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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the January 7, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Focus on Art, Not Illness
His life was in wonderful order. Jan Lipes was living out his dream to practice emergency medicine in a busy hospital setting, and was deriving the satisfaction he had hoped to from his profession.
Then, back in 1979, along came some troubling symptoms that this physician knew he had to heed. It began with stumbling, which his wife noticed with concern. But a family doctor assured Lipes that it was just "nerves."
In 1983, after a remission then return of mysterious symptoms following a serious automobile accident, the healer became a patient at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.
"I actually had diagnosed myself before the official diagnosis was made," recalls this Solebury, Pennsylvania, resident. "I had multiple sclerosis, and the most predictable thing about the disease is, in fact, its unpredictability."
Dr. Jan Lipes had one burning question: "What’s in store for me?" For the answer, he sought the advice of one of the foremost neurologists in the country. And Dr. Raymond Adams in Boston didn’t mince words. "He told me that nobody can predict the course of MS."
Somehow, that affirmation allowed Lipes to accept the diagnosis, and to start planning ahead for the "what-ifs." "I had two kids, one not yet a year old, and I realized that it was time to at least explore different facets of work in medicine."
A pivotal event in 1991 clinched the ER physician’s decision that he had to change what he was doing. For the first time, he lost his balance while examining a patient. "That was it – I told myself ‘You’re out of here’."
For the next couple of years, Jan Lipes tried to find satisfaction from medical administrative work. It didn’t happen – the fit was wrong. And one summer night in 1993, when he was simply sitting outdoors on his deck listening to the crickets, this sidelined physician suddenly had an epiphany.
"I was thinking back to my childhood, and to what had brought me the greatest satisfaction," he recalled of that evening. "And I realized that art, something I had always enjoyed as a child but had mostly put aside, had always made me feel great joy."
Lipes thought of the photography that he had taken up in adulthood, but that was not the answer. And that night in the silent dark, with nothing more than an instinct to illuminate his way, Jan Lipes decided he would paint.
"I know it sounds improbable, but that’s precisely how it happened," he said. "It was as if something was leading me to this moment."
Lipes, who was, by now, in a wheelchair, purchased a cheap easel. He bought some student canvas boards. He set up a spot in his home’s family room, and looked out the window at a barn on the property. That simple barn became the subject of his first painting.
"It was there, it was familiar, and I found that landscape painting felt natural and accessible to me," said the man who now identifies himself as a full-time artist, and has a following to prove it.
For the next several years, this father of two now-grown sons painted almost like a man possessed. "I shudder now at how little I knew, but that didn’t stop me. I would get driven to some outdoor location in the area and paint for hours from my wheelchair, until somebody came back and got me. It was an amazing, life-affirming experience."
By 1997, self-taught painter Jan Lipes, who had lost the use of his dominant right hand, had still done several shows, including a juried show at the Bianco Gallery in Buckingham, PA. His nature paintings were suddenly "hot" commodities, and ironically, that success became perplexing.
"It was probably a case of too much too soon," said Lipes. "I became confused about my direction, about who I was painting for. It was a strange time."
For a couple of years, Lipes retreated completely from the world of exhibiting, and began re-examining his work – and his palette. "I experimented a great deal with color, and then stripped my palette from 20 colors down to five or six. I was determined to find my way and to treat my work even more seriously."
By the year 2000, and into the present, this remarkable artist has indeed found his way to personal satisfaction, something he prizes even more than the accolades that have come his way.
Jan Lipes paints every day, painstakingly using only his left hand, as his physical condition compels. He often spends hours at his easel, losing track of time. "Actually, I lose myself, not just time, in my work. It’s an amazing – and wonderful – process."
Lipes dislikes defining his art, he will tell you, although others have called it "pointillism," the technique in which small "dots" of paint are placed on the canvas side by side, allowing the viewer himself/herself to blend them.
"I prefer to think of my work as representational, a very broad category, and I also seem to fit into the New Hope School of artists, which I like to think never ends," says Lipes, referring to the movement describing Pennsylvania landscape artists who largely painted at the start of the 20th century, focusing on the vistas of Bucks County. "I feel privileged to paint in that style, one which I feel is particularly rich."
Lipes has won the Sienkiewicz Award for Traditional Painting in the Style of the New Hope School, has been featured in the Area Guide to Bucks and Hunterdon Counties, and was a featured artist at the Gallery at Bristol Myers Squibb "Up the River Now" exhibition.
This month, he will see the culmination of some of his Bucks County focus when the Gratz Gallery unveils an exhibition of over three dozen of Lipes’ works. (Jan Lipes, Impressions, runs from January 10 to February 8.)
Paul Gratz, co-owner with his wife Harriet of the New Hope gallery which specializes in American 19th and 20th century American impressionism, notes that only two living artists, New Hope’s octogenarian Joseph Crilley and Jan Lipes, have been exhibited there.
"I came to know Jan Lipes’ work three years ago, when a painting Jan did for the Winter Festival Committee of New Hope was in our gallery window as part of a fund-raiser. It was a depiction of New Hope and Lambertville, and I absolutely loved the painting," says Gratz, who made it a point to meet Lipes.
"We arranged to do a show of his work for the last two years, and they were huge successes. I not only admire his magnificent work," said Gratz. "I also admire the way he has turned his life focus not to his illness, but to his art."
The Gratz Gallery Show includes images of local farms, bridges, shops, sheep grazing in a winter landscape, the old Frenchtown Hotel and the Laceworks at Lambertville, among many others.
"This is my landscape," said Jan Lipes. "This is my world. To be able to present it to the world is a profound joy."
Gallery is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
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