Deeper Artistic Education

By Beacon Staff

Last Thursday afternoon, local artist Jennifer Li was putting the finishing touches on her preparations for that day’s art class. Her class, kids ranging in age from 5 to teens, was going to draw ducks.

It might sound simple, drawing the familiar waterfowl, but this exercise was more complex than simply tracing the outline of a duck. Li, having set up taxidermied ducks for the budding artists to study, also had pages outlining a duck’s anatomy and bone structure lying on the desks.

These kids were going to learn to draw ducks from the inside out, to think about why their skulls are shaped the way they are, and that a duck’s back slopes the way it does because the vertebrae are built that way.

“I just want them to try to start thinking about three dimensions,” Li said.

This kids’ class is just one aspect of the new Glacier Art Academy, situated in the KM Building in what used to be Red’s Roost. The space has been transformed since Li and Nicholas Oberling took over in February, with easels, tables, books, supplies and, of course, plenty of art.

Li and Oberling started the academy on a bit of a whim; both of them were thinking out loud, Oberling said, and suddenly latched on to the idea of teaching intensive courses like those they learned from in New York City or can be found in Los Angeles.

As fate would have it, that day they ran into a friend who knew of the perfect space they could use for their school.

“That day, we had an art school,” Oberling said. “So all of a sudden I had to scramble to develop a curriculum and develop a business plan.”

Li and Oberling are accomplished artists in their own right, with national reputations and solid standing in the Montana art scene. Oberling tends to focus on landscape painting, and was one of the founding members of the Montana Painters Alliance and has more than 20 years of experience as an art educator.

Li studied for 11 years at the Art Students League of New York, and has been a professional painter since 1990.

When both artists considered their art education, they realized there wasn’t a similar opportunity for students in the Flathead Valley. At the Glacier Art Academy, students take courses on drawing and painting, to learn from the ground up.

“That’s the way I think art should be taught,” Oberling said. “People should be exposed to art on the full spectrum.”

Oberling’s current course, which started in March as a test to see if the format worked, is conducted over six weeks, with students meeting on Saturdays. For the first three weeks, the students learn the basic foundations of drawing, learning from old drawing books and studying perspective, proportions and gestures.

Ten-year-old Juniper Isaak looks up to inspect the outline of a common goldeneye during an art class at Glacier Art Academy in Kalispell. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

The second half of the course involves painting, which Oberling said is essentially drawing with a paintbrush. The students can apply what they’ve learned from drawing still life to painting a landscape scene, Oberling said, because the same undercurrents tie them together.

Most of history’s great painters were accomplished in landscape, portrait and still life painting, but succeeded particularly well in one, Oberling said.

“There is an eternal connection between them all,” he said.

Students who have a foundational understanding of drawing and painting can create paintings with more depth, Oberling believes, instead of just copying what they see.

“It’s a whole lot of stuff,” he said. “It’s just amazing what there is out there that isn’t being taught.”

Glacier Art Academy will provide classically oriented art classes, including oil painting, figure and portrait painting, landscape painting, plein air painting and drawing for teens and adults, and the children’s classes will focus on fun and basic instruction.

Children’s art supplies are provided by the academy, and there will be a discount for siblings.

In June, professional artists and art teachers are invited to join the Artistic Anatomy Boot Camp, a weeklong workshop offering advanced instruction in complex aspects of technique.

The classes are ongoing, with a schedule and information available at

And while last week’s class might have been focused particularly on ducks, Li believes the basic tenets of structure and thought the kids employed to create their drawings will provide confidence for their future artistic endeavors.

“When you start thinking in certain terms, it’s easier to do things out of your head,” Li said.

For more information on Jennifer Li, visit, and for information on Nicholas Oberling, visit

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