Visitors to the new exhibition “Mel Leipzig: Octogenarian” at Rider University will suddenly find themselves gazing at a painting of the staff of U.S. 1 newspaper.
It includes U.S. 1 founder and editorial director Richard K. Rein, business editor Diccon Hyatt, arts writer Ilene Dube, assistant managing editor Sara Hastings, me, and former events editor Lynn Miller. The setting is our former office at 12 Roszel Road in Princeton Junction.
And while the painting may seem a bit perplexing to the causal viewer, there is a very natural connection and a back story that provides a glimpse into the way the artist creates a painting.
Mel Leipzig and I have been friends for 40 years. We have worked closely together on numerous arts projects in Trenton and in New Jersey, taught in the same department at Mercer County Community College, and have an extended-family relationship: He was my best man when I married his former student, Liz Roszel, and he was my son’s first college teacher. Mel and I meet almost weekly to discuss art and ideas.
Like Mel’s other friends and family members, I have also been enlisted as a model for several of his paintings. In one I am waiting for a train at the Trenton train station. In the other my wife and I are sitting at the bar of the once famous Trenton restaurant Pete Lorenzo’s. Both found their way into the book “Trenton: A Capital City.”
The U.S. 1 painting started in late 2013. Mel had decided to paint Star-Ledger art reviewer Dan Bischoff. As planning for that painting developed, the all-important setting for the subject turned out to be the Star-Ledger’s Newark offices. And Mel was excited about painting inside a newsroom.
During one of our weekly meetings, Mel said he was interested in doing another newspaper office painting and asked about the potential of using U.S. 1. Meanwhile U.S. 1 arts writer Ilene Dube mentioned to me that she hoped one day to be in a Leipzig painting.
After I told that to Mel, he said it would be fun to paint Ilene — because he loves painting people — and me and asked if I would talk to Richard Rein if it would be okay to paint in the office.
Mel added that he would also like to paint Rich and any other staff member willing to be involved at his usual $25 per hour model payments. He pays because of his process of painting directly from life — no photographs. Since people can get uncomfortable sitting in the same position for an extended period, Mel tells them to think of it as a job, paying everyone from Michael Graves to a local gas station owner the same amount.
When Rich and fellow staff members agreed, Mel came to the office to determine where we would pose and set up an after-hours schedule to start getting the painting going as soon as possible.
When I had posed for the earlier paintings, Mel would take us to a location and begin a series of drawings and preliminary paintings before working on the final canvas. But now he was using a more spontaneous approach and working directly on the canvas. “I think I’m starting to feel like I know what I’m doing,” he told me when he began changing his approach — in his 70s and already recognized as one of New Jersey’s most accomplished artists.
It was an early evening just before Thanksgiving when he arrived at the Roszel Road office and asked us to stand around a newspaper production table, sketched the composition in paint on the canvas, and asked for one or two of us to stay so he could paint the figure in detail.
In a matter of hours recognizable images of staff members appeared on a white background marked with lines and written notes indicating spaces and objects.
Over the next few sessions — off and on for several days — he completed painting our forms and faces and said he would wait until after the holidays to return to paint the interior.
Since Mel is determined to capture as many details about one setting as possible, the painting of an environment is more time-consuming than painting the people who use the space.
It was after New Year’s that Mel and I worked out a new schedule, one in which I would be on hand to provide access and support in the office for as long as it would take to complete the painting. And over the next few winter months he would arrive at the end of the normal work day and paint as long as he could while I worked.
It was not unusual to suddenly discover that it was after 1 a.m. and we would exclaim that it was time to go. I would then help him pack up his paints and brushes, easel, tarps, and other tools and items he had and move them out to his van. Then, after we brushed snow or ice off our cars and warmed up our car engines, we would stand in the nearly empty parking lot and chat about art.
On a few nights a friend would stop over to see the painting’s progress or say hello, but most of the time Mel and I worked quietly alone, taking breaks to remember a friend, an art event, a family-related occasion, Mel’s late wife, Mary Jo, or thoughts about a recent art exhibition, play, or film we had just seen.
But mainly there was a comfortable, even peaceful silence in which Mel carefully pulled the varied details of the room — piles of papers and books, tape on the wall, dusty blinds, and insects in overhead lights – and recreated them on the canvas.
And as winter moved toward spring, the painting also took on life and slowly affirmed itself as a colorful and lively tracing of a time and place and people.
Now, as the painting is going to go on public view for the first time, I am thinking of how gratifying the experience was. Not only because I spent time with my friend and was involved with creating art, but I was able to be renewed by Mel’s basic urge to create art — one where the world is his studio and where he mingles with everyone while doing something very personal. Something expressed in his deceptively simple statement, “I love painting people.”
Read more about the Mel Leipzig: Octogenarian exhibit at Rider University.