By Regina Yorkgitis
If Lawrence High School students Jake Eastmond and Maya Eastmond wish to remember how they looked in their high school art class after their graduations, they won’t need to flip through a yearbook or scroll through social media. They can look, instead, at a painting.
“I never thought I’d meet a famous artist,” said Maya Eastmond, a sophomore at LHS. “And then I got to be in a painting.”
For the past two years, renowned artist Mel Leipzig has worked on six paintings of LHS art faculty and students. Called the “Seinfeld of art,” in the NJN documentary Mel Leipzig: Everything is Paintable, Leipzig composes candid portraits of modern life.
His detailed paintings focus on the specific features that make individuals and their environments unique.
“Everybody’s got a soul,” Leipzig said. “They’re not just part of a group.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1935, Leipzig knew from an early age that art was his passion. He earned his B.F.A. from Yale University, School of Art and Architecture in 1958 and M.F.A. from Pratt Institute in 1972. His paintings are featured in many prominent exhibits and museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Academy Museum.
“We’re very fortunate to have him,” said LHS art teacher Cheryl Eng.
Last year, Eng asked Leipzig to visit and talk to LHS art students. Leipzig offered something even better. Inspired by the diverse and genuine student body, he asked if he could paint at LHS.
“This is an extremely diverse school,” he said. “It represents America.”
Through the Artist in Residence program, Leipzig is now completing six paintings: three of students and three of art teachers. The program, which allows artists to share their expertise and artwork with students, was possible because of a grant the LHS art department received from the Lawrence Township Education Foundation. Leipzig will continue to come to LHS through the remainder of the school year.
Art students have been able to watch Leipzig’s progress on the paintings each week. Leipzig only paints on site, in LHS art teacher Sean Carney’s classroom.
“It’s like he’s just part of the room now,” Carney said. “It’s amazing to watch him paint.”
Now retired, Leipzig was a professor of art history and painting at Mercer County Community College for 45 years. He’d probably miss teaching if he wasn’t so busy.
“I’m doing a series of paintings of Trenton,” he said. He regularly paints at the NJ State Museum and several other locations in the Trenton area.
Although he is no longer a teacher, Leipzig offers constructive comments for LHS students in Carney’s classes.
“Whatever the students are doing—he provides feedback,” Carney said.
Yet, Leipzig always keeps his critiques positive.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say a negative comment,” Carney said.
“He’s a fantastic art historian,” Eng said. Leipzig has already given LHS art students a tour of the NJ State Museum and hopes to lead a tour of his gallery in New York when the weather is warmer.
Katelyn Liepins, a former student of Leipzig at MCCC spoke fondly of her former professor.
“He could tell us anything about our painting and sculpture,” she recalled.
Through the Artist in Residence program, LHS art students have learned from and observed Leipzig. And several LHS art students have even had the chance to be in a Mel Leipzig original painting.
Last year, LHS senior Jake Eastmond jumped at the chance to be in Leipzig’s painting. He was pleased with the way his portrait turned out.
“I thought it looked like me,” he said.
When Leipzig searched for figures for his painting again this year, he was thrilled when Maya and Jake Eastmond’s younger sister volunteered. The Eastmonds said it wasn’t too difficult sitting for the painting—it was a small price to pay to be in the painting, they said. They will have a special connection to Leipzig’s painting for years to come.
“Everyone in that picture is going to connect to it in some way,” Jake Eastmond said.
Leipzig is a realist painter—he strives to paint people and the walls that surround them, exactly as they are.
“My room, as most art rooms are, is a little disheveled to say the least,” said Carney, who laughed that his attempts to convince Leipzig to improve his looks in his painting are futile.
Yet, Carney explains that Leipzig thrives on “the chaos of an environment.” In the painting of Carney, Leipzig has captured both the hanging ceiling lights in the classroom and the wrinkles in Carney’s shirt.
Today, Photoshop features on smartphones have made it simple for people to portray their idealized self to the digital world.
“We see so many different images now,” Eng said. Yet, she has noted that, LHS students, who may be normally transfixed by a digital screen, are mesmerized by Leipzig’s ability to translate an image onto canvas without a digital aid—he never paints from photographs.
Katelyn Liepins, a student teacher at LHS and art education major at TCNJ (‘15), explained that some students may not realize the significance of Leipzig’s presence in their art room right now. However, when they look back on their high school art class, they’ll realize that “a living legend was painting in the background as well as guiding their work.”