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Influence and Inspiration

Exploring Art Through Mentorship and Training

by Allyson Sutton

Untitled, 2019, by Jill Hooper (American, b. 1970); Unframed drawing stretched on canvas; Courtesy of the artist

As patrons of visual art, there’s a certain level of appreciation that comes with observing a new piece. Subconsciously, we make assumptions about the inspiration behind a piece. We aim to understand, at least to a certain extent, the amount of work that went into its creation. But rarely do exhibitions provide a deeper exploration of that process. Of the years — often decades — of toil and training that bring art to fruition.

For classical realist painter Jill Hooper, training is the lifeblood of her creative process. Hooper’s commitment to craftsmanship has taken her to Florence, Italy, where she studied figure drawing and portraiture with Charles Cecil, to the Universite de Haute Bretagne in Rennes, France where she studied printmaking, and to the mountains of North Carolina, where she apprenticed under Ben Long at the League of the Carolinas. Not to mention countless domestic and international trips to study works by the Old Masters and draw and paint plein air landscapes.

This commitment to training will be on display during an exhibition at the Gibbes Museum of Art, where Hooper is the youngest living artist to ever be collected.

Influence and Inspiration: The Art of Jill Hooper, Ben Long, and Frank Mason, will explore the lineage of traditional training that unites three impressive classical artists: the late Frank Mason, a noted American painter and longstanding teacher at the renowned Art Students League of New York; Long, a prolific fresco artist and classical painter who studied under Mason; and Hooper, who is internationally-recognized for her classical realist work.

Reclining Sunbather, 1972, By Frank Mason (American, 1921–2009); Sepia on cream paper; 20 5/8 x 15 inches; Courtesy of the Estate of Frank Mason

Just like the artwork itself, the inspiration and development of this exhibition has been years in the making. During a 2017 trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York with Gibbes Museum Director Angela Mack, Hooper suggested they visit Mason’s studio, which is now maintained by his family. She’d been connected to his work through Long, her mentor, and hoped his materials might inspire some education offerings back at the Gibbes.

The visit sparked an idea: why not explore the connectivity between Hooper, Long, and Mason? Mack suggested a possible show at the Gibbes to examine the relationship between these three artists, their artistic processes, and how a shared commitment to training has impacted their work.

“These three artists are united through their style,” says Gibbes Curator Pam Wall. “We wanted to explore the lifelong relationships and stories that connect them.”

Hooper quickly embraced the idea: “That lineage is crucial,” she says. “Frank had a real emphasis on craftsmanship and coveted the Old Masters and archival materials. He passed that onto Ben, who then shared it with me. It’s not only passing classical training through generations, but generations of friendships.”

Susan in Costume, 1959, by Frank Mason (American, 1921–2009); Oil on canvas; 59 x 37 inches; Courtesy of the Estate of Frank Mason

Hooper’s friendship with Long spans decades. When she was 15 years-old her then mentor D. Jeffrey Mims took her to see one of Long’s frescoes at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC, a work she describes as “the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever beheld.” After visiting the church, they attended an artist lunch where she was introduced to Long, who had mentored Mims years before. As we chatted, she laughed about feeling intimidated by Long at first; she now thinks of him “like family.”

“We’ve all dedicated our lives to learning and being the best artists we can be,” says Hooper. “There’s a kinship in that. We are kindred spirits.”

This show will be the Gibbes’ first-ever exploration of mentorship relationships among contemporary artists working today.

“Our hope is that this exhibition gives a closer look at the importance of these relationships and finding these mentors to be inspired by throughout your career,” says Wall.

Influence and Inspiration will feature sketches, drawings, and finished paintings by all three artists.

Self Portrait, no date, By Ben Long (American, b. 1945); Oil on linen; Courtesy of the artist

“The three of them are artists who are rare today,” shares Wall. “They take no shortcuts — they’ve trained rigorously, they grind their own pigments, create varnishes; it’s a level of preparation and dedication to the craft that you don’t always see and it’s reflected in the show.”

The exhibition will primarily feature figure drawings and paintings, including new large-scale, never-before-seen pieces by Hooper and multiple works from her trip to Palestine a few years ago with humanitarian non-profit Order of St John.

During our conversation, she spoke of sketching a nurse named Hani, trying to capture his spirit despite the fluorescent lights and distractions of the hospital waiting room where they sat. She also sketched a young woman named Marwa in the small village of Anabta, entranced by the “tiger’s eye color” of her eyes and her willingness to sit despite suffering from diabetes-related pain.

Marwa, 2014, By Jill Hooper (American, b. 1970); Oil on linen; Courtesy of the artist

During her trip, she painted and drew 55 portraits, later auctioning the works in a fundraiser for the St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital. It’s a process that would not have been possible without her extensive training.

“You have to be quick. You have to know anatomy. You have to know how to troubleshoot, especially when the person in front of you is not a professional sitter,” she shares of the process. “You also have to bring joy. It’s not enough to just look like you’re having fun — you have to really mean it.”

She learned much of this from Long.

“Ben is a phenomenal draftsman, possibly the best living draftsman,” says Hooper of her mentor. “Seeing a drawing being produced in front of you with that kind of elegance and skill and beauty — it makes it tangible. Being around someone with that level of skill and craftsmanship has been immensely helpful.”

Hani, 2014, by Jill Hooper (American, b. 1970); Oil on linen; Museum purchase

True to the intent of the show, visitors will also have a chance to experience the concept of “influence and inspiration” firsthand.

“Our programming with this exhibition focuses on the opportunity to engage with and learn from Jill directly,” says Lasley Steever, Director of Programs and Digital Engagement at the Gibbes.

In addition to hosting a guided tour on opening day, Hooper will lead a plein air landscape painting demonstration and workshop alongside Ann Witheridge, founder of London Fine Art Studios. Over cocktails and conversation, participants will have the chance to paint their own watercolor or oil painting with expert guidance from these two master artists.

“Jill is such an educator and is so open to sharing her wealth of knowledge,” says Steever. “The workshop is a unique experience for people to ask questions, see Jill’s process in action, and then try it themselves.”

Adds Wall, “Jill is such an inspiration to be around. Anytime you can soak up anything from her, take the opportunity.”

Richard Maury, 2017, by Ben Long (American, b. 1945); Courtesy of the artist

Influence and Inspiration runs from September 6, 2019 to January 5, 2020 at the Gibbes Museum of Art. Tickets and information can be found at

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Posted in Visual on August 20, 2019 (Issue 42: Summer 2019) by Matt Mill.

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