Tucked into an industrial area just beyond the roar and rush of Rockville Pike, where the Artists and Makers Studios provides light-filled spaces for Montgomery County creative types, there’s a different kind of art school.
“Don’t rush, don’t race,” said Glen Kessler, leaning in to the canvas where one of his nine post-graduate students is turning a photograph into a study in oils. “Make strong lines, make good lines—telegraph the mood.”
The mood here, at Compass Atelier, is convivial, joyful, harmonious and sharp. Artistic cross-pollination is encouraged; uniqueness of viewpoint is applauded; and hard work and dedication are valued as highly as creativity. Kessler, the proprietor of the establishment, said he “wanted to create an environment you could feel at home in—feel open and honest, share and let your guard down. That’s the only way you get the incredible work.”
In this environment, just about every medium is represented, from colored pencils and watercolors to acrylics and oils, and lectures, workshops and classes are available at every level.
“We teach beginners,” Kessler likes to say, “but they don’t stay beginners very long.” That’s because Kessler is running what he sees as a new kind of art school. His students range from absolute beginners to pros like the ones here now in his alumni class—and he believes that absolutely anyone can unleash the artist within.
People get lulled into the idea that they have to be born with artistic talent or else it’s just not in the cards for them,” opined the affable Kessler, whose looks and demeanor suggest a younger, kinder Louis CK. “I disagree vehemently with that idea. Talent is where you start, and hard work is where you end.”
Kessler himself started at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, where artist Walt Bartman, founder of The Yellow Barn in Glen Echo, was his teacher. “He found a way to create an environment where art was cool for 15-year-old boys,” recalled Kessler. “No small task!” But suddenly he found an identity, an outlet, a way to express how he felt inside.
Talent, according to Kessler, is a predisposition for understanding certain things or having a certain facility. “Someone may have a talent, an ability—but even if you don’t, you can learn.
At Compass Atelier—the name comes from a student who “found her direction” here—Kessler is dedicated to tearing down the notion that artists are somehow born that way. “If we impart the right lessons, and if you practice them again and again, then you get results,” he said. “Results that often exceed the more ‘talented’ folks who rest on their laurels.”
“I personally believe I am one of those types of people who was not born with the talent,” he added. “Through hard work and the right lessons was able to improve my work. Now I search for that in my students as well.”
Students like Ken Bachman, who launched a second career as an artist after 40 years in international law. The Bethesda resident has sold more than 20 paintings in the past two years; he has won a handful of awards and shown at highly selective juried exhibits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art. To gear up for his first career, Bachman attended Harvard Law; this time around he got a jumpstart with Kessler through the Compass Atelier Certificate Program.
“I had done a little painting as a child and through high school,” said Bachman, who categorized his painting pre-Compass Atelier as “more of a hobby. I didn’t intend to pursue it.”
After he retired, Bachman started taking classes at Yellow Barn. “One was with Glen,” he said. “He really gave me a sense that he knew what he was talking about.” Bachman said he realized there was a lot more he could do with his painting, and not an infinite period of time in which to do it. When Kessler told the lawyer about his plan to open Compass Atelier, Bachmann “took a flyer to do it.
“I had already done a fair amount of study on my own, visiting museums, seeing what I consider to be ‘the masters.’ I didn’t need the academic side as much as I needed the practical side and the fundamentals.”
Kessler—who Bachman praises for his “enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable” teaching style—started out on the academic side. From a liberal arts trajectory at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in Southern Maryland, he switched to Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, graduating summa cum laud, then worked as an artist for a while before pursuing an MFA at the New York Academy of Art, an institution he calls “a game changer.
“It’s really the only grad school in the country that teaches technical craftsmanship aligned with contemporary relevance,” Kessler explained. “There are some schools that teach one and some that teach the other—but they’re the only one that teaches both.”
Kessler loved New York, but when his wife, a lawyer, got her dream job back in D.C., the couple decided to return to their Maryland roots. He taught art at George Washington University, George Mason University and his alma mater, MICA, but the permanent, tenured, full-time professorship with benefits he dreamed of—“the holy grail”—didn’t quite materialize. Ten years ago, he started teaching community art classes at the Yellow Barn.
Which is where Chris McNall found him. “Glen’s an excellent teacher,” she said. “He’s so enthusiastic, and he has a way of knowing exactly what you need to improve your painting.”
McNall says she loves “the details of painting”—in the alumni painting class, she is working on a series of Italian doors, street scenes she photographed on a recent visit to Rome with her husband. “Not everyone wants to be a professional painter in this program,” she said, “but Glen really feels like everybody could be, if they wanted to be.”
She added that Kessler has been able to walk his class through an abbreviated version of his own fine arts education, encouraging and uplifting them every step of the way. “Do I feel like I know everything I need to know,” McNall mused. “I would say no. No artist knows everything; it’s not easy all the time.”
McNall said it’s all about Kessler. She believed in him from the beginning, and her enthusiasm for his instructional style has never wavered. “He really does teach everybody: the beginner-beginner to the most advanced; he can switch between students and he gives you what you need to know, at the level you’re at at the time,” she observed. “He wants you to do well; he wants you to succeed.”
That so many of his students have succeeded is a fact Kessler reflects on with unabashed delight. “Every one of them has a story to tell,” he said, and indeed, at the end of a recent class, his students gently interrupted his interview to voice their enthusiasm and proclaim their love. “We’ve got doctors, lawyers, television personalities; people who have lived incredible lives and people who are down on their luck and don’t know where to go.
“All are welcome here.”
The Compass Atelier, located at 11810 Parklawn Drive, Rockville, offers art classes for all levels in various media. Call 973-634-0526 or visit www.thecompassatelier.com.