Colorful instructor makes splash in Trinidad arts scene

In slightly more than a year in Trinidad, Art Professor Vilas Tonape has made his mark on the local art scene. His positive attitude makes everyone believe they too, can draw.

Tonape graduated from the most prestigious art school in India, Sir J.J. School of Art, in 1992. His Master of Fine Arts came from Texas Christian University in 1996. He has taught art at the college level in Florida, Georgia and now Colorado. He arrived in Trinidad in August of 2013. By December, faced with more students than expected in his painting class, he enlisted volunteers to help build more easels for his studio on the 4th floor of the Berg Building.

“What you want is a disciplined training,” said Tonape. His approach is very much step by step. He shows a technique and then his students give it a try. He believes students need three things to succeed: Potential interest, proper supplies, and they have to show up. In the classroom, his enthusiasm is infectious. He’ll make fun of his “Brooklyn” accent. He often sprinkles his explanations with metaphor. His students love it.

Laura Gowan has taken two classes from Tonape. The last time she took an art class was 17 years ago. “The classes I took before were fun, but they subscribed to a much looser theory of art instruction. The quality just didn’t compare.” Tonape believes in establishing a solid foundation first. “He gives you explicit formulas for discerning how to start a painting,” said Gowan. “I’ve scoured books for the last 20 years about art instruction and for some reason it never made sense until he explained it. And it just clicked. And I’ve seen it click with other students as well.”

Tonape is on the Board of Directors of the A.R. Mitchell Museum, as well as on the Trinidad Arts and Cultural Advisory Commission. In the spring his students took over a downtown gallery, Gallery Main, to show what they’d accomplished. That exhibition was sponsored in part by Trinidad Area Arts Council.

He regularly takes students on field trips to local galleries and museums to immerse them in art. In July he was one of the artists in the annual Quick Draw fundraiser to benefit the A.R. Mitchell Museum in downtown Trinidad. He led the effort to paint Trinidad State’s entry in the annual downtown Artocade. He even did a free demonstration showing how to draw a portrait from start to finish. “A student said, ‘Can I bring a friend to watch this lesson?’ And I said, ‘sure.’ I’m doing this lesson anyway, so why not open it to everybody.” It attracted about 25 people of all ages in the middle of the day. “So all these little things probably add up to publicize the program.”

Still in demand in his native India, he did two lectures there in May and is headed back to Mumbai in December for a week-long workshop where, with the help of three assistants, he’ll teach 50 students simultaneously at five different drawing stations.

He was also invited to display some abstract works in Telluride in September by the Telluride Arts Council. That show will include seven artists from Creative Districts in Colorado as well as seven from Brooklyn.

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