Glendale High School graduate Ara Dona must now find a way to make a living after finishing a prestigious three-year program at the Florence Academy of Arts in Italy.
Dona’s work is dark, concentrated and emotional. The classical style originated in Florence and gives its practitioners the skills to capture emotion and convey meaning in ways that photographs cannot.
“Classical painting, it requires interpretation,” Dona said. “The thing that’s very important and attractive about classical art is the discipline it gives you to paint exactly what you see, [but] every artist when they paint something from life, they interpret it in their own way.”
He is scheduled to have his works shown at the Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena in mid-November.
Technique requires an understanding of anatomy, chemistry and sometimes construction. A lot of classical art originates with models posing in unnatural positions that sometimes require their limbs to be tied up. Chemistry is necessary to avoid cracking paints as well as knowing how to blend paints together.
“It’s not a matter of what you paint, it’s how you paint it,” he said. “You can paint something, but if you don’t paint it the way it is required to paint, there’s no point.”
Many people have been inspired by Dona’s work and have helped him along the way. One individual was so inspired, he invited Dona to use a studio all summer, and when Dona said he couldn’t manage transportation, he lent him a car, said Jo Butcher, a teacher at Glendale High School who described Dona as her third child.
“They believed in this young man’s talent and his humility,” she said. “I hope that he is able to maintain that type of aura that he has that people believing in him and want to see the best of success.”
Butcher said she virtually gave up her family life for two years to nurture Dona in high school.
“The greatest gift for a teacher is to see someone learn,” she said. “He had such a desire, you couldn’t turn your back on him. The sacrifice in your own life, it was worth it to give to somebody. I won’t be getting anything possibly in return, but society will.”
Dona was born in Armenia and moved to Glendale in the early ’90s. He earned $65,000 worth of scholarships for his education and has had a few celebrity clients like Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise and Kent Perkins, husband of “Laugh-In” regular Ruth Buzzi. He also won an art contest where the prize was wall space in Rep. Adam Schiff’s Washington, D.C., office.
His scholarships began to trail off into his final year, but his accountant sponsored his studies for $26,000.
“He has so much talent, and I wanted to encourage that,” Andy Allcroft said.
Dona and girlfriend Julia Stjernstrom said they hope to find a studio soon and begin work on two complementary 14-foot pieces depicting the jailing and angelic intervention of St. Paul. The work will take about six months, and the artists said they hope to do portraits for commission in between.
The two met in school at Florence and quickly became friends, Stjernstrom said.
“He was well-known there by everybody,” she said. “One of the first things he said was, ‘I shouldn’t be afraid of paint, the paint should be afraid of you.’”
For the record: An earlier verion of this article misstated the length of Ara Dona's program at the Florence Academy of Arts. The program is three years.