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Celebrating a lifelong artist

When beloved still life painting instructor Frank Lanza announced his retirement recently, it was hard for many to swallow. At 84, he deserves to take a break—yet in many ways, it’s unthinkable. He’s been affiliated with Academy of Art University since 1949, when he enrolled in founder Richard “Pappy” Stephens’ life drawing class.

Nearly seven decades later, Lanza’s legacy is that of a lifelong artist, one who has never stopped learning, taking classes and sharing his methods with students in the School of Advertising, and later, the School of Fine Art. And though he doesn’t readily bring it up, he’s also tremendously philanthropic. The Lanza Awards, introduced 10 years ago at the annual Spring Show, have been funded by thousands of dollars of his own money.  

Lanza, a San Francisco native, never had a chance to consider a path other than art.

 

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Frank Lanza. Photo by Bob Toy.

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One of Frank Lanza’s last classes during Fall 2014. Photo by Bob Toy.

Growing up in a world without television, his mother would hand her only child a notepad and pencil to keep him entertained. In junior high, his art teacher passionately encouraged him to draw and, by high school, he was taking after-school jobs doing lettering for grocery store flyers and coming attraction cards at local cinemas.  

Lanza joined the Academy out of high school, relishing the live drawing classes and opportunity to learn from older students, namely ex-G.I.s. reinventing themselves after World War II. But he would leave after one semester to fulfill his own duty in the Air Force, making charts and graphs for nuclear testing results at the Nevada Proving Grounds.

 

 

Years later, after completing his B.F.A. at Art Center in Southern California, Lanza returned to downtown San Francisco to work as a graphic illustrator. After working at two studios in a three-year period, he became self-employed.

“There were other illustrator friends that were mostly freelancing and I thought I should give it a try because you were independent. And if you hooked up with six clients that liked you and your work, you could make a decent living,” he said.

Lanza ended up running his own studio for 36 years, with clients ranging from McCann Erickson to Del Monte Foods and Washington State Apples.

In 1972, he taught his first course at the Academy’s School of Advertising, demonstrating how to do storyboards and layout work with the new favorite ad agency medium: Magic Markers.

“The marker was transparent medium and it flowed much like watercolor and it was easy to adapt to,” explained Lanza, who taught himself the method.

Carol Nunnelly, now on the faculty of the School of Fine Art, was one of Lanza’s early students.  

“He taught us to paint with markers. This was a departure from ‘coloring in a flat way.’ Demos done by Frank enabled those of us who took his class to learn professional advertising techniques from a painterly fine art way of working,” Nunnelly said.

“Without this valuable class, I would not be as adept at media as I am today,” she added.

In time, the marker method became obsolete and Lanza switched his focus to still life painting in the School of Fine Art.

 

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Lanza’s legacy is that of a lifelong artist, one who has never stopped learning, taking classes and sharing his methods with students in the School of Advertising, and later, the School of Fine Art. Photo by Bob Toy.

On a rainy morning this past December, Lanza gave final critiques to a large group of students at 60 Federal Street.

Walking from painting to painting with a stride and posture that belie his age, he noted contrasts, shadowing and the varying “temperatures” of the works, which ranged from potted poinsettias to bowls of fruit and bottles of wine.

His comments were thoughtful, direct and encouraging. “If I was to be critical in any way it would be just a different variation of colors down there” … “Good use of shadow” … “It’s fun to look at” …“Simple composition, but very well done” … “Over the years it’s one of the few candlelit scenes that is successful.”

It’s hard to know the exact number of students Lanza has taught—definitely more than a thousand—but he seemed to have unlimited time for each one.

 

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It’s hard to know the exact number of students Lanza has taught, but he seemed to have unlimited time for each one. Photo by Bob Toy.

“He’s superb with young beginning students. They look at Frank in terms of his age and I think they listen more intently than they might with a younger instructor—there’s a firmness and a gentleness at the same time,” explained Executive Director of the School of Fine Art – Painting Craig Nelson.

Anisa Heins, a B.F.A. visual development student attending Lanza’s final class, admitted she was an “awful” painter before his guidance.

“He told us on the first day to ‘loosen up and to just enjoy painting’ and he’s absolutely right because painting is incredibly hard to do if you’re tense and stressed about something. … At first it was really hard to do, but Frank reminded us about it constantly and gave us encouragement, and because of that we finally started to actually listen to, and understand, what he was trying to teach us,” she said.

“When Frank told us we were his last class we all sadly laughed a little because we’d already told our friends to take his class the following semester,” Heins added.

Illustration student Quinn McSherry called Lanza’s style “remarkable.”

“He has completely transformed the way I look at painting. His grasp of color theory is incredible and his teaching style is straight to the point. Frank will always tell you exactly what you need to work on to turn an ordinary piece into an extraordinary piece,” she said.

In retirement, Lanza will continue to donate works to the Faculty and Alumni Fine Art Auction and provide the Lanza Award to promising fine art students. The monetary awards range from $500 to $1500, and will continue to be provided “as long as I’m alive,” he said.

Lanza, a lifelong bachelor, estimates that as much as half his estate will go to awards and scholarships at the Academy and Art Center.

And retirement, like everything that has come before, will be all about art. Lanza is renovating his home art studio and has plans to attend local painting workshops and Craig Nelson’s workshop in Umbria and Tuscany in June.

In his trademark thoughtful and unhurried style, Lanza reviewed his to-do list but also left a bit of mystery.

“I’m looking ahead to what’s next—I’m retiring from the teaching but I’m still painting.”

And should he change his mind, there will always be a classroom for him at the Academy, according to Chairman Emeritus Richard A. Stephens.

“In all my life’s experience at the Academy of Art University, one of the most memorable is the friendship of Frank Lanza. I have always respected the man, his work and enjoyed his company. He has been an excellent instructor, a fine influence and a perfect gentleman in all of his experiences at the Academy of Art University. Through all the years I have known him, I have counted him as a friend and have regarded him highly in every way. I am shocked he is retiring; he is still a vibrant and knowledgeable artist. I beg him to stay, but of course the choice is his,” Stephens said.

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“He’s superb with young beginning students. They look at Frank in terms of his age and I think they listen more intently than they might with a younger instructor—there’s a firmness and a gentleness at the same time,” explained Executive Director of the School of Fine Art – Painting Craig Nelson. Photo by Bob Toy.