Acequia de Santa Fe, oil, 18 x 24
By Devon Jackson
Serendipity happens. Albert Handell knows this well. He also knows that if he doesn’t keep himself open to all possibilities, serendipity can disappear as quickly as the sun slips behind a cloud. “I have the notion that my eyes are open at all times,” says Handell from his large, well-lit studio just 10 minutes from the downtown plaza in Santa Fe, NM. “When something strikes me, I take note of it, and I’ll probably paint it. Something out there has touched something inside me. It comes from an intuitive place.”
Handell so believes in the importance of intuition that he has written books on it, outlining for artists how to make use of their power of intuition in the painting process. To date, Handell has written five art books, including several on pastel painting, for which he has gained an international reputation. In fact, a retrospective of his pastels is on view through November 18 at the highly regarded Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, OH.
Handell was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1937, the only child of immigrant parents. His father, who came from Russia, worked in a cafeteria; his mother, who was from England, often worked as a seamstress. A bit overprotected by his doting and dutiful parents, he nevertheless spent as much time as he could outdoors. At just 5 years old, he would go down to the corner store and buy chalk (two pennies for three white sticks, a nickel for four colored ones). Then he’d scrape out images of trains, planes, and automobiles on the sidewalks.
As a youngster, he admired the work of Norman Rockwell and Dean Cornwell (nicknamed “The Dean of Illustrators”), and early on Handell aspired toward a career as an illustrator. “To me, that was a dream world,” he says. And it was a dream he intended on realizing. At the prestigious High School for the Industrial Arts, one of his art teachers told him about the Art Students League. Handell immediately signed on, spending two years there while still in high school and two more after he graduated.
At the Arts Student League, where he befriended fellow students David Leffel and Elias Rivera, Handell learned how to paint and draw the old-fashioned way. He also learned how serious his peers were about art, especially about abstract expressionism, which was then in its heyday. Handell’s penchant for realism prompted plenty of criticism. “They thought I was ridiculous for painting realism,” he recalls. “But my feeling was, I haven’t done it yet, and this is what I want to do. I was very young and naïve but my philosophy was—and is—if you’re good at something, you’ll make a living at it.
“I was very much interested in realism, but the thought of continuing that route in New York was crazy,” he continues. “And I ruled out California because it seemed even more experimental.” So instead, in his mid-20s, he headed to Europe. He settled down in Paris, found a studio, and started painting. He stayed for four years before returning to the States in 1965.
At that point Handell was working only in oils. But pastels soon entered the picture—literally, figuratively, and quite serendipitously. One day while drawing, Handell listened to his intuition, which was telling him to try pastels. He called a friend who used them, and the friend told him to go out and buy the biggest box of pastels he could find. The box contained 350 colors. There, said his friend—now you have all the colors made, and you can use what you need.
“Two things changed my life,” declares Handell. “Painting with pastels and teaching workshops.” The workshops came later, but his work in pastels had an immediate impact. At a one-man show of his work at ACA Galleries in New York in 1966, there were two rooms of his paintings; his oils hung in one room, his pastels in the other. Soon after the show, his work was included in a book on pastels. The book led to a call from Flora Giffuni, who was assembling a group of pastel artists to oversee the startup of the Pastel Society of America, which she founded in 1972.
Even with the success of his New York debut, Handell still felt out of place there. So he departed, this time to San Miguel de Allende, a long-established art community in Mexico. And then again, “Serendipity happened,” he shrugs. Someone from the art department at the University of Utah was there in search of an associate professor. Handell said adios to Mexico and hello to Salt Lake City…
Featured in March 1999
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