Lynn Staley: Art Director as Artist

Lynn Staley traded in a Type A career for the personal journey of learning to draw.

The former Assistant Managing Editor (Design) of Newsweek, and Deputy Managing Editor of The Boston Globe now attends a class every weekday morning from 9 to 12:30 at the Art Students League in New York City.

Dabbling—literally—in Rome

“On any given day,” Staley explains, “there are two models posing, and up to 40 people focused with a degree of intensity that would make a library reading room seem boisterous.” The seemingly tranquil morning ritual is a radical change from her formerly deadline-driven workdays built around elections, explosions, and egos.

“This huge shift has made me face a few things,” Staley says. “For example, I can no longer legitimately consider myself an adventurous, up-for-anything type of gal. I like and need structure, predictability, and the comfort of a routine.”

“I’m very bad at self-motivation, but very good at pushing myself within predetermined boundaries,” Staley continues. “I can be dogged and disciplined now in ways that were impossible when I was last a student. But I still need deadlines, and to an amazing degree, logic. I’m astonished at the intellectual rigor drawing requires. And now I understand that‘s what I find so seductive about it.”

Freddy, a Venezuelan sculptor, at the Art Students League

Twice a week, instructor Michael Grimaldi, an artist in his 40’s dressed like a rock star in skinny jeans, black shirt, tie, and work boots, makes his way around the West 57th Street studio, stopping to preach the gospel of perspective, gesture, and movement. Lynn says he uses anatomical terms (“that condial,” “that zygomatic arch,” “that superior-anterior iliac spine”) like they were the latest iTunes offerings.

“We are a rapt and un-skeptical audience,” Staley says. “In this arena, my former skills as an art director are meaningless. Dimensionality, value, interior and exterior contour congruence, and the ability to startle count for everything.”

"What's the value?" with hint from instructor Grimaldi (right)

As an art major in college, Lynn Staley was told her work was too graphic. “Of course, I never understood what that meant,” she laughs. “I was 20 or 21 and didn‘t understand much of anything. I now get that my teachers, products of the Abstract Expressionist orthodoxy of their era, found my work too realistic for their taste, and, quite rightly, saw it as prissy and unadventurous.”

Taking the ‘graphic’ epithet to heart, Staley became enamored of typography, and turning that into a skill on her own, eventually realized her potential as an art director. “For 40 years,” she notes, “the thrill of combining words and images for very public consumption drove my creative machinery in a way that no academic pursuit could have.”

Reality (left) and "reality"

As the world of magazines began to focus more on digital media, Staley needed to find a new outlet. “I was lucky enough to be able to retire without feeling derelict,” she says, “and to replace my professional discipline with a hard core visual rigor that I wasn’t capable of in my 20’s. These days, I draw naked people (cue the snicker…). Turns out there’s a long-standing academic tradition of drawing from life—getting skeletal and muscular forms to align in a two-dimensional approximation of a three-dimensional walking/talking human goddamn being. That’s been going on for years now, like since the Renaissance. Who knew?”

Staley now travels back and forth to Rome several times a year, taking classes with Andrea Smith, a painter and teacher who studied and worked in New York and Florence. In contrast to her large Art Students League class, at Smith’s studio in the middle of the old city, Staley is one of two or three. “The personal attention has been incredibly rewarding,” she says. “Painting feels like learning Chinese or maybe brain surgery. I’m really grateful to Andrea for her patience and her canny anticipation of my next mistake.”

Back in New York, Staley plugs along doggedly, grateful for the hush and also for the friendly buzz as the models take their break every 20 minutes. “It’s a world and I’m progressing in it, I think, though I can’t say toward what,” she says. “Right now my only goal is to become quasi-fluent in this new language, seeing and recording with a degree of discipline I’ve rarely sought elsewhere.”

Freddy’s foot

Female torso

Male torso and value study

Lynn does digital: Photoshop file comprised of five sequentially executed block-ins, superimposed to show potential for deviation from the truth


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3 thoughts on “Lynn Staley: Art Director as Artist

  1. Anne Twomey

    As a Creative Director, initially trained in painting, this is so inspiring! I’ve very recently, started taking painting classes again. This has openned up a whole new world that I hope to embrace as I near retirement age. To be an accomplished painter in a traditional fashion, is a goal I’m thrilled to embrace. Not nearly as accomplished as Lynn, I’m stilled excited about the what is available to be learned. Thanks for sharing this post.

  2. Karen

    To Lynn, awesome…I’m blown away by your drawings! And by your commitment to life and living! As a long-time art director ready to retire myself, I can only hope to achieve as rich a life as you have created for yourself. You are living a dream retirement many an art director would love. I am so happy for you!

  3. jamiepeeps

    Wow, It’s great to hear Lynn is drawing from life! Amazing work, too. Lynn was one of my first art directors, eons ago at the Boston Globe. Drawing from observation is still the core for me as well.