Exploring the art of coping

Recent Goucher graduate turned to sculpture to deal with family tragedy

May 17, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The steel rods snake around a fallen tree on the edge of Goucher College's campus, a student's testament to the troubles he has endured - and a gift of sorts to the school that helped him get through them.

The sculpture is the creation of senior Evan Leutzinger, an art major who graduated yesterday after his college career was nearly derailed by family tragedy. Within a span of three months during his sophomore year, Leutzinger's biological father and his stepfather died.

The deaths were particularly upsetting because Leutzinger had had little contact with either man for several years. Getting the news at Goucher, he felt farther than ever from his native New York.

But in the end, Goucher's remove from Leutzinger's family troubles might have helped him overcome them. Looking back, Leutzinger says that what helped sustain him was the nurturing environment of the small college - and the sculpture classes that provided an outlet for his turmoil.

"Everybody finds ways of working things through. Mine just happens to be art," said Leutzinger, 24. "There was a lot of time and quiet for working things through."

Yesterday, Leutzinger graduated with about 350 classmates who were addressed by keynote speakers Jim Lehrer, the PBS host, and his wife, novelist Kate Lehrer. Both encouraged graduates to involve themselves with the world and other people, no matter the risks.

"Don't be afraid to enter into relationships with other human beings, either as friends, lovers or spouses, and do so with full gusto and commitment," said Jim Lehrer. "Some of the most unhappy people I've known in the world were people who stood off on their own."

It's advice that Leutzinger seems to have acted on. At Goucher, he forged close ties with three women he jokingly refers to as his campus "moms" - sculpture professor Allyn Massey, education professor LaJerne Cornish and dining hall employee Jo Anne McKoy.

"It's a small place, and an intimate place, and my door is always open," said Massey. "That's what teaching is about - seeing someone grow and develop, not just the coursework."

Leutzinger needed campus support even before the two deaths. Half Puerto Rican and from Washington Heights in New York, he felt acutely the shortage of other Latino students at Goucher and cursed the limited public transit system that kept him stranded on campus.

Then, in his sophomore year, came the call. Leutzinger's biological father, whom Leutzinger had befriended in his early teens but later distanced himself from, wanted his son to visit him at the hospital where he was dying of cancer. A few days later, before Leutzinger had decided how to proceed, his father died.

A few months later, Leutzinger learned of the death of his stepfather, who had helped raise him as a young boy but whose alcoholism had resulted in a falling-out when Leutzinger was in his teens, the student said.

Shaken by the deaths, Leutzinger struggled academically during his junior year, coming close to losing his scholarships. He decided to take off a year, which he spent living with his mother in New York and working at an electronics store.

The year away helped, by making him realize how much he liked Goucher. He returned for his senior year and his artwork took off. He spent hours in the art studio, bending steel rods and pounding sheet metal plates into abstract sculptures.

The work was most satisfying for its physical exertion. Leutzinger uses only his bare hands to shape the rods, and could feel tension pouring out of him as he wrested them into expressive shapes, some of which are displayed in Goucher's art gallery.

"When I came here, I was just thinking about graffiti and comic-book art. All this gallery stuff wasn't appealing," he said. "[Massey] opened me up to what else art could be."

To support his artwork, Leutzinger is considering teaching jobs. He plans to stay in the Baltimore area for a few years before returning to New York.

What he's not sure about is what to do with the piece in the woods. He figures he can re-use the steel on another piece, but the contortions of the rods around the tree seem to represent what he's learned at Goucher.

"The steel doesn't always really bend the way I want it to," he said, "but it's like learning to compromise - there's a lot that you can only force so much."

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