Putting truth to canvas Artist: The countryside of his walks inspires Eugene Leake as he works to capture in his landscapes the perspective he now has at 87.

October 30, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Artist Eugene Leake is so matter-of-fact that drawing him out can be frustrating.

What about those two self-portraits, included in your current show of landscapes at the C. Grimaldis Gallery? What motivates them? Are they a means of probing the inner psyche?

"There's no one else to pose," he replies.

Well then, what about those night paintings? In your 80s you started producing dark scenes dotted with a few glimmers of light. Are they an old man's rumination on death?

"I started doing those because it was too hot to paint in the daytime," says Leake.

If Leake's answers seem a bit cantankerous, they aren't. Delivered with good-humored laughter, they're just the 87-year-old artist's characteristic way of talking about a life notable for its combination of change and consistency.

Over the last four decades, Leake has become a Baltimore institution. He arrived in 1961 to become president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He was 50, with a background as both artist and art administrator, and he breathed new life into an institution in the doldrums. In 13 years he doubled its physical facilities, tripled its faculty, quadrupled its student body, increased its budget tenfold and turned it into one of the leading art colleges in the United States.

When he retired from the Institute in 1974, he was 63 and its renaissance was assumed to be his life's magnum opus. But he retired to the rural Maryland countryside north of Baltimore, where he took up the solitary life of a creative artist and became a successful and respected landscape painter. A quarter of a century later, he's still going strong.

In dress, in manner, in daily activity, Leake is remarkably consistent. He appears at Grimaldis one bright October morning dressed in what looks like the same outfit he was wearing 10 or 20 years ago -- shapeless old tweed jacket over blue jeans and heavy shoes.

As always, his manner combines good-natured cheerfulness with a touch of formality. His urbane accent is all upper class American drawing room. He still walks a mile before breakfast every day -- "I did it this morning," he says -- though now his walk's so gimpy it looks like an effort for him to cross the room.

His career as an artist, on the other hand, has been one of change and growth. As he has aged, his paintings have become more and more abstract in an effort to capture the truth rather than just the look of the landscape.

His active, energetic brush stroke carries an intensity of feeling reminiscent of expressionism. But where expressionism is usually associated with anxiety and alienation, Leake's paintings are essentially optimistic in their celebration of the beauty of nature and the rightness of its cycles.

His pictures are smaller now -- "I can't carry much any more," he says -- but they are if anything even more positive than his earlier work. "I think -- I hope -- there's more life, more exuberance," Leake says.

His output remains high; fully three quarters of the show's 28 works are from 1998. If there has been any diminution in his energy level, it doesn't show up on canvas. On the contrary, a painting such as "Stormy Sky" looks more intense than earlier work.

A number of these works are also more abstract than ever. "Summer Stream," for instance, nominally shows a stream ambling off amid greenery, but the longer one looks the more it becomes simply color and gesture.

That's partly because of a change in the way Leake works. Instead of taking the canvas to the scene, he increasingly works in the studio, his memory sometimes aided by a small watercolor made at the site. "I found I was no longer completely satisfied with things that were done plein air [outdoors]," he says. "I find I spend a lot more time on most of the paintings, and some are made completely away from the subject. I'm less satisfied with immediate effect."

But with his usual refusal to claim too much for his art, he declines to say that these developments were premeditated. "I don't think I plan anything abstract. It happens in the method of working.

"I go look and then come back to the studio and paint, and sometimes I go back and back, but without painting from the thing itself. Sometimes I get mad as hell because I can't get what I want. But as Thoreau said, 'Oh, what a man who's dissatisfied with himself can accomplish.' "

That's one of the things he admires about Monet, who also got more abstract as he got older. "He said, 'Oh, the agony of self-criticism.' He was a very successful artist with the world at his feet, and rather than being assured he was still unhappy.

"I can relate to that. As you get older you can't just cling to what you've done."

If change is one constant in Leake's work, another is his unchanging ability to respond to the landscape. He still possesses enough wonder in front of nature to sometimes want to capture it just as it is.

One of the boldest paintings in the show, "Red Sunset," all red of sky and green of field, came from just such an experience, when he hurriedly jotted down a sketch on the spot and developed it into the larger painting. Another such experience happened at the other end of the day, and the painting called "Spring Green in Morning Light" resulted. "I've never seen such green," he remembers.

The same tiny part of the world Leake's been painting for a quarter of a century still unfailingly inspires him. "I'm so lucky," he says, "because when I take that walk before breakfast every day, there isn't a time of going out there when I don't get re-excited by what I see -- the sky or the sunrise or something. That's what gets me going."

The C. Grimaldis Gallery, at 523 N. Charles St., is open 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit "Eugene Leake: New Paintings" runs through Sunday. Call 410-539-1080.

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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