Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Getting to Know James Lechay [Notebook Entry #3]

Back in June I rented a small home and studio in Wellfleet for the month of November. “The Plan” was to spend half of each day visiting with my parents, and especially with mom whose health was declining, and the other half painting.  And as I should have remembered the universe has its own plan as sadly mom passed in late August. Then not two weeks after returning from her funeral my father fell and then needed surgery and things went downhill quickly for him. So back to the Cape I went. 

I was on Cape for 7 weeks, the last five weeks were spent in the Wellfleet rental which had no TV, no internet yet a very large studio. At the time I made the decision I thought it was just what I needed. I was wrong. I spent most of my time in the hospital, at the rehab center and to help keep me centered I signed up for two artist workshops in Provincetown, one girls weekend and finally began to paint again. My dad, I am happy to report, is doing well and will be moving back to his apartment soon. Here I share some of my experiences, thoughts and learnings. - cs


Monday, October 29: Notebook Entry #3
Getting to Know James Lechay

The first thing I did after getting settled was to try get to know James Lechay (pronounced Luh-Shay). I went through the rooms of the house and took pictures and studied the few pieces hanging there and then pulled all the literature I could find from the bookshelves out onto a table and began to go through each, page by page. The largest painting in the house is of a woman quietly standing in a soft field of grey near blue waters. It is about 48 x 55” and commands the room (see below). It didn’t take long to figure out the woman was Rose. You see Jim was a figurative painter and many of his subjects are of his family, and mostly of his wife Rose.

However the literature was mainly exhibition catalogs with little other than facts about Jim. He was born in New York City in 1907, went away to college at the University of Illinois and returned to New York in 1927 with a BA degree and began painting under the tutelage of his already successful brother, Myron Lechay. Jim gained a paying job painting street scenes for the city and by the 1940’s his work was getting national attention and he was winning prestigious awards.  When a long-time friend and mentor was retiring from the University of Iowa they offered him a position and the use of his studio. He stayed for 30 years. After retiring in 1971 he moved to the Cape full time and continued to teach and paint right up to his death at the age of 94. His last show was at PAAM (Provincetown Art Association & Museum) at the age of 91.

When I mentioned to a few artists in Provincetown that I was staying at the Lechay house in Wellfleet I often heard, “oh Jim Lechay? I took a workshop with him. He was a nice man, a quiet man.” And so as I continued to study his work these words were echoing in my head. I saw that they also echoed in his paintings. They were quiet in their simplicity, in their composition and in color but at the same time they were imposing. He made the ordinary beautiful. Even a still life on a table was something to behold. And in all there is that familiar relationship that reminds us that the best in life is found by living deep not wide. And this shows through in his work.

And yet even if he wasn’t one to boast I feel the need to on his behalf. Jim exhibited with the likes of Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jules Olitski, Nathan Oliveira, Helen Frankenthaler and Alice Neel to name but a few. And you have to dig to learn that his work is included in many prestigious national collections including the Smithsonian. I think Jim just loved to paint, was deeply in love with his muse and wife, Rose, and found his own style at an early age and never looked back. And like Mr. Holland, Jim’s opus most likely is a collection of his years teaching. Here is where many artists, at least the ones we read about, typically teach how to paint their way or in a style that will be known as a “school” built around an ego and the need for attention. Not Jim. He promoted each and every student to find their own way. And that may be Jim’s school. Speak softly but carry a big brush. Paint softly but with the strength and confidence of the Gods. I wish I was able to meet Jim. To hang with him here in his studio and watch him work, ask him questions. But like my 91 year old father he was probably also set in his ways and yet, what ways they were. Paint. Love well. Die. I am convinced that our paths have crossed with intention and I’m now looking at the upcoming weeks here with renewed spirits.


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