Wait . . . that has to be a photo. It looks too real. I shuffle behind the young artist at his easel, trying not to disrupt his flow or breathe on his neck, as he dabs the most delicate spot of white paint onto the canvas. His hand and brush are so steady, I wonder if his nervous system is working properly. Before me, a picture of an elderly woman has come to life in vivid detail: her shirt popping with polka dots in primary colors, her eyes melancholy, or perhaps wistful? The wrinkles on her hand are so lifelike, they conjure thoughts of my own grandmother, whom I haven’t seen in years. I can practically smell the Vanicream.
Blinking rapidly, I look again and see that the artist has an inspirational photo of his muse at the corner of the easel, and he has managed to capture her soul, her essence, in hyper-realistic fashion with oils. This style of painting, as well as charcoal drawing, has become the focus of study for the Àni Art Academies, a nonprofit organization that offers a full-time, full-tuition art education that turns novices into professional artists within three to four years of study.
Within the palm-thick hills of rural Rio San Juan on the Dominican Republic’s North Coast, these students see peers become farmers, fishermen, taxi drivers. There are enough churches, lotto shops, and cock-fighting clubs to suggest what some weekends look like. The land is bountiful: On a morning walk into the hills, we spy starfruit, avocado, lychee, bananas in bunches, cherries hanging from branches, sour oranges, papaya, mango, breadfruit, soursop—and that was just in the first 30 minutes.
Yet on a four-acre site overlooking the fruit-laden greenery, with white-sand beaches just beyond, a spacious single-story studio houses some of the most talented fledgling artists I’ve ever witnessed. Under the guidance of head instructor Maxwell Miller, an American contemporary realist artist—and following a comprehensive curriculum developed by professional artist/educator Anthony J. Waichulis, known for his realistic trompe l’oeil work—upwards of 50 artists will spend 35 hours a week practicing the craft.
Admission is fairly straightforward: Students must be 18 or older, have citizenship in the region of the academy and a high school diploma or equivalent, and show they are committed to the training. No portfolios necessary. They begin by learning how to properly grip a pencil and draw a confident line; from there, they will learn to render spheres, cones, and cylinders in painstaking detail, then practice, and hone, and refine, and throw things out and learn some more until they’re ready to take on paid commissions. Some will go on to illustrate medical textbooks. Others accept portrait assignments locally and globally. Many will get to show their work in galleries in Santo Domingo. They all learn the commercial side of the business, like how to frame artwork and set their own prices, before graduating.
Among those hiring local talent are guests of Àni Private Resorts, which are never far from an art academy. These uber-luxurious all-inclusives, owned by Jane Street Capital cofounder and arts patron Tim Reynolds, sponsor art academies in the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United States while also giving travelers an opportunity to support the community they’re passing through. Reynolds, now retired and living on the Jersey Shore with his wife and family, became a student of the Waichulis technique after a car crash in 2000 left him paralyzed from the waist down. Described by those who know him as “the most fun guy with the biggest heart,” he channeled his energy into creating the art academies while also entering the hospitality industry in 2010, turning his private homes on the cliffs of Anguilla’s Little Bay into fully bookable villas for up to 20. Now there are resorts on the quieter North Shore of the Dominican Republic, where I stayed last year; on the east coast of Thailand’s Koh Yao Noi island, halfway between Phuket and Krabi and a world away from the crowds; and on the south coast of Sri Lanka, a larger space that accommodates 30.
That spirit of fun manifests throughout the Àni properties: Imagine a sophisticated open-air setting, where incredibly gracious staff match guests 1:1, and unstuffy, multi-course meals are crafted by a top chef—and just over there is a waterslide. This isn’t some wet-and-wild all-inclusive waterslide; it’s sleek, fast, and so fun, all ages bomb down it with abandon into the infinity pool below. Guests may up the ante and go scuba diving, snorkeling, paddleboarding, or kayaking along the coast, or perhaps they’ll opt for a day at the beach with a fully catered barbecue. Every minute feels highly personal (in part because the Àni villas require a complete buyout, so you know all the guests). You’re certainly paying for the privilege—reservations start from a minimum of five nights from $15,000 per night, or about $750 per guest—yet the experience feels less exclusionary than an all-inclusive might suggest. We got off property often, going on hikes and to the art academy to better understand how a high-end resort aims to be a better neighbor to those in Rio San Juan.
It may start with a single charcoal line on a piece of paper.