BLAIR — New Zealand, Siberia and Australia are just a few places students come from to enroll in courses at the Blair School of Art.
The international appeal of world renowned artist Dru Blair’s photo realism training has Blair looking to expand his academy into a fully-accredited college. In the process he wants to use the talent to elevate the Winnsboro community.
Blair bought the old Winnsboro Furniture store on Congress Street with the goal of bringing an accredited, residential college to Winnsboro, something it last had when the Mt. Zion Institute offered courses years ago.
Blair said he has had offers from people in other counties to move his school from the Blair/Winnsboro area, but as his name suggests, Dru Blair has family ties to the area.
He also said he’s become fond of its people and after having seen the impact art and art training has had in small towns in Europe, he feels called to bring the same to South Carolina in the adopted hometown where he spent summers as a boy.
“The academy we have now is great but we really need a larger venue, an area with restaurants and places for people to stay,” Blair said.
He estimates he’s spent a third of the past three years in Europe seeking inspiration for his own art and recruiting potential faculty members. The academy course of study he currently offers provides a student or apprentice with a knowledge base and portfolio but not a degree. Blair said art colleges around the world do not teach the kind of photo-realism, instead preferring abstract art and modernism.
He plans to offer courses for serious artists but at his current school, which he will keep open for workshops and weekend retreats, Blair also enjoys teaching novices.
For now he can house as many as 18 students but said an ideal load is 10 to 12 students at a time. There has been a waiting list in the past but now he is offering more beginner classes more frequently.
“We can take anybody and make them a better artist in three to four days,” Blair said. “Only 20 percent of our students are professional artists. We teach writers, carpenters, musicians and once taught two designers for Ford as well as brain surgeons, dentists and attorneys.”
As an experiment, he took a non-artist — his banker — and taught the banker a class. In three to four days of intense instruction, he said the banker became an artist.
“It’s all about changing the way you look at things,” Blair said. “We present three to four years of information in three to four days. The challenge is for a student to retain it all.”
Practical applications include 3-D animation, something Dru Blair has experience with since he was hired once to bring realism into computer games. Doing so used technology of a wire frame structure that creates the shape of an object, like the frame of a house. From there, features, textures and gradients can be added.
Photo realists are needed to do movie and videogame special effects and the photo realism is all about making judgements about shapes, textures and colors.
His goal is to bring back traditional methods of painting and drawing quality craftmanship and beauty in art.
There are a lot of academies but none that teach at the college level, he said. He is using social media to locate the best artists in their field — like a pastel artist from the United Kingdom and an illusionist out of Pennsylvania.
“While I was at work on my master’s degree I noticed a disdain among academics for natural art. That made me more determined to pursue it,” Blair said. “What I saw in realism was beautiful and I wanted to pursue beauty and paint those things.”
He was profoundly influenced by the old masters of what he calls the Golden Age of painting in the 1800s that immediately preceded Modernism.
“If I teach concepts ahead of craftsmanship I feel like I am doing a disservice to our students,” he said. “There is no perfect painting. I try to minimize mistakes but the nature of humanity is imperfection. I like to at points see a brushstroke that tells a trained eye the work was a painting, not a photograph.”
His goal is to train a group of artists who value their work, know its worth and have the business acumen to earn a living from their art.
There is a 35-person waiting list for the coveted apprenticeship spots which last from six months to over 13 years. Students apply from around the world. He said it takes a few months to vet apprentice candidates.
Apprentices continue to study with him until they feel the benefit to their craft is reaching diminishing returns or until they find an attractive business or commercial venture to pursue.
Making college a reality
The art studio is the fourth generation of the studio which began in 1997 in Raleigh then moved to Wake Forest before settling in its current location among the pine trees in Blair in 2004. By 2008 he and his family moved to Blair full time.
Blair now wants to create the South Carolina version of a Julliard for classic realism artistic training. He models parts of his vision off the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). He hopes to apply for state licensing in April or May. He has a president on board and six buildings he’s working on using.
Blair has no desire to be an administrator. He wants to teach and paint only.
Blair is thankful for a working relationship with Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy, who shares similar visions and ideas for the college. He said Winnsboro Town Council has been on board with collaboration, too. With 500 students, he said there is potential a school could restore the Mt. Zion Institute but that option is still being explored.
Blair said he has restored around 60 buildings and plans to give a facade facelift to the furniture store. That facelift would not change historic architecture but would help beautify downtown, a step he wants to help other establishments with as well.
He said the Darla Moore School of Business did an economic impact study and the conservative estimate was the school could bring $2 million per year in revenue to the Winnsboro area and would employ 380 people. Of the staff employees, Blair said he would give preferential treatment to those living in the area.
He is optimistic about where the partnership will lead but he acknowledges challenges ahead. Still, it’s all in how you look at things, he said. And when he looks at Winnsboro, he sees a town on the verge of having a world renown art college to help revive downtown and make the area more marketable for future growth.
For more information about Blair’s vision see www.blaircollege.org.