Maryland-bred artist Joseph Sheppard seems to have the best of both worlds. He spends six months of the year on a quiet farm in Pietrasanta, Italy, about an hour from Florence, painting and sculpting in the realistic style of the 17th century masters. In November of each year, he begins a six-month visit to America -- New York and usually Baltimore -- to show and sell his work and to recharge his batteries.
Born in Owings Mills, he taught for several years at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and studied there in the early '50s under Jacques Maroger, the famed restorer of the old masters at the Louvre.
Mr. Sheppard's work is displayed, among other places, at the Butler Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, the University of Arizona, the Carnegie Institute, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and with the Malcolm Forbes collection. He painted the large murals in the lobby of the Baltimore police headquarters and his work also graces the Peabody Court Hotel and the New Shiloh Baptist Church.
His current art is being shown through March at C. Grimaldi Gallery at 1006 Morton St. We met two blocks away at his temporary studio at Rita St. Clair Associates.
Q: You actually began as an abstract painter?
A: Before I met Maroger, I was painting abstractly, because that was the time when the modern New York abstract movement was beginning. Maroger was teaching how the old masters painted. His students were doing things I couldn't do and I was jealous. I did a little painting in that tradition and Maroger came and stood behind me and said, 'Very good, my son, do two more like that and I'll get you a New York gallery.' I never painted abstract again.
Q: How do you define realism?
A: When I started in the '50s, realism was anything you would recognize. What I'm doing is really based on the 17th century idea of painting. The artists at the top level for me -- Rubens, Rembrandt -- all have one thing in common: the same knowledge of anatomy, the same knowledge of painting techniques. It started with Egyptians and Greeks who devised certain rules on how to make a figure. It was like a language. Therefore, I don't use models when I do sculptures. It's all done from knowledge of anatomy. In 19th century realism, they had a live model. But those paintings are dead. They look like tinted sculptures, whereas in the 17th century there was life in them, there was freedom of expression and they looked realistic.
Q: This technique is not tremendously in favor today?
A: I don't think many people know about it. We aren't sure what Maroger taught us is the real medium the old masters used. Matter of fact, I don't think it is. It's something similar. No one really knows how they did these things. And yet it was all common knowledge for centuries. And then it was just all lost.
Q: Why is so much of your art based on the human figure?
A: It's the most challenging. Not only that, I think all great art -- except for the 20th century -- has been based on the human figure as a form of expression. And what made it easy for me to go to sculpture was the drawing. If you can draw in the sense of the old masters, if you draw thinking of three dimensions, you're already sculpting in a way.
Q: Why did you choose to live in Pietrasanta?
A: It's a center of the world for sculptors, like Paris was in the '20s. You look up at the mountains and they look like they have snow on them. But it's the white Carrara marble. And you can see the cave where Michelangelo got his marble. There are hundreds and hundreds of sculptors there. You sit in this little square where they come after everybody's been working all day. If they're all covered in white, they work in marble. If they are green, they work in bronze. If they're multicolored, they're painters.
Q: Lots of stimulating conversations about art?
A: Nobody discusses their art because it's too personal. It would be like getting into a discussion about religion. Artists are very lonely people.
Q: It sounds romantic but it also sounds like a hard life.
A: I'm very disciplined. I have a show every November in New York and I need about 35 paintings and some sculpture. That's really full time. Most artists I know are workaholics, otherwise they couldn't stay in it. I get up in the summer between 6:30 and 7 and have my coffee and come back and work 10 hours a day. And I work seven days a week.
Q: Can you make a living being an artist today?
A: I've been very, very fortunate. I've always had a small group of people who have liked my work. It's unfortunate that quality of art doesn't have a lot to do with success. I think it does in the long run, maybe a century after you're dead. But there are no standards anymore. How do you judge a painting? Some have no contrast, no color. There's no way to judge.
Q: Do you ever do portraits?
A: I did a portrait a few years ago for City Hall when William Donald Schaefer was mayor. I was worried about that. He came in to see the finished piece, and he's looking at it and I'm waiting and he doesn't say anything. He says, 'Joe, Joe.' And I said, 'Oh, geez.' And he said, 'It's just what I want.' I said, 'Oh, God.'