Painting Faculty Al Gury Finds Reward in Advocacy

Al Gury wears many hats, to say the least. At PAFA alone he chairs the painting department, teaching at the undergraduate, high school, and continuing education levels, and directs the After-School Studio Art Program for young people in the city. He also works with Mural Arts Philadelphia, people experiencing homelessness, and the elderly; and is proud to have served over 3000 animals as a volunteer for the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

When he transferred to PAFA as a student in 1972, he didn’t expect to follow any path other than painting. “I gradually realized that I was a complex person with a variety of interests and skills and that the people who had been important in my life were teachers. So I did just about everything to find my place and my voice.” Everything included mentoring artists of all ages, including his most impactful positions working with students with disabilities and those from underserved areas. “But I dreamed of coming back to PAFA along the way to teach,” he recalls. “And I discovered that I actually was good at administration. I loved being an advocate for students and faculty.” 

In the four decades he has served on the faculty, he finds every student different. But as an educator, he helps them to answer the same questions: What is the best way for them to contribute, to make a living, to be part of a community, to work on their unique voice? Even if that means following a different career path, says Gury “We teach people to think. We teach them to ask questions and about the actual physical skills it takes to make really compelling art.”

He sees this manifested each year through the Annual Student Exhibition (May 14–June 6, 2021). “Every year I look forward to the immense variety of creativity that our students come up with. It’s amazing when I have them in a first-year class and then I work with them as a senior and see what they developed.” He expects something unique this year, akin to influences seen during PAFA’s World War II years: “I'm very interested to see how students have responded to the pandemic.” 

Gury continues to find influences for his own painting, fueled by lecturing around the world and publishing numerous books and articles. “They do inform each other. As the kid who felt that he was the dumb student in elementary school, the great irony is that later I discovered that as I loved talking about ideas, I loved writing those down!” About three years ago, Gury found himself lecturing in southern France, where Henri Matisse had worked. “I came home and I realized that I needed to change it up. In my color class, for example, I've always taught students how to do the Fauvist Expressionist work that Matisse did as an exercise.” He tried it himself, which bloomed into a whole exhibition of new work, which still inspires him today. “That just changed my whole way of working.”

On a May evening, he politely ended a work call as a family came to his door to retrieve a newly adopted kitten. Volunteering for PAWS, as well as teaching, has always been a release from the stresses of an artist. “These animals need you. You can’t go in there and fuss over what’s on your mind. You have take care of these little creatures and it’s the same with students. It has saved me many times.”

Al Gury stands with a student and her work
Al Gury holds kitten in blanket

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is America's first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the fine arts, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and a world-class collection of American art. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.