There are many ways to talk about the nature and function of art.

At its most basic level, art is a conduit for information meant to stir the heart and mind of an audience. More than that, art creates a meeting ground, a defined territory where the essential encounter will take place.

“The artwork is the connection between the artist and the audience, and the best artworks elicit and stimulate the perception of such a sense of connection without making it fully explicit, at least for me,” says Stefano Catalani, executive director of the Seattle fine arts school Gage Academy. “The artwork becomes then the ground where artists’ intentions and audiences’ responses and expectations meet: a place of entanglement and engagement that is never fully resolved, never fully decoded, but rather keeps us drawn to, pulled to it.”

But visual art such as drawing, painting and sculpture can’t exist by itself, because art is also a process or an event that happens only in the presence of an audience. Until that encounter — that moment of shared experience and communion — even the greatest oil paintings by Monet, Rembrandt and van Gogh are not art at all. They are just canvases where paint was spilled. Why? Because like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods, no one has experienced it.

“When after its completion the painting is shared with me, the viewer, I am invited into that relationship, invited to participate in building its meaning as well,” Catalani says. “When this happens, and we are drawn into that mental, emotional, social and aesthetic place which is the picture, then art is happening.” 

To experience art is to experience a story, according to Catalani, and the greatest story in the human experience is change — whether causing it, creating it, resisting it, embracing it or learning to accept it.

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“Artists are naturally attuned with change, whether in the observable sphere or in the social and political domain. In this regard, the experience of art can be an eye-opening experience,” he says. “However, there is more to art than the aspiration to be eye-opening. If we want to open up to the new values and new possibilities that art offers, then the artwork must be able to negotiate a mental and emotional bridge with the viewer.”

To the audience, learning to accept change by seeing reality through the eyes of another is an opportunity for growth. Encounters with art may help people see themselves as part of a larger, all-encompassing narrative, or to experience empathy, unity and the commonality of newfound, possibly shared, values.

As executive director of a fine arts school that provides classical training in drawing, painting and sculpting for contemporary artists, Catalani’s mission is to help people take a more active role in their relationship to a changing world — by discovering and refining their own artistic potential.

“I advocate for making art: taking up watercolor and brush, a graphite pencil, scissors and paper, or a lump of clay and starting making. Making art has the power to both abstract and heighten reality as we tune into it. It allows us to work on layers, peeling them off or piling them up. It forces decisions and critical passages,” he says.

“This is what I call engagement with life, life which as we are experiencing it is constant change, instability and disruption. The deep engagement with our skills, aspirations and determination to create something from raw and simple materials, pigment and water or oil, as example is a way to cope with change as it reclaims for each one of us the power of telling our own story. There is empowerment in making.”

Indeed, the search for a new level of engagement with the world is what leads many students to Gage Academy, where master instructors in painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpting help youths, teens and adults turn their curiosity into virtuosity. Classes focus on figure drawing, character design, illustration, digital animation, oil techniques, abstract composition and many other topics.

There are year-round workshops, lectures and events for adults, and spring and summer art camps for youths and teens. Gage Academy is also home to atelier programs, which offer immersive study and practice for artists who want to take their training to a higher level.

“I see our students at Gage Academy of Art being motivated by the desire to tell a story, and/or be interpreters of a larger, broader narrative through their art,” Catalani says. “I see this impetus as the ultimate human desire to not be alone — trapped as we are within the confinement of our physical body. Art then becomes one of the mechanisms to building bridges with other human beings, connecting and feeling less lonely. There is hope and pain at the foundation of art, and the search for a sense of purpose that these two feelings generate together.”

Gage Academy of Art brings creative inspiration and relief to the community through classes, workshops and free programs that heal, rejuvenate and connect people. Learn more at GageAcademy.org.