Thursday, December 30, 2010

Classical Talent: Joseph Sheppard

Steeped in the tradition of Baroque masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn, Joseph Sheppard's mastery of classical techniques helped him carve out a life as an acclaimed painter and sculptor.

He has received portrait commissions for the likes of President George H.W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI, and his bronze sculptures, among them the Holocaust Monument and Pope John Paul II and Saint Francis, are on view in Baltimore.

Marin-Price Galleries in Chevy Chase now is showing a selection of Sheppard's paintings and sculptures. The oil paintings range from still life's of lemons to bustling bar scenes.

Sheppard, who taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art and wrote several books on drawing human anatomy, prefers people as subject matter, but does not use live models.

"They're never as good as what's in my head," he says. "If you take someone like Michelangelo, he never used models. All those figures are made up from his knowledge of anatomy. He can twist them and make them do whatever he wants to do with them."

A further link to his classical roots, Sheppard believes an artist's ability to depict the human figure is the true test of his talents.

"Before the abstract thing came along, the highest form of art was the human figure, from the Greeks on down. Then you had portraiture, then you had landscape and then you had still life, but they were ranked in that order. So when you look back at the Renaissance or the Baroque period, the greatest artists were always the figure painters," Sheppard says.

Born in Owings Mills, a suburb of Baltimore, Sheppard's art education began when he was admitted to MICA in 1948 after high school. He studied under Jacques Maroger, the former technical director of the Louvre in Paris. Credited with rediscovering the lead-based medium 17th century master painters used, Maroger, gallery owner Francisco Marin-Price says, is highly regarded across the Atlantic.

"In Europe, if you go to art school to get a degree in fine art, you cannot graduate unless you do a course in Jacques Maroger," says Marin-Price. "That's how important they think he is."

When Marin-Price opened his gallery in 1992, Sheppard was the first artist he featured. The two met at Vernable, a Dupont Circle gallery that showed Sheppard's pieces where Marin-Price once worked. This is Sheppard's 20th exhibit at the Chevy Chase gallery, and Marin-Price thinks highly of both the man and his art.

"I have never heard him criticize another artist, never," Marin-Price says. "But, if he sees a painting that is really outstanding by somebody else, he compliments them. He never tries to pull them down, which is a very common thing artists do."

Sheppard started his career as a painter, but moved to Italy 40 years ago to pursue sculpting. He says he is self-taught and the transition between mediums was relatively easy.

"I draw in a three-dimensional way and paint in a three-dimensional way so I think [in] three dimensions, so it wasn't a big step to go from the painting to the sculpture," he says.

Sheppard owns a 300-year-old farm in Pietrasanta (Italian for holy stone), a town in northern Italy that has some of the world's best foundries. A hotspot for sculptors and artists, it became well-known when sculptors such as Michelangelo went there for its statuary, which is a soft, grainless stone. Sheppard, who creates his sculptures mostly in Italy, divides his time between his Pietrasanta and Baltimore residences. Currently, he is working on a nine-foot sculpture of Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson.Some of the work featured in the Marin-Price exhibit may make its way to the Leroy Merritt Center for the Art of Joe Sheppard, a gallery established by the University of Maryland, University College, in Adelphi. The gallery opened in April, and Marin-Price says the timing is a rarity for artists.

"That is a huge, huge event in the life of an artist because most artists do not end up with that distinction until they're very well dead," Marin-Price says.

The three sections of the gallery exhibit Sheppard's drawings, paintings and sculptures. With its windows and open space, the sculpture garden consists of 25 works that span Sheppard's career and vary in medium from terra cotta to marble. Attached to the sculpture garden is a gallery with paintings that will rotate every year. As an educational institution, UMUC saw a kindred spirit in Sheppard's past teaching career, so the study center devoted to his personal collection of books and his original drawings also serves as an interactive, educational exhibit.

"You're surrounded by a lot of his anatomy drawings," UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key says. "You'll be able to go in and pull out the drawer and pull out the pieces and study [them]."

The center was funded by the late philanthropist and commercial real estate developer Leroy Merritt, who was a personal friend of Sheppard's. Merritt died in January before the center opened.

Despite his acclaim and accomplishments, Sheppard says he still has aspirations as an artist. Forever admiring the masters of the past, he looks to those who inspire him as the standard he hopes to reach.

"I look at [17th century Flemish Baroque] Ruben's painting or Rembrandt's painting. I haven't achieved that yet, and I want to, so that's what I hold up as my model," he says.

Sculpture photo by Anthony Castellano/The Gazette
Photos courtesy University Maryland, University College