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Student Perspective: Rebekah Stoneberg on the Painting Marathon: Pompeii, Harmonics and Mystery

Reflections on the Summer 2023 Painting Marathon – IN-PERSON: Pompeii, Harmonics and Mystery with Sam Levy, Kaitlin McDonough, Clintel Steed


In July of this year I attended Painting Marathon – IN-PERSON: Pompeii, Harmonics and Mystery with Sam Levy, Kaitlin McDonough, Clintel Steed. For ten long and wonderful summer days, my cohort and I devoted ourselves to the demanding work of uncovering what is possible as well as meaningful when painting the human figure. Three devoted and passionate instructors, Sam Levy, Kaitlin McDonough, and Clintel Steed, brought the ancient art of Pompeii into our present through personal stories of their encounters with these works in situ, photographs of the art and surrounding sites, as well as through vibrant reproductions. For me the transformative impact of this experience lay in the carefully crafted curriculum, seemingly synchronized with the “harmonics” hinted at in the marathon’s title. Our days began with the group gathered in what would become Livia’s Garden. On the floor, legs crossed, an instructor, often Kaitlin, would share their insight about the art or suggest a way to move forward in our own work. I came to think of these insights as ‘offerings’—something to push up against, like an optional foothold for a metaphorical mountain climber. These offerings were followed by just enough instruction regarding the task at hand to get us moving. Perhaps they intended it as a lesson in being present while embracing the mystery of the future.

Collaborative work would almost always come next, followed by a move into the studio where we would work from live models and/or transcriptions, often ending the day with a thorough group critique. Each movement or adjustment in rhythm provided a change of “head space,” necessary to our progression.

Image courtesy of the New York Studio School.

Collaboration In The Garden:

Drawing inspiration from the frescoes at the Villa of Livia, which depict a garden teeming with flora and fauna unique to the region and rendered with the painstaking accuracy reminiscent of a Northern Renaissance painting, Kaitlin, Sam, and Clintel invited us to embark on a collaborative project: “the recreation of Livia’s garden” in the student gallery. The instructors had covered the walls of the student gallery, from floor to ceiling, with heavy paper. We were given several images of the frescoes and asked to take a section of the wall and begin the task of transcribing the ancient scene. The interesting twist to the assignment was to rotate often; rotation meant letting go of any sense of control around our personal contributions and beginning anew in response to the marks made by our classmates. Every mark we made became an offering to the next artist, something to work with. This project would occupy most of our mornings during the marathon and would provide a necessary change in the rhythm of our output. After days of working like this, something seemingly miraculous occurred. A sort of atmosphere was achieved through colors like black, sage, emerald, and periwinkle blue. With the windows open, we could hear birds on wires chirping; their song filling our garden and giving life to the painted birds on the walls. The past was meeting the present.

Eternal Gesture: 

Woven into this marathon was an insight from Milan Kundera about the uniqueness of gestures, a theme that resonated deeply during our exploration of the frescoes at the Villa of Mysteries, a preserved ancient Roman villa near Pompeii.  Throughout our studio sessions, the art from this villa served as a pivotal reference, helping us appreciate the lasting influence of the human form, its gestures, and the significance of the surrounding space to the dynamism of an image. Kaitlin, Sam, and Clintel brought our attention to the unique interplay of geometry, rhythm, and other elements within these paintings. The goal was to harness those elements in order to bring a similar potency and narrative depth to our own work. Transcription as well as painting from live models were offered as ways of decoding and internalizing the vital elements at work in the frescoes.

The time in the studio was both challenging and rewarding. Wonderfully, the sessions with live models were often the place where the past mingled with the present in just the right measure for something new to emerge. The models held poses not unlike those found on the walls of the Villa of Mysteries. Initially, I understood the models’ forms in space and the gestures as empty references to the ancient paintings. However, as we continued to work, something remarkable started happening in our images. The ancient gestures, emptied of their contents, would fill up, so to speak, with potent, often personal meanings. The mood created through color, the dynamism of compositional choices, and the attention of the particular artists all brought to bear on the ancient gestures, imbuing them with powerful presence. This was a revelation for me: I could see myself, my cohort, the models, and all of humanity, really, in the gestures of these ancient figures. Another, and closely related discovery: by paying close attention to the impact of space on a figure, to the dynamics of rhythm, and to the  geometry at play both in the outer world and the depicted world, I could produce a similarly impactful and lasting (maybe eternal?) force in my own work.

A New Way:

My experience at the New York Studio School Marathon has greatly influenced my approach to painting. As a figurative artist concerned with the power of story, I attended the marathon hoping to discover a new way to arrive at narrative. Interestingly, I discovered this ‘new’ approach through studying ancient art. The work my cohort and I created during the marathon demonstrated the power of employing the compositional structure of historical works of art to create new and original work. 

Since the marathon, my paintings begin as variations of art historical pieces, but they quickly evolve beyond their original references due to the expressive possibilities of figuration, gesture, and composition, a revelation from my experience at the marathon. This process is exemplified in “Iphigenia,” inspired by the 17th-century Italian painting “The Sacrifice of Iphigenia.” My in-depth study of its composition and the arrangement of figures allowed me to internalize the painting’s structure. This structure then acts as an adaptive scaffold, robust and flexible, accommodating new, personal, and relevant interpretations. This approach has been transformative. Although I’ve always valued historical context, I now find greater freedom in using past art as a creative source, seeing it as providing ‘eternal’ frameworks on which to project personal expressions.

Snapshots From NYSS

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