Honoring the Art Students League’s Founders

Photographs and stories from artists who carry on their legacy.

On June 2, 1875, a group of art students gathered in the studio of painter Lemuel Wilmarth and adopted the name “Art Students League” for an experimental cooperative that would be devoted to rigorous art study and mutual aid. We do not often think about these young, unknown, rank-and-file students of the National Academy of Design, who struck out on their own and provided the real animus behind the Art Students League’s founding. Their names are not included in the impressive columns of famous ASL alumni, now a shorthand for the institution’s storied history. Nor are they listed in the textbooks that present a tidy art historical canon of what matters in American art. But their efforts are noteworthy as they set out a new kind of institution for educating artists.

So, this Founders’ Day, we are reflecting on the school’s inimitable learning environment, 145 years on.

This digital gallery presents a selection of photographs submitted and captioned by ASL artists, across generations and visual disciplines. These micro-histories—full of ambition, quirks, and humor—explore what has attracted people of all kinds to the Art Students League of New York. What they were seeking, why they stayed, who they met, and what unique place they made for themselves, all while learning from an incomparable corps of dedicated instructors. It also offers both a glimpse of the values that school’s founders embodied—egalitarianism, self-discipline, and community—and a fitting tribute to its longevity.

"I’ve been one of Harvey Dinnerstein's students for six years. I have lots of stories about this unbelievably amazing teacher. But one, in particular, bears retelling as it has evolved into a finger gesture which everyone is his studio understands with a smile.

"One day, Harvey was walking around Studio 8, as he always did, to see who needed help. He came to stand behind me, watching me paint for a while. Then he said: 'Step aside, please. '
"So I moved away, and Harvey stepped into my spot. He gazed at my painting for a while and then raised his index finger and gestured back and forth over a certain area on the canvas. While doing this, he kept saying: 'Unify, unify, and unify.' Then he left.
"So I resumed my position and began to mimic him, using my index finger to blend the color over the area he had indicated. At the same time, Harvey looked back at me, then he started walking towards me, saying, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I am doing what you just showed me.' He laughed and said, 'I used my finger because I didn’t have brushes... but you do.'
"Everyone heard, laughed, and have carried on Harvey's gesture, saying, "Unify, unify, and unify your painting."

—Lin Yang—

"I love the unexpected spirit of community I found at the Art Students League the first day I started. The friendliness in the hallways, the helpful hints from other students when struggling, the sharing of space and equipment, and the marks on the walls and tables connected me to its history.
"I just wanted to learn to weld. I thought there would be a standard curriculum that just taught me the basics. Then I would just go back to my studio and do my own thing. I thought I just needed to prove to my instructor Dana Parlier that I was a serious artist and excellent candidate for a precious spot in his class. When he stressed the community aspect of the League, and the responsibilities to that community that he expects from the students, I initially had no idea what he was talking about. But I began to understand after the first day I began."

—Karen Kettering Dimit—

"This is what I want art to do! I intended just to document my classmates' work for the Lukach class show in spring 1988 but was fortunate to catch this reaction from a passerby. The photo was published as the back cover of the League’s Summer School catalog in 1988."

—Zev Cohen—

"My League—forty years and counting"
Vital escape from mundane / Creating community, sharing inspiration / Idea exchange, artistic support. / Outreach for student art, / Exploration of creativity / Lectures, artistic events / politics of building / opportunity to voice views / Emotions, opinions expressed / Relationships made, cherished / Some gone, and missed / All remembered.

— Deborah Zavon —

"When I first moved to NYC many years ago from Europe, I was looking for a place where I could continue working in the atelier tradition of France — where I went to art school — to work after the live model, but also find a place where I could take art classes whenever I wanted, to continue evolving as an artist. Equally important, I was searching for an artist community where I would feel comfortable, safe, and welcome. The ASL has met that need while also providing a platform for me to sometimes exhibit my artwork in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery.
Photo: The Annual Holiday Art Sale in the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery, 2019.

— Vivian Oyarbide —

"The single most important piece of advice that was given to me by my teacher, mentor, and now one of my best friends, instructor Rhoda Sherbell, was to take 'mistakes' and turn them into opportunities. In other words, let accidents happen and evolve those errors; and don’t allow my preconceived ideas of what my sculpture should look like dictate what it will end up being.
"I recall one incident of being so distraught after my sculpture fell to the floor that I did not even want to pick it up. After Rhoda gathered it and placed it on the stand, she started to turn it around and told me to ignore the mangled hands and feet and smushed body parts, and to look at the abstract forms and movement. I feel that lesson taught me to be more free creatively, think outside of the textbook anatomy, and not confine myself to viewing only the model. I am so thankful for Rhoda and all the wonderful opportunities that the Art Students League of New York has opened, and continues to open, for me."

— Andrew Luy —

"While working with the New York City Ballet in the late 1980s, I sought guidance to continue the pursuit of drawing and painting. Fortunately, the costume director at that time mentioned the Art Students League a few minutes away from Lincoln Center. I stopped in and felt at peace, ready to evolve. This photo was taken on the fifth floor, near Marshall Glasier’s class door. Drawing from the figure life-size sharpened my eye and opened my aesthetic and emotional/spiritual senses. Master collagist Leo Manso/Provincetown and Daniel Jay Dickerson supported a developing personal visual vocabulary. I’m beyond grateful for their mentorship during this formative period. It's with me to this day."

—Teressa Valla—

"I took this photo in the lobby back in 2014. I was so struck by how reality and art were mirroring each other."

—Sheila Steckel—

"I had a bad college art experience. Discouraged, I quit art and rambled around the country with a guitar. While performing in a saloon in Idaho three years later, it dawned on me that I really wanted to paint. I returned to New York, enrolled at the League, and found my true voice!"

— Richard Pantell —

"I am a Spanish painter who every February travels to the League to improve as a portraitist. While here, I attend classes in an intensive way, eight to ten hours a week. To afford my first trip in 2012, I sold twenty paintings for €150 each. In 2017 I became a member."
Photo: Portrait painting in Max Ginsburg class, February 2020.

—Diana Iniesta—

"I was born in Paris, France, and went to a really good art school for three years there, but eventually I did not find my place in France. In the fall of 1977, I arrived in New York City on a tourist visa, and on my second day there, I joined Michael Ponce de Leon’s printmaking class at the Art Students League. Susan Cirigliano was his monitor. There were many international students: Masaaki Noda (Japan), Hoffi Steingrimsdottir (Iceland), Lenio Pereira (Brazil), Tristan Wolski (Poland/ Canada), and many, many more. We became and remained friends for life, there was an incredible energy and love of art shared among us." (cont'd)
Photo: Susan Cirigliano, 1978.

— Sylvie Covey —

"Rosina Florio was the executive director at the time. I applied and got a student visa through the Art Students League. I had a sponsor and attended classes daily. I became Michael Ponce de Leon’s monitor, and remained his monitor for seven years, from 1978 to 1984, while I also studied printmaking with Seong Moy." (cont'd)
Photo: Susan Cirigliano, 1978.

— Sylvie Covey —

"I knew that printmaking was going to be a lifelong commitment. I applied to college and got an MFA in graphic arts from Hunter College. In 1995 Rosina Florio hired me to teach printmaking. I remain a fervent supporter and dedicated instructor at the Art Students League of New York."
Photo: Susan Cirigliano, 1978

— Sylvie Covey —

"My life as an artist began when I walked in the door of the ASL, just three years ago. Entering into my third act, I had no idea I would refer to myself in such a way, having never studied art in my lifetime. With the instant encouragement of my fellow students and teachers, I knew almost immediately I was at home. The Art Students League totally changed my life in such a short period of time. I feel most fortunate to have made so much progress in such a short period of time, and so look forward to what’s to come in the future."

— Dana Stoddard —

"My two mentors at the Art Students League summer school at Woodstock, NY. Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Arnold Blanch were each absolutely crucial to me, in terms of the very ideal examples they each set as, human beings, artists completely dedicated to the integrity Art and Artists, lifetimes 24/7 as Artists, aesthetic ideals, respect for the possibility of a clear and distinctive expression of self, their rejection of academicism and group systems of teaching and a devotion to honesty.

"Kuniyoshi and Blanch were friends. They were reciprocally respectful. They seemed to understand each other and each others' art. Kuniyoshi taught at the ASL, winters in NYC, summers at the ASL, Woodstock. Blanch taught at the ASL, Woodstock, during summers only."
Photo: Arnold Blanch and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, circa 1950

— Bruce Dorfman —

"The wooden telephone booths stood in the ASL's lobby for probably the better part of a century. In the second half of the twentieth century, the school store stood directly across from them with the sculpture of Seated Mercury in between. I worked in the school store during the late 1980s and stared out at these telephone booths on many a slow evening. They seemed from another time even then. As cell phones made telephone booths obsolete, the league thought of a new use for the booths: storage for the school skeletons. I was amused to see the skeletons in the booths as if they were waiting for a call. The lobby was an odd place for storing skeletons. I can imagine the impression they made upon newcomers."

— James Harrington —

"I gave a book of traditional Japanese poetry to Bill Scharf, my instructor at the League. Haikus are known to paint a vivid picture in just a few words – a practice of artistic discipline to pare down only to the essentials. It was a perfect tribute to Bill."

— Catherine Green —

"I taught drawing and painting at the Art Student's League of New York for forty-eight consecutive years. In this photo, I'm instructing a group of students in one of my drawing classes. The League always allowed me to teach drawing and painting the way I wanted, with no rules or regulations to follow. These were some of the most memorable years of my life!"

— Jack Faragasso —

"The League is the first place where I learned how to draw at the age of 32. I traveled to NYC from Taiwan in 2012. And I found that I can draw people on the subway. I went to the Pearl Paint in Chinatown. The clerk told me the Art Student League is the best school to study drawing."
"I took Sherry Camhy's class. Because this was the first drawing class in my life, I was so nervous and had no idea about how to prepare for the class. Sherry calmed me down and told me just draw the model in front of me. She is a person I'll never forget. She taught me not only to be a great artist with an unique vision but also encourage me to become an art educator. I moved to the USA and studied art education at Kean University. I am now an art teacher in the New Jersey public schools.
"I will miss the fifth floor the most because I usually spent all day Saturday painting and drawing in Sherry's class. The Art Students League is the place that changed my life."

—Shiaoching Wang—

"During a morning drawing class one Saturday, I overheard James McElhinney say to another student, 'Look, it’s not about making a work of art. It’s about making yourself smarter.' It was easily one of the best things I’d ever heard at the League."

—Douglas Simes—

"The League has shaped my life as an artist tremendously. I have more confidence, and I’m able to find and use my voice."

Some of my favorite advice from instructor James Little includes: “Do you want to be the best? This is place to be.”

You can’t choose just one person who you'll never forget—from the students to the office staff, instructors, and everyone who walks in.
If the ceilings, floors, walls, everything in between had eyes and ears, imagine the people and things they saw and heard!

"There are too many favorite memories, moments, and friendships made in this building."
Photo: Wahab Abid, my little brother, with James Little, at the opening reception of the student concours, February 24, 2020.

— Siara Abid —

"My favorite Bob Cenedella advice that I use when I'm stuck: lights and darks and simplify. I miss those drying racks, lockers, years of tape goo on the floor and seeing the flyers from the hallway."
Photo: Studio M on the 5th floor, end of year party in Bob Cenedella's class, 2015.

—Mary Ann Sekely—

"I received a BFA in Printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute, and the ASL became my studio home when I moved back to New York several years later, in 2004. From the camaraderie in the studio, the help and support we give each other, the opportunities given and the friends made, I constantly reflect on my good fortune in being at the League." Photo: from left, Maya Hardin, Akiko Hoshino, and Michiko Yoshida.

— Katharine Butler —

"The League has been a place for me to feel at home with fellow artists. It fulfilled the void I had in my life since I was a grad student in the 80s. The League opened my eyes to so many new ways to see, to learn, to paint, and to communicate with other artists. The instructors I’ve learned from are my role models and my mentors. "The late Peter Homitzky was my instructor from 2005 to 2015. I was his monitor. He had an expression that always sticks in my mind, while painting: Everything works out, if you let it. Let the painting guide you where it wants to go." "One person I will never forget is John Kuljawski, a truly unique model! "The studio on the Mezzanine is my favorite studio. I met a lot of great artists painting there, and its large size and good light was very pleasant to work in."

—Susan De Castro—

"I always thought this was a great show by my students."

—Peter Reginato—

"This photo was taken on July 26, 2018, in Larry Poons' class. I wanted to show my friend Lolly that I was wearing the pants she gave me. I really didn't want to wear them for other than painting."

— Florence Cohen —

"In February 2017, I took this photo of Marie-Paule, Sherry Camhy’s wonderful, devoted monitor (and former dancer), stretching out during a break the studio on the fifth floor."

—Lisa E. Vogel—

"Great women artists share a moment at my last class show. I hope it is not my last class show. I had to move out of state recently but remain a student thanks to great instructors and Zoom, which allows all who have moved away from NYC to continue to be a part of the Art Students League."

—Patricia Rowbottom —

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Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders
Honoring the Art Students League's Founders

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