students painting with the seriousness of Thomas Eakins, the tenderness of Mary Cassatt, or the realist rigor that is the bedrock of PAFA’s tradition as the oldest art school in the USA — or you'll see neo-psychedelic work influenced by graffiti, skateboard culture, and comic books.

Playing the patron

The students use the show as an opportunity to talk about their art. It’s a great way to learn what’s on the minds of tomorrow’s stars. Sometimes, you can even help them find the words to explain their lighthearted muses and soul-searching crucibles. You can practice being a magnanimous critic, a rich patron, or a dearly insightful friend.  

Although I’m having fun in the telling, the verbal exchange requires serious respect. It’s a waltz between strangers, creator and viewer, with customary rules. Just like the dance, there’s an art to it!

The studios’ secret

Sometimes, the artwork is so ingenious that it leaves you speechless. You see advanced creativity and almost preternatural maturity. Meanwhile, like being invited into a cross between a laboratory and a living room, you get clues to the personal process. Some studios are very neat. Other studios are a bit haphazard.  All studios have “secret” markers that keep a student on task. It might be a family picture or a picture by a past great like Velázquez or Sargent. You won’t get that connection between home and heroic ambition at a gallery. 

Unlike the Annual Student Exhibition in the spring, there are no scholarships or cash prizes at stake during Open Studio Night. Instead, students of the various PAFA programs just show their stuff.   They’re very interested in what makes you stop in your tracks while touring a studio. Is it a high-speed sketch drawn with intuitive gusto? Is it an analytical study made with concentrated brain power? Students are trained to use both sides of their brain at PAFA, and many do it equally well. Most find their identity in the balance.

Beyond flattery

Every work of art is an experiment and a dare. Flattery is flattering, but a prolonged look, puzzled but deeply interested, is just as encouraging to the student with poetry at his or her fingertips.

You’ll meet painters, sculptors, printmakers, multimedia wizards, and modern hybrids of them all.  Some are highly finished. Some are slightly unfinished. Many students don’t know how good they are, poised on the verge of success.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts's annual Open Studio Night is coming up on Friday, February 21, 5:30-8pm, in the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building, located at 128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. For more information and to RSVP, visit the Open Studio Night website.

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