At first glance, The Art Academy of Long Island, on Merrick Avenue in downtown Merrick, appears dark, even cavern-like. The ceiling and floor are black, the walls are charcoal gray, and the lighting is muted.
And that, says The Art Academy’s 28-year-old owner, James Anzalone, is purposeful. He designed the school without bright surfaces that would reflect light onto drawings and paintings, distorting color. For Anzalone, art is all about vision and precision.
On the walls are paintings and drawings created by Anzalone and students at the two Art Academies in New Jersey, started by Anzalone’s mentor, acclaimed portrait painter Kevin Murphy. A number of the paintings are large, colorful portraits –– some lifelike, others surreal –– and the black-and-white charcoal drawings are so realistic that they appear to be photographs. Only upon close inspection does one realize that they’re drawings.
The Art Academy of Long Island will open for classes this Saturday. Anzalone, the primary instructor, will offer youth classes for 7- to 12-year-olds, and classes for teenagers and adults, who will work side by side. Youth classes will meet for one hour once a week, while the teenage/adult classes will be 2 1/2 hours per week. Youth classes are $85 a month, and teenage/adult classes are $160.
Anzalone grew up in Bellmore and graduated from Mepham High School. He went on to Stony Brook University, where he double-majored in biology and art. At first, he thought that he would become a doctor, but art had always spoken to him since he was a child, he said. So, after entering Stony Brook, he started the pre-med track, while minoring in art. The more art classes that he took, however, the more he fell in love with the act of creation. Soon, that led to a double major.
During his fourth year at Stony Brook, he spent a year at San Jose State University in California, taking only art classes, from abstract oil painting to glass blowing, pottery and new media.
After graduating from Stony Brook in 2011, after six years of study, Anzalone went into graphic design, while continuing to take art classes. His mentorship with Murphy eventually led him to open The Art Academy.
The school is a family business. Anzalone’s father, Gary, who graduated from New York University with a degree in technical drafting and owned an architectural sign firm, will serve as his teaching assistant.
Many people turn away from art, James Anzalone said, because they believe they must possess innate talent. He, however, said, “Talent is not a requirement for the program.” All students begin with an exercise as simple as learning to draw a straight line freehand with charcoal. Students repeat drawing lines across a blank sheet of paper until each one is straight across the page.
“You have to train your muscle memory,” Anzalone said.
From there, projects become more complex. Students learn a technique that Anzalone calls strip drawing, for which the artist cuts a photograph into long, thin strips, and then methodically recreates the picture line by line.
As students progress, he said, they “get the sense I can do this.”
Anzalone, who now lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, first thought about opening an Art Academy in New York City. The more that he looked around, though, the more that he realized Bellmore-Merrick was a perfect community to start an art school. It is, he noted, a very creative place.
“It’s worth the commute to be here,” Anzalone said. “I’ve gotten so many people poke their heads in. I’m really happy with the reactions.”
Anzalone said that he looks forward to the upcoming Merrick Fall Festival, to be held Sept. 9 to 11. He remembers attending the Bellmore Family Street Festival as a child. Now, he said, he’s proud to be a business owner in the community.
“Everyone’s very welcoming,” Anzalone said. The merchants, he said, “are all here to help each other. We all want to have a flourishing town.”