Some people dream of retiring and taking up art. Mel Leipzig – who has been painting scenes of contemporary life in New Jersey for more than 40 years – often vowed he would never retire. As a professor of art and art history at Mercer County Community College, he was able to paint enough to be collected by the Whitney Museum, the Yale Art Gallery, the National Endowment for the Arts Gallery, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and the White House Collection, among others.
In his painting classes, Leipzig had serial students who would take his class 25 years and more. His art history lectures would attract audiences from all over the region. But last year he stopped teaching painting, and this year, after a career spanning more than four decades at the college, the Trenton resident has decided to call it quits. “It cuts into my painting time,” said the 78-year-old. “I’m painting so much it’s unbelievable. I only want to paint now, and I want to paint more than ever.”
There’s still time to hear a few more Leipzig lectures. April 10, he will discuss the many paintings he made using colleagues, students and staff as models. Leipzig will give his last lecture, “A Lifetime Devoted to Painting,” April 23.
Among the other institutions dear to his heart is the New Jersey State Museum, where he had a retrospective in 1998. He will be giving a series of lectures on artists and movements important to the development of 20th century American art beginning April 14.
These days, Leipzig’s white van is his traveling studio. Even before his retirement, he has been traveling all over the east coast to paint: East Hampton to paint artist Audrey Flack, an architect in Connecticut and another artist in Boston. 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.
Because he wants to dedicate his life to painting, Leipzig doesn’t own a computer and is unavailable digitally. Yet he picks up his cell phone as soon as he can put down his brush and wipe the paint off his hand. To help navigate his painting trips he has recently added GPS to his electronic arsenal.
The themes Leipzig has painted over the years include architects (he painted a five-panel painting of Michael Graves in his Princeton home), artists, religious leaders, families, 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,’” said Leipzig, who first read Ibsen when he was 13.
“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 like them all.” A member of the Ibsen Society of America, Leipzig has given lectures on Ibsen and painted Ibsen translator Rolf Fjelde, as well as two productions of “Hedda Gabler.”
Leipzig was born May 23, the day that Ibsen died in 1906. His father was an immigrant from Poland who owned a fruit and vegetable store on Avenue U in Brooklyn. Leipzig studied at Cooper Union, under Josef Albers at Yale (Leipzig describes himself as “a realist in an abstract world”) and Pratt Institute, before receiving a Fulbright Traveling Fellowship to Paris. He was one of the last individual artists to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1996).
Leipzig is like a journalist with a paint brush, chronicling life in central New Jersey from the mid 20th century to the early 21st century. A hundred years from now, someone researching middle-class life in suburban America would learn a lot by studying the paintings of Mel Leipzig.
He has recently begun a series on newspapers, painting art reviewer Dan Bischoff at the Star-Ledger, along with some of his colleagues, in the newsroom with its dropped punctured tile ceiling, and will be painting additional panels of the presses, delivery trucks and newspaper sections spread on the floor.
Forget the bottle of red, the bottle of white, at Leipzig’s favorite Italian restaurant — Settimo Cielo in Trenton — he’s been finishing up the third panel of a triptych that includes New Jersey State Museum Curator of Fine Arts Margaret O’Reilly, as well as the restaurant’s owners and wait staff.
“I like the idea of painting scenes of modern life,” he says. “It becomes history.”
Portrait of a College: Paintings by Mel Leipzig, a lecture, will be held April 10, noon to 1 p.m., Kerney Hall (Room 229), Mercer County Community College, Trenton Campus, 102 North Broad St. 609-570-3160. “A Lifetime Devoted to Painting,” on Tuesday, April 23 at noon on the college’s West Windsor campus, in the Communications Building, room 107. 609-570-3324. Both lectures are free. www.mccc.edu/events.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.