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This article by Cassidy Enoch-Rex was prepared for the January 25, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Navigating the Path from Doctor to Landscape Artist
`I had a tremendous drive to be in the arts and science. Science won out – for awhile anyway," says Jan Lipes, a former emergency room physician for 12 years, who rededicated his life in 1999 to painting. His fifth annual exhibition is on view at the Gratz Gallery in New Hope, through Sunday, February 12.
Walking into the Gratz Gallery, you would never suspect that Lipes had come to his realization as an artist so recently it. Every wall is covered with colorful, well-rendered, intimate landscapes and a few floral close-ups, the largest of which is 20 x 24 inches. From a distance the viewer is confronted with the atmospheric, everyday scenes of Lipes’s local landscapes, but up close, the picture plane flattens and the viewer notices the meticulous and evenly applied brushstrokes, impressionistic in nature. It was a complete surprise to me to learn that Lipes had not spent his entire life painting.
Lipes was born in Bronx, New York, in 1951, to native New Yorker parents. His father, after an unsuccessful attempt at becoming a commercial artist, found himself as apprentice to an optician and finally become a very successful optician himself, with a practice in Manhattan. Lipes’s mother was a health care investigator in the Bronx. With both parents in the medical field it is no surprise that Lipes became a doctor himself.
He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1968 and then attended the City College of New York, where he earned a degree in literature and completed what would now be considered a double-major in pre-medicine. On top of a heavy college workload, Lipes took night classes in life-drawing, pottery, and lithography (though never painting) at the School of Visual Art. Lipes says: "I enjoyed school very much. Everything interested me. I felt like I was in a candy store when I was in school. Just be able to spend time exploring and learning is wonderful."
After graduation Lipes took a year off; he could not decide what to do with his life: art, literature, or medicine. As he jokingly says: "I’m cursed at being good at a number of things." Almost by chance, he took a job as a respiratory therapy trainee, and decided to become a doctor. He graduated from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1976, completing medical school in three rather than the usual four, a testimony to his ability and ambition. After completing a three-year residency at the Hunterdon County Medical Center, he became an emergency room physician in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 1981. He and his wife, Janet, another native New Yorker and a nurse, live in Solebury. Their son, Joshua, lives in China and writes for a financial newswire. Their daughter, Jody, a graduate of Tisch at NYU, is a cinematographer.
In 1983 Lipes was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He kept working in the ER, eventually needing a cane to walk. In 1988 he was confined to a wheelchair, but was able to continue to work in the ER for three years until 1991, when he became physically incapable. He worked as an emergency room administrator until 1993, when even that became physically impossible. It was then that Lipes turned to painting.
According to Lipes, faced with a complete life change, he entered a period of reflection in which he had to decide what was the most important thing in his life. He remembered looking over his father’s shoulder while he was working on his commercial art. He remembered drawing and sketching constantly as a child and through his young adulthood. And he decided that that was what was most meaningful throughout his life.
"I had already lost the use of my right arm, my dominant arm. With my left arm I can barely sign my name. But I just started painting with my left arm. I thought, what does it matter? I don’t know what I’m doing anyway."
With his typical zealous learning style, he quickly mastered a sophisticated yet simple technique. From a distance, the serene scapes are so well-rendered they are almost photorealistic, betrayed only by a slightly hyper-realistic use of color, which gives them a subtle, more-than-life feeling.
In a phone interview, I mentioned that there was something possibly "sentimental" about them, and he replaced the word with "nostalgia." "I think that I suffer from terminal nostalgia," he says. "I’m into time. I’m into the present and I’m into the past. I don’t consider the future."
As for the subject matter, Lipes says: "I’ve gravitated toward landscapes because Bucks County has such a great landscape tradition, especially the old guys in the New Hope School." He says the content in his paintings "is very much twofold: I’m attempting to penetrate the essence of things. I believe that revelation is what it really is about. The other thing is the fact that I’m trying to paint the world as I want it to be. There are a lot of things that are not perfect in my world, there is a lot of struggle."
At the first, distant glance there is no sign of struggle in Lipes’s paintings. Take "Winter Meetinghouse Road" for example, a 12 x 9 inch winter scene with trees and a winding river in the foreground, and a small, dark, snow-roofed house in the background. This painting gives the impression that it was painted effortlessly in a matter of minutes, with its cool blue overtones and overall ease on the eye. It is a beautiful scene showing a definite eye for color and composition. Yet, as Lipes says, "a small image like this can take as much as much as 10 days (to paint)." Up close, the viewer can see the image dissected into "thousands upon thousands of tiny brushstrokes" placed just so, in just the right color.
Lipes says optimistically: "I am so lucky that this happened to me, this goddamned disease, which there is nothing good about. If it hadn’t I’d still be dealing with blood and guts. Half of my life is dedicated to painting and half is dedicated to writing about art (he writes a weekly column for the Bucks County Herald). I love art so much, I want everyone to love art."
Though he has won numerous awards, including the Sienkiewicz Award for Traditional Painting in the Style of the New Hope School at the Phillips’ Mill 72nd and 76th annual juried fall exhibitions, is included in the book "Artists of the River Towns" by Doris Brandes, has received a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and has been exhibited at the Philadelphi Sketch Club and the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb, he remains quite humble. Lipes says: "I hope at some point I will become a good artist, not that there is an end point. It is a lifelong process with no completion."
"Jan Lipes 2006," on view through Sunday, February 12, at the Gratz Gallery, 30 West Bridge Street, New Hope. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. 215-862-4300, www.gratzgallery.com.
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