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Around the world for art props

Head of the Ashland Academy of Arts travels to Azerbaijan collecting plaster busts for study

ASHLAND ' To what lengths will the director of a Rogue Valley art school go to provide students the right props for their endeavors?

Twelve time zones, for starters.

Semyon Bilmes traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, where artistic standards remain similar to those established centuries ago.

The operator of Ashland Academy of Art traveled to the former Soviet republic in May and returned in June with 18 plaster of paris heads, busts and anatomical casts ranging from Nero to Beethoven.

I felt like 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' trying to get out of there with three huge boxes, says Bilmes, 49, who hopscotched back around the globe, making stops in Prague, New York, Cincinnati and Portland en route to Medford with the still-wet casts.

— The representations of historic works give Bilmes' students objects to draw as they develop perspective and lighting techniques at the former Temple Emek Shalom location on the corner of Mountain Avenue and East Main Street.

It was a nightmare, especially in Baku, because they didn't want to let me through without bribes, Bilmes says. It was sort of a miracle I got through.

The first leg on Czech Airlines was the most iffy, because the baggage handlers balked at loading his boxes in the cargo hold. They were worried the freight's sharp edges might damage the plane if it encountered turbulence. Bilmes suggested putting his cargo in the middle and surrounding it with the remaining baggage and got the pilot's OK to boot.

Once we got them on the plane, no one ever looked at them again, he says.

The academy took on its first students last November, but work on parts of the building has continued.

He says the casts would've cost him somewhere between &

36;500 and &

36;600 each stateside.

I would've never been able to afford that, Bilmes says. What I was able to buy them for in Baku made the trip worth it.

Bilmes has 14 full-time students, who pay an annual tuition of &

36;4,800 plus materials and a monthly modeling fee. Classes are held 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

An eight-week drawing course is offered at night.

The academy has gained the Art Renewal Center's approval, making it one of few worldwide to gain such an endorsement.

He has hired Ben Fenske from Minneapolis to teach sight and size techniques.

That was a 19th century development, says Bilmes, who prefers older-yet artistic methods. I never studied that technique.

Bilmes likens his sessions to an old one-room schoolhouse where different levels of work are going on simultaneously.

The newer students progress faster because they have the advantage of learning from the experienced students, he says.

Students are taught sequentially, beginning with simple forms and geometric shapes, where they learn proportion and perspective. They move on to more complex objects, the human body and casts.

One of the 14 full-time students is from Seattle; the rest are local.


Semyon Bilmes traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, to obtain these plaster of paris busts to help students at the Ashland Academy of Art learn perspective and lighting techniques. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli