After more than 40 years at Mercer County Community College, Professor of Fine Arts Mel Leipzig can claim a large swathe of the population as students. Many have gone on to successful art careers, citing him as a major influence.
When he runs into past students, the first question he often asks is, “Are you painting?”
At least one of those students turned the question on him shortly after Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, when the lights went out for a week in his Glen Afton neighborhood: “Are you painting?”
A week without electricity could not stop the zealous painter – he opened the window shades and worked by natural light. “The only thing was, Hurricane Sandy forced me to go to sleep early,” he says.
While the storm did not hinder his output, it did compromise six of his canvases at Chelsea’s Gallery Henoch, including one of his favorites, “Joshua’s Tattoos,” in which Leipzig’s teenage son stands shirtless in a graffiti-covered room, strewn with his possessions. Leipzig and his late wife, Mary Jo, allowed their children to have full control over their rooms. And by painting it, Leipzig fully embraced his teenager’s mini revolution. This painting, and one of his daughter, Francesca, in her room were the beginning of Leipzig’s environmental paintings – portraits in which the surroundings tell much of the subject’s story.
Subsequently he created “Joshua’s Tattoos, 10 Years Later,” with the grown Joshua in his Saranac Lake, N.Y., home, again shirtless, standing in the same position. This time, the room is strewn with the equipment of an artist – an easel, paint tables, a box of painting supplies. Unexpectedly, Joshua paints small delicate florals, and one of his canvases leans against a window. There are weights, baskets of dirty laundry and snowboarding equipment scattered about. Leipzig, himself neat and organized, loves to paint the chaos of people’s possessions to help tell their stories. Behind Joshua, hanging on the wall, is the original “Joshua’s Tattoos.” Joshua, by the way, is a professional tattoo artist, and Leipzig has painted a series in Joshua’s shop, including the staff and the customers.
At the end of May, Leipzig will retire from his long and distinguished career as a professor of fine arts and art history. “It cuts into my painting time,” says the 78-year-old. “I’m painting so much it’s unbelievable.” He stopped teaching painting classes a year ago, much to the disappointment of his students, some of whom had been taking the class for 25 years and more. It had become an institution, as were the well-attended lectures he gave at the college.
“I only want to paint now, and I want to paint more than ever,” he says.
There’s still time to hear some of Leipzig’s lectures this spring. There are two more lectures remaining in his series on artists and movements important to the development of 20th century American art at the New Jersey State Museum in May.
When last I caught up with Leipzig, he had been driving his signature white van all over the east coast to paint. In July he traveled to the East Hampton, New York, home of Audrey Flack and spent three days painting the artist, her sculpture, and her husband, who had never been painted before.
Next it was off to Colchester, Connecticut, to paint the architect Tom Smith, son of former Leipzig student Graziella Smith, and his wife and son. “I have no concept of how to get to these places,” he told me, admitting he took a wrong turn and arrived at Smith’s home at 2 a.m. From there, he headed to Cape Cod, where he spends a month every summer painting in the company of his family – Joshua, Francesca, their combined children, and a niece.
He has added another white van to his fleet – his studio on wheels, in which he transports all his supplies to the locations where he paints. The first van has more than 200,000 miles on it, and he’s already put 60,000 miles on the new one. Leipzig is known for only working from life, never photographs.
Because he wants to dedicate his life to painting, he doesn’t own a computer and is unavailable digitally – no e-mail, no Facebook. Yet he picks up his cell phone as soon as it rings, and since his unintended detour through Connecticut he has added GPS to his electronic arsenal.
His friend the painter Linda Pochesci has moved to Boston, so Leipzig has been zipping up to New England to paint her in her new studio. He’s been driving to the Adirondacks to paint Rep. Rush Holt with his wife, Dr. Margaret Lancefield, and to Washington, D.C., to paint the Congressman’s office.
He’s also been finishing up the third panel of a triptych at Settimo Cielo, “the best Italian restaurant in Trenton,” he says. The first panel includes New Jersey State Museum Curator of Fine Arts Margaret O’Reilly. Another panel includes the restaurant’s owners and wait staff.
The many themes Leipzig has painted over the years have included architects (he painted a five-panel painting of Michael Graves in his Princeton home), artists, religious leaders, families (including his own, most extensively), the college, and theater. “That reminds me, I have to make a call to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I want to paint there in late May when they do Ibsen’s ‘Master Builder,’” says Leipzig, who has painted “Hedda Gabler” twice.
“I first read Ibsen when I was 13 – he’s a great teacher. I was also reading Shaw, Proust and D.H. Lawrence, but Ibsen stayed with me the most – I read him over and over. ‘Peer Gynt’ and ‘Brand’ – I really like them all.” A member of the Ibsen Society of America, Leipzig has given lectures on Ibsen and painted Ibsen translator Rolf Fjelde.
Leipzig was born May 23, the day that Ibsen died. His father, an immigrant from Poland, owned a fruit and vegetable store on Avenue U in Brooklyn, and the family lived East 26th St. His mother helped his father in the store and later went back to work for an insurance company.
Leipzig studied at Cooper Union, Yale University (under Josef Albers – Leipzig describes himself as “a realist in an abstract world”) and Pratt Institute, where he earned his M.F.A. He received a Fulbright Grant to Paris and four grants for painting from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. He was the first recipient of the MCCC Distinguished Teaching Award (1980), and was one of the last individual artists to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1996). Other awards include a Fulbright Traveling Fellowship and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award. In 2006, he was elected to the National Academy, an honorary association of professional artists in New York City.
Among the many collections in which his works can be found are the White House Collection in Washington, DC, the Whitney Museum, the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn., the National Endowment for the Arts Gallery, the New Jersey State Museum and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City.
Leipzig is like a journalist with a paint brush, chronicling life in central New Jersey from the mid 20th century to the early 2000s. A hundred years from now, someone searching for a truthful depiction of middle-class suburban life in America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries would do well to study the paintings of Mel Leipzig. The realist painter has captured in loving detail the central New Jersey experience, from the texture of dropped ceilings and the clutter emerging from open file drawers, family life, scenes around the campus of Mercer County Community College, to the utter comfort and relaxation of a woman reclining on a soft armchair by the picture window of her living room.
The people in Leipzig’s paintings are teachers, architects and artists; young adults sneaking out by moonlight to experience a world beyond their suburban domicile; parents and their children poised over the remains of dinner, or getting ready to begin the day in the mirrored reflection of a tiled bathroom; families in their backyards and at the beach; robed clergy posing in their places of worship.
“I like the idea of painting scenes of modern life,” he says. “It becomes history.”
With the demise of print journalism, Leipzig has recently embarked on a series on newspapers. He has painted Dan Bischoff at the Star-Ledger, who has written favorably about him, along with some of his newspaper colleagues, and will be painting additional panels of the presses, delivery trucks and newspaper sections on the floor. On Sundays he drives up to Newark to paint the newsroom, with its dropped tile ceiling. “I love doing this,” he says.
Interestingly, although Leipzig disparages painting from photographs, he often paints photographs into his scenes. In a painting of his daughter’s inlaws, he has them surrounded by family photos – “The kids are the focus of their lives,” he says. And in his portrait of Judy Brodsky and Michael Curtis, he has painted photographic prints of Brodsky as a young girl playing the piano.
As in many of his paintings of artists, he has rendered her prints of two women in hard hats and two faces with grids in his own painted hand. The couple is surrounded by the books they have published, and a second panel shows their living room, art collection and piano. Leipzig says the subjects have yet to see the just-completed painting. He likes to make a party to unveil the portraits. When his wife, Mary Jo, was alive, they would throw the party at their home, but these days his kitchen has become a painting studio.
Leipzig used to paint a smaller canvas, and then transfer it to a larger canvas using a grid, but he gave that practice up because direct painting is more spontaneous and fluid. “I’m old enough and should know what I’m doing,” he says.
He had planned to write a letter to Rush Holt to tell him he wanted to paint him, but then ran into the Congressman at Trader Joe’s. Holt and Lancefield’s Adirondack retreat is a half hour from Joshua’s house, and they graciously posed for eight hours over two days. Leipzig usually insists on paying his models $25 an hour, but the Congressman could not accept payment. “Nor can Margaret O’Reilly and the folks at the Star-Ledger. Toshiko (Takaezu) wouldn’t let me pay her, so we exchanged work.” Takaezu died before Leipzig completed the work, but he was able to finish it in his studio.
Holt’s Washington office will be depicted without him in it – an empty leather chair, a mahogany desk with phones and files and piles of books in a box. “He’s organized,” says Leipzig. “In chaos you have to have organization.
“I would only paint a good politician,” he continues. “I would love to paint the Clintons – Hillary came to Ellarslie as part of the conferences of mayors when Bush was president and McGreevy was governor.” A photograph on Leipzig’s refrigerator shows him with Hillary in front of his painting of former Ellarslie Director Brian Hill. “She was the most human of politicians, very genuine but forceful,” he says. “I went because I wanted to meet her. I would offer the Clintons $25 an hour to paint them, but I’d paint fast.”
Although a dyed-in-the-wool realist, Leipzig has been taking more liberties with realty these days. For example, he painted Whiteface Mountain in the window behind Holt and Lancefield, when in fact it can be seen from a difference window of their house. He likes painting multiple panel paintings because it gives him an opportunity to focus on the interiors and still keep a figure in the painting.
For the legions who have studied under this great master, the era is drawing to an end, but the rest of the world will have more time to interact with him – to hear his lectures, to see his artwork, and maybe come across him painting contemporary life in New Jersey.
American Perspectives: A Lecture Series by Mel Leipzig, Sundays, 1 p.m., New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State St., Trenton: May 5, Abstract Expressionism and Geometric Abstraction; May 19, Fairfield Porter and Philip Pearlstein and Their Influence. Individual lectures, $50 Friends Members, $60 non-members, $50 students. Check payable to Friends of the NJ State Museum, PO Box 530, 205 West State St., Trenton, NJ 08625-0530. http://www.nj.gov/state/museum/dos_museum_programs_fine-art-lectures.html