Hoffman said he signed up for the classes because his wife told him he needed to loosen up his style. “It’s good to have sharp focus, but you don’t want to get caught in it,” he explained.

The class was the third in the third 10-week series Balos has taught in his home north of Mount Shasta. He started the classes in response to reactions from customers to one of his paintings hung at the Art Center after he and his wife Iris purchased the business.

Last Saturday, graduates of his second class displayed their works for a reception at Pink Photography in Dunsmuir, where student Janet Crittenden expressed gratitude for techniques she learned from Balos.

An experienced painter herself, Crittenden said the two works showing at the reception were her first in oil paint, a challenging artistic territory she was nudged into by Balos.

“I was working on my still-life and he added to it,” she described. “He hung photocopies of portraits on monofilament. He had me paint them into the scene, like they were taped on the wall.”

Other students at the reception also praised Balos for his teaching skills and his talent. But he claims that painting realistically requires no talent at all. “It’s really all about light, the physics, the nature of light,” he said. “The phenomenon of seeing.”

Painting was ‘always there’

Aleksander Balos was born in Poland to artistic parents. He grew up with painting, remembering his first work as oils on plain paper for his father when he was a small boy. “It was something that was always there,” he said of painting, “Up until high school, I thought everyone did it.”

He said that at his home, painting was never seen as a commercial pursuit. “My dad worked at a factory. He made tanks for the Warsaw Pact,” Balos recalled. “He refurbished antiques and sold them at shows. He never thought of painting as a commercial thing. He did it for fun.”

It was only after he  immigrated to the U.S. that Balos discovered art could be a profession. “I was like, ‘Wow, people do this for money?’” he said.

He arrived in time to spend his last year of high school in Wisconsin. For some reason that Balos refuses to call talent, a teacher there made sure he would attend art school. “She helped me develop a portfolio; she took the slides,” he said. “She filled out the applications and paid for my admission.”

He enrolled in a small liberal arts university in Milwaukee, where he met Garry Rosin, a philosopher turned art teacher, according to Balos. “He was a realist painter with a slant towards surrealism. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

After college, he moved to Chicago to attend the School of Representational Art, where he entered a workshop run by internationally-acclaimed realist painter Bruno Surdo. “When I saw their work, I wanted to leave,” Balos remembered. “It was like, these people are amazing! I mean, I had confidence after college. I could paint. But not like this.”

Teaching a monkey to paint

“He used to say, ‘I can teach a monkey to paint,’” Balos said of Surdo. “After six months, I believed him.” Balos said he uses that line with his students today, stating, “If you put yourself into it and practice, practice, practice, then something good will come out of it. ”

What good came out it for Balos was realized through the Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago in the late 1990s. He well remembers his first gallery submission. “Ann asked, ‘How much do you want for it?’ I said $3,000. She said, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s too little.’ She sold it for $15,000 and gave me half. That’s where my eyes opened up: people would pay a lot of money for art.”

He said that they sold half the show before the reception. “It was unreal,” he recalled.

Balos still shows and sells in the Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago, though he and his wife moved to California five years ago. He said his last lesson in art was learning about its vulnerability to the financial times. “The art market really got smashed by the economy,” he said. “In my last show in Chicago, we sold only one painting. I worked for one and a half years on seven paintings. One sold. Things aren’t good.” He said it has been like this ever since.

Following the advice of his agent, he has stopped producing originals for sale and is now in the process of setting up a market for prints. He and his wife have moved the Art Center south of downtown and renamed it the Velvet Elephant. They are looking around downtown for a place for him to teach, to make it easier for students to reach him in the snow.

Balos limits the size of his classes to six people. He insists he can teach anyone to paint or, as he puts it, to see. “When we see an object, we see about 30% of what’s really there,” he said. “My job is to teach them how to observe, to see what they are looking at and to notice why it’s that way, things we take for granted.”

Anyone interested in learning these skills can call the Velvet Elephant at 926-2297.