Any aspiring dabbler who has ever taken an art class that left them with that sinking feeling of “Damn, I’m just not getting it!” might want to meet James Daga Albinson. But that goes also for folks, including those still in middle or high school, who seriously think the life of an artist might be for them.
Beginner or advanced, Daga Albinson vows, “I can teach anybody to paint really well.”
Whoa, anybody? Even someone who isn’t sure she or he was born gifted with talent? “You can teach anybody to get their point across and get pleasure from it,” he says.
A Sag Harbor resident for 29 years, Albinson is an artist and teacher who takes the traditional, classical approach to instruction,. He turns out painters and sculptors who appreciate how the old masters approached their canvases and who understand how to go for the effect they want.
However, the approach doesn’t leave out those who are going for more modern, less representational work. Albinson elucidated his teaching philosophy recently, looking entirely the artiste in black T-shirt and knit cap, straddling a stool in front of his own paintings, including one you can’t take your eyes off, an Impressionist oil called “Morning Waves, Montauk Point.” (He signs his paintings “Daga.”)
“First they learn how to handle the materials—we get as basic as (no kidding) ‘What is a paintbrush for? Well, it’s for painting, not mixing paints!’”
He emphasizes basic, technical skills and guides students on how to follow the timeless steps of traditional drawing and painting. Eventually, he encourages experimentation. “This method gives them control on how to use the materials,” he explained. “The representational stuff they do is like a puzzle. Then, of course, if you just stick to that, it’s boring, so you learn to manipulate the rules.”
Enjoying the early-blooming, blossoming jump-started season as both a resident enamored of the East End and as an artist, Daga is starting his spring semester at the Hamptons Studio of Fine Art in Sag Harbor. Currently, he offers fundamental and advanced group classes.
Prominent visiting artists are another feature of the school. This summer they include Ben Fenske, Melissa Franklin-Sanchez, Ramiro and Tony Rider.
Ability in students is a huge plus, but Daga said attitude and willingness to learn and work hard are the keys for success in his classes.
He won’t name names, but Daga has some celebrity students; however, he sees his real role as bringing along young people who are driven by a desire to paint, draw or sculpt. He mentors high school students, as they put together their college application portfolios. He brings in recruiters from top art schools, and he said 95% of his students get scholarships averaging over $60,000. “I really do give my students one-on-one teaching.”
A native of Northport and then Montauk, Daga was one of those guys in school who was always doodling or drawing. Getting to where he is now has been a sometimes tortuous route from student to artist and teacher that took an early turn into the School of Visual Arts in New York City. It was a sharp wrong turn, as far as he is concerned. “Nobody taught me how to paint there. Some teacher would come by while I was working and say, ‘That’s great,’ or, ‘You need to fix that.’ They gave problem-solving before teaching technique…That just creates frustration.”
A veteran of innumerable art classes, he finally began to find his way in the art world by recognizing that he loved the Old Masters. “I would stare at the paintings (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), for instance at my favorite painter, John Singer Sargent, and ask myself, ‘How does he do that—make three brush strokes look like a hand?’” Albinson dug deeper into the root of his dissatisfaction with the classes, and it hit him—he wanted to go back to the basics. “I went through everything my students go through now. And I can see their relief when they get the right information.”
He finished his BFA at the Long Island Academy of Fine Art, and brought those principles to the Stevenson Academy of Fine Art, where he became the apprentice of prominent artist Attila Hejja. “A very valuable lesson I took away from Attila was ‘share your knowledge.’” Albinson painted, showed (with super-star artists like Andrew Wyeth), and developed and refined his own teaching skills, landing the job of lead instructor and art director there. He got the enrollments to soar. In 2008, he became owner of the Long Island Academy of Fine Art, bringing it from a small two-room facility with under 40 students to its current enrollment of over 200. In 2010, he opened the Sag Harbor school.
Not a fan of many aspects of the contemporary art world, which he thinks is often prone to finding accomplishment and genius where only flash-in-the-pan talent exists, his goal is to turn the East End into a flourishing artists’ community. He and his wife, Gitana, who runs a deli near town, and their daughters, Ava, 9, and Mia, 5, have hosted many students as residents in their home. “I teach them about the life of an artist.”
In his own work, mostly Impressionist, he said, “I want to represent the Hamptons the way it is in my mind.”
Of course, the East End is getting pricey for a lot of artists, but Albinson is trying to gather other emerging artists as part of the local community by opening up his house, hosting barbecues at the studio and introducing his students to them. But the eternal problem persists for working artists, “I have so many artist friends who moved away because they didn’t have enough money for a studio,” he said. But his school/studio on Bridge Street is acting as a magnet to them. “This is a place to hang out, an art community. I would love to capture the grandeur of the Hudson River School, make the Hamptons like that was.”