by Scott Campbell
It is an overcast June morning in 2015. Cars begin to gather at Mt. Gretna’s Community Building on Pine Street. The license plates represent Virginia, Rhode Island, Indiana, South Carolina and Arkansas, among others. The vehicles’ occupants are some of those enrolled in the Mount Gretna School of Art, a six-week summer program for college and post-graduate students. Last year was only the third of its existence, but the school already enjoys national recognition.
On this particular day, a group of a dozen students will caravan 11 miles to the Tunnel Hill Park, just north of Lebanon. There, they will set up easels and paint along the historic Union Canal, where it turns and enters a masonry bore through the steep hillside from which the park derives its moniker.
Painting instructor Brian Rego, an art faculty member at the University of South Carolina, circulates among the students. He looks at the work of each one and discusses it from both technical and conceptual points of view.
“This is source material,” says Rego as he gestures at the landscape. “We’re not so much interested in a finished painting. Rather, it is an exercise in learning how to cultivate a love for looking and learning how to shape. Ideas are generated through the painting process.”
Rego is effusive in his praise of the Mt. Gretna School. “It’s one of the best at which I’ve taught,” he says. “One of its strengths is the diversity of the staff. New instructors are engaged every year. I’d come back in a heartbeat, if invited.”
There is another asset. “We offer an opportunity at focus, to complement the more fragmented college experience,” says Jay Noble, founder and executive director of the school. “Similar to a foreign-language immersion program, the Mt. Gretna experience concentrates on painting, mostly on location, and figure-drawing.” Two field trips to museums in New York and Philadelphia, along with critiques and lectures from outside artists, complete the formal instruction.
Back at Tunnel Hill Park, Maggie Goodman has set herself apart from the others who are closer to the tunnel portal. The 22-year-old possesses a bachelor’s in studio art from the University of Virginia. When asked her opinion of the Mt. Gretna School, she answers pensively. “Here, you’re not defending your work. You’re being helped. Everyone wants to keep working, even after the class time is expired. The older students have developed a good work ethic, and that has a positive influence.”
Yucheng Chen is a 19-year-old bachelor of fine arts major at Brooklyn College. Like many of his peers, he learned of Mt. Gretna through one of his professors. “This school is helping me to discover who I am, and that benefits my painting,” he says. “I’m learning what appeals to me.” Referring to his oil study, he muses, “I see different planes and objects that are related and connected.”
“Our program is based on New York’s Chautauqua Summer School of Fine Arts,” says Noble. “The Mt. Gretna community was on board with a summer-school idea. They already stage the annual August art show that draws professional artists from all over the country and believed that a summer school for student-artists would be a fitting complement.”
Noble continues, “We have established an affordable program that is also of the highest quality. Prospective students submit an online portfolio of images. They are selected based on the quality of their work and letters of reference speaking to their readiness to participate in our rigorous program and cooperative work-study system. Scholarships are awarded on the basis of need and merit.”
To learn more, visit mgsoa.org.