SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
In a tiny studio in a modest house in East Hampton, New York, artist Ellen Frank is reviving a notion from the Renaissance. It's the atelier, a workshop where apprentices learn from a master by working on his or her original works. What's more, Ellen Frank is working with them to learn another age-old skill, the art of illumination.
NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER: I'm walking through an art exhibition at Concordia College. It's a small, Catholic college in Bronxville, New York. The show is called "Cities of Peace" - nine large canvases, each honoring a city that has experienced trauma: Baghdad, Lhasa, Kabul, Beijing, Monrovia, Jerusalem, Hiroshima, Sarajevo, New York.
Each painting uses words and images, forms and texts from the history of that city, and in addition to paint, each includes precious metals, 22-carat golf leaf, silver, moon gold and crimson leaf. Applying these metals to a painting or manuscript is the ancient art of illumination.
The most recent work in the collection is "Monrovia." When you look at this painting of the Liberian capital, the first thing you see is a blue and silvery sky. Artist Ellen Frank.
Ms. ELLEN FRANK (Artist): It's the night sky if you were standing in Monrovia the night that independence was declared for Liberia.
ADLER: The painting involved months of research and talking to people.
Ms. FRANK: Astronomers who have figured out the night sky on computers, a poet from Monrovia whose mother died in the wars helping us, all sorts of people stepping forth with each painting.
ADLER: For Baghdad, there are Islamic texts and complex geometric patterns. New York has words in 40 languages, the outlines of skyscrapers in silver and, in an upper corner, two thin lines of crimson leaf, just the idea of sunset gleaming on the Twin Towers.
Hiroshima is based on the pre-attack map used by the Air Force in the attack in white gold and moon gold with winter-blooming plums cascading across the painting surface. Frank says her approach may not be fashionable in some parts of the art world, but the goal here is to make these paintings unabashedly beautiful.
Ms. FRANK: The cities are in fact cities that have suffered horrific trauma and anguish. So the goal of "Cities of Peace" is the transformation of anguish into beauty.
ADLER: This project began after Frank made a trip to Jerusalem and felt the tension in that city near the time of the Intifada. "Jerusalem: a Painting Toward Peace" became the first city in what has become an ongoing series.
Since each painting is a huge effort, she enlisted the help of interns by advertising on Craig's List. Molly Cashwell(ph), an artist and student of art history, saw the notice and came down from Maine.
Ms. MOLLY CASHWELL (Artist, Art History Student): I had never done a six-foot-by-nine-foot painting before. So something like that as an artist on your own, as a young artist, to say you're going to do this is completely daunting. But when you have guidance, and when you have camaraderie and all these things, it just, it makes it such an educational experience. It was like being brought into like a very, very large, large network. The world's got a lot bigger.
ADLER: The apprentices, a few at a time, usually come for several intense months. At this moment, the atelier is occupied by Kat Helmore(ph) from England; Sharmila Marjumdar(ph), who lives in Detroit; and Juliet McPeak(ph), who lives on Long Island.
Right now, they are working on a different project. Frank has been commissioned to create three illuminated pages for a book for Passover. She and her apprentices spend much of their time doing very detailed work.
Unidentified Woman #1: We just don't like this color, and that's why I'm taking it off?
Ms. FRANK: We're taking it off because we don't like it, and we're taking it off because the painting technique was not refined enough.
Unidentified Woman #1: Okay.
Unidentified Woman #2: When you scrape the gold leaf off, it scrapes the paint off, as well.
Ms. FRANK: Yes. So we retouch. You're going to practice a very light hand.
ADLER: And while technique is essential, interwoven with the teaching of skills is history and even spirituality. Here Frank is talking about the process of working in golf leaf, building a bed of clay and then putting on binder onto which the gold is pressed.
Ms. FRANK: I'm stirring the clay. It's thought that from the earliest illuminated manuscripts from the ninth century that clay is humankind, clay is man, Adam is made of clay, dust to dust, earth to earth. This is the earth, and then put upon it is a glue or a mordant, that which marries the clay to the gold, and the gold then is divinity or perfection or ultimate beauty so that the illuminated manuscript itself is a marriage not only between word and image, but it's a marriage between the flawed human and the divine perfection.
So you see, it should look like heavy cream. That should be the consistency of it.
ADLER: In the atelier, the senior artists work side by side with the apprentices. Frank lets them work on all aspects of the paintings: the research, the consultation with experts, the design, the execution, even certain business aspects like the administration of her foundation, grant-writing and arranging showings.
And while they are working on her paintings, Frank believes that what they learn will transfer to their own artistic efforts.
Ms. FRANK: I think we bring back an intimacy of mentorship and training where the apprentice or the intern learns directly from the experienced artist and learns the artist's style and skill.
They also acquire validation. It's not teaching through critique. It's not teaching through judging their own work. It's teaching through saying yes and why not try this and yes, can you push this further?
ADLER: The apprentices also get credited for their work, and their names always travel with the paintings when they are shown in galleries. Frank even believes that the end of the atelier has meant the decline of technique and craft.
Ms. FRANK: Interns actually become better at technique than I am. They become able to achieve things because they do it, and do it, and do it, and their learning curve is very steep.
ADLER: Frank says her dream of an illumination atelier started years ago around her kitchen table and tiny studio, but her real dream for the future is an open atelier where all kinds of people, not only professional artists, can come and learn, even me.
Ms. FRANK: Take the ball of your index finger, and you rock it back and forth, and you can press hard. Don't be afraid. Now comes the magic moment.
Ms. FRANK: I'm going to lift it up.
ADLER: I'm going to lift it up.
Ms. FRANK: Lift the tissue up.
ADLER: I'm going to lift it up.
Ms. FRANK: And it didn't stick.
ADLER: It didn't stick. Oh well, Ellen Frank says I can come back any time and try again.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
SIMON: You can find pictures of Ellen Frank's work and some of her apprentices at our Web site, npr.org.