Picture this: A young Joseph Sheppard, with dark hair, goatee and pencil in hand, sitting in a dimly lit bar on The Block sketching the burlesque queens and their colorful clientele.
Or imagine him on a stool at Mack Lewis' gym at Broadway and Eager Street watching the fighters work out and making quick impressions of their well-muscled physiques. Or perched on a rowhouse stoop behind the Maryland Institute College of Art sketching an African-American high school band as it parades down the street.
In the early '50s, such places were where Sheppard was most often to be found. As an ambitious young artist, the world was his studio - and he was willing to go anywhere, any time to capture the beauty and vitality of the human form.
Today Sheppard, 72, is one of Baltimore's authentic Old Masters, a painter and sculptor steeped in the five-century-long tradition of realistic figurative art who continues to practice his time-honored craft despite the siren song of abstraction and the vagaries of art-world fashion.
This month, Sheppard's hometown celebrates his distinguished career with no fewer than three retrospective exhibitions that leave no doubt as to the magnitude of his accomplishments.
At the Walters Art Museum, Sheppard's boxing paintings from the 1950s and 1960s will be on view through March 9. At Evergreen House, a show of his colorful street scenes and genre paintings opens Thursday and continues through Jan. 26.
And on Sunday, the University of Maryland's University College presents Fifty Years in Art, a traveling show first exhibited in Pietrasanta, Italy, where the artist now lives and works half the year. That show will remain on view until March 16.
Sheppard, whose now white beard and hair tied back in a low ponytail make him look like a cross between Santa Claus and Willie Nelson, seems delighted by it all. "Back when I was starting out, abstract expressionism had taken over everything, the whole art world had changed and there was hardly anywhere that would show this kind of work," he says.
"But I loved painting the human figure. I think I did boxers and strippers and genre scenes because that was a way for me to paint the body in contemporary settings. It was a way to apply what I had learned in art school to the world."
Sheppard grew up in Owings Mills and attended what was then called Maryland Institute of Art on scholarship - the first in his family to attend college. He tried abstraction, emulating the works of Picasso and others. But during his second year he met the legendary teacher Jacques Maroger, who was renowned for rediscovering the recipe for the oil painting mediums used by such 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters as Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyke.
At a time when modernist abstraction was all the rage, Maroger not only taught his students to paint with the Old Masters' medium, but insisted they also learn the traditional skills of drawing, perspective and anatomy. He made them copy famous paintings to deepen their understanding of the art of the past.
That suited Sheppard just fine. Even as a youngster he knew he wanted to be an artist, and under Maroger's tutelage his natural gifts blossomed.
"I had a talent in that direction," he recalled, "and I think I faced it very realistically because I came from a poor family, we didn't have any money, and I had to start earning my living through my work even when I was in school."
He remembers a sub shop called Harley's, where as a young artist he used to trade paintings for sandwiches.
"It made me realize that you have to produce something to get something back," he says. "This dream of having a gallery find you and all of a sudden everything is easy, I don't think that really happens."
Goes his own way
Early on, Sheppard decided to paint how he wanted and what he wanted regardless of what the art world of museums and galleries thought. His affectionate, meticulously detailed paintings of prizefighters, Baltimore night spots and African-American neighborhoods - all subjects considered unsuitable for serious art in the 1950s - are today an important record of a bygone era in Baltimore.
"A lot of things I painted were pretty controversial in those days," Sheppard said. "One of the statements I remember, from this guy who lived in a big house in Guilford, he said of this little black nude I had done: `Oh, it's a lovely painting, but we just couldn't hang it in a proper Southern home!'"
Yet Sheppard still managed to sell his works. "Almost all of my early paintings were collected by Jewish businessmen," he recalls. "I think maybe it was because they were just one step up from being on the bottom themselves, they'd just arrived in America in the 1900s, and maybe they felt a sympathy for it, they recognized something there, you know? They had lived in those neighborhoods. It was familiar to them."