Shervin Iranshahr

The Making of an Art Academy

Shervin IranshahrComment

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 
Lauren Urbschat

This is a story about three young artists who came together with one big idea.

Tim Meehan and Dan Vogel, both raised in Upper St. Clair, might be considered Pittsburghers for life. Even though Meehan went off to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and Vogel headed to Penn State to study business, they each eventually realized that Pittsburgh offered what they were looking for. For Meehan, that epiphany came in the summer of 2000 when he was home from college and visited his high school art teacher, Pat Barefoot, at her studio in the Brew House. One look was all it took.

Without hesitation, Meehan applied for a space of his own before returning back to school in the fall. Once in L.A., his old studio seemed even smaller and more cramped than he remembered; he found himself dreaming about the big windows and affordable open spaces he had left behind. 

For Vogel, the moment of decision came when he was with Meehan. On the verge of law school (as in accepted to American and looking at apartments in D.C.), Vogel got together with his high school art buddy. He took one look at all the paintings Meehan had brought home from L.A. and had what he describes as an 'existential crisis.' 'He had all these amazing paintings to show, and what did I have?' Meehan high-tailed it home, and Vogel did not attend law school. 

First Impressions 
Shervin Iranshahr is not a native, but he will always remember they day he moved to Pittsburgh. It was the day before the Steelers finally won one for the thumb. His first full day on the South Side was a site to behold, when hordes of people spilled out onto Carson St., drunk on glory and Iron City. 'You guys made quite an impression!' he says. 
Like Meehan, all it took was one visit to the Brew House to send Iranshahr packing. He had been finishing up an art show in Philadelphia when he decided to make a stop in Pittsburgh to visit Meehan, his college roommate.
After touring the studios and hearing the price, he was sold. It took several months to pack up his life on the West Coast, but come February 4, 2006 he made the big move. Iranshahr still travels back to L.A. because his family is there and he shows work on occasion. 'But in Pittsburgh, I can really let my paintings marinate,' he says. 'This city has given me the opportunity to slow down because I'm not constantly trying to flip art to make rent. In L.A., you don't often get results from your actions because you're a little fish in a really big pond.' The three just painted together at first. Their friends sat in as models in exchange for beer and good company. At their peak, they were getting together three to four times a week and they began advertising open model sessions to local painters and other Brew House residents. It's unclear who actually planted the seed, but plans for offering workshops began to circulate. The idea of a formal school soon followed.

A Big Idea
At first, the idea of an art 'academy' on the South Side seems to be something of an oxymoron. The neighborhood is certainly bursting with artists of all kinds, but in a landscape of tattoos, piercings and the occasional crop of multicolored dreadlocks, could an 'academy' really survive?

The three friends originally shopped their idea for The Academy of the South Side during The Sprout Fund's Engage Pittsburgh event with the hopes that their 'big idea' would get selected during the roundup. It didn't. But as Vogel remarks, 'If you don't let discouragement stop you, you have a much better chance at succeeding.'

When they officially came to Sprout a few months later with a proposal to start an informally formal oil painting school in the Brew House, Funding Programs Manager Mac Howison had his doubts, too. 'Initially, I thought the market for what they wanted to offer had to be really, really small. But they've proved to me that the service they provide truly fills a void here in Pittsburgh, and now I use The Academy as an example of a highly functional product of a seed grant.'

Artists Among Artists
'Teaching is an extension of learning,' says Iranshahr. 'You get to see a progression over time in your own work and in the work of your students. It gets to be like an addiction of sorts.'

The Academy approaches art as a science. The methods they teach require disciplined practice. All studies are done exclusively from life with an almost religious devotion to certain palette combinations learned from contemporary masters. This may sound rigid, but with ages ranging from 18-65, and the eclectic play list including everything from Deltron 3030 to Buckethead, the atmosphere is hip, relaxed and lively. 'This place is heaven on earth!' says Bernie Pintar, who is on painting number 40. After reading about The Academy in the City Paper last spring, Pintar signed up, and has taken nearly everything they've offered since. 'What I like most about these classes is the level of camaraderie fostered here. It's artists among artists, and you can't beat that!'

A Citywide Salon
Thanks to a grant from Pittsburgh 250 Community Connections, The Academy's newest and most public project is now underway. Throughout the month of June, The Citywide Salon showcases the work of 18 local artists, as well as Meehan, Vogel and Iranshahr, in bus shelters throughout the city. Artists were chosen from a pool of nearly 60 applicants. Styles range from traditionalist works by Robert Schmalzried and Tom Mosser to more modern ones by "local enfant terrible" Thommy Conroy and MOZE.

Efforts were made to represent diverse locations and styles, and, if possible, to place an artist?s work in or near their neighborhoods. A complete listing can be found on The Academy's Web site. While you're there, register to win an eight-week class with free transportation to the South Side provided by Port Authority.

What's Next?
Word is spreading about The Academy. Attendance has grown from two or three in a class to between five and ten. Since their first official semester, The Academy has developed a partnership with the Brew House and is now in the process of attaining 501(c)3 status as well as continuing education provider certification. Though they still can't pay themselves much, they can cover supplies and overhead through class registration. And they can afford to pay their models in cash instead of beer.