Studio Incamminati Founder Nelson Shanks leaves a legacy of art and education

Nelson Shanks, who passed away Friday, Aug. 28, garnered world renown for his paintings of international luminaries ranging from a princess and presidents to opera singers and Supreme Court justices. However, as much as his art, he wanted his legacy to be Studio Incamminati, School for Contemporary Realist Art, which he founded with wife Leona. “Studio Incamminati’s purpose,” he once said, “is to produce great competence and the great painters of the next generation.”

That purpose drove not only Shanks and the artists he mentored at the Center City Philadelphia school’s 2002 creation, but all the subsequent artists trained there in the past 13 years. He and Leona have traveled the globe with the message that Studio Incamminati reflects their passionate belief that true creativity is only possible by first mastering the traditional skills of drawing and painting.

“Dramatic use of color, harmonious design, the interplay of light and shadow across a variety of textures, the portrayal of the figure and other subject matter that reflects the sophistication and beauty I find in nature - all presented from a unique point of view,” he said “can only be successfully achieved with a sound command of the painter's craft.”

Kerry Dunn, an original Studio Incamminati student and current instructor who now sits on its Artistic Committee, said Nelson has created a legacy of artists mentoring artists that is essential to the school’s success.

"Since the beginning, Nelson Shanks has always advocated that all of his students learn to teach, as a way to become better painters and as a way to ensure that the art of painting continues to flourish. And, that is precisely the type of community we have at Studio Incamminati today, one where all of our professional artists are also professional teachers. We are preserving the tradition of the past and continue to develop it for the future."

As Studio Incamminati grew under Nelson’s artistic direction, its outreach and influence also expanded. The work of its artists, instructors and alumni has been showcased in galleries and exhibitions around the world, from Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, India, and Old Jaffa Museum of Antiquities in Israel to Philadelphia’s Comcast Center and the National Arts Club in New York City. Gary Haynes, owner of the Haynes Gallery, Nashville, says the school’s stellar reputation attracted him to exhibit its work and represent some of its artists. “We find the program to be superior in developing exceptional talent,” he said.

That program, a combination of the school’s core curriculum – originated and personally overseen by Nelson - and its highly skilled instructors, now form the basis of other art education programs including one for high school youths at Doane Academy, Burlington, NJ, and the Integrated Art Studio Major at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the school’s mission of using art to give back to others has produced exceptional programs that hinge on the exceptional training the artists receive. Face to Face: The Craniofacial Portrait Project, a partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Penn Medicine’s Center for Human Appearance has helped children and their families cope with the emotional pain of living in an appearance-driven society. Nelson expressed pride that only highly skilled artists – trained in technique and painting from life - could make a project like Face to Face a success.

Upon receiving the Portrait Society of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, Nelson spoke of his hopes for the future of Studio Incamminati. “The idea was to create an art school that was above and beyond anything else that was out there. To have the greatest artists of our time come to teach people based on the principle that an artist must be educated, he must be capable, he must have facility on a very high level and develop a perception that is far above and beyond that of an average person . . . The school is living up to every one of those expectations and hopes.

“And this is what I want to pass on.”