Artist’s Portrait Settings Provide Background on Subjects

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

In the front window of Aljira Contemporary Arts Center, Mel Leipzig can’t help but attract attention from passersby.

“I love people. I really like people. You can’t paint people if you don’t like them,” says Leipzig, a portrait artist. “And everybody looks wonderful!”

That might be because Leipzig only paints from live subjects rather than from photographs. Or because he, notably, puts his subjects in their own settings — offices, bedrooms, etc. In fact, the environment is so much a part of his paintings that Leipzig didn’t realize he was a portrait artist until it was pointed out to him.

“Your environment often tells you something about you. Like if I show Kevin [his current subject] with his paintings, I wouldn’t have to explain who he is,” the artist says.

Leipzig has painted family members, students, friends, famous artists and even an art critic who loved his work — all with backgrounds that tell stories about who they are.

“Well, you can see how he collects things in a way. He’s nonchalant, sloppy. He’s comfortable with himself too,” Leipzig says.

And if you’re thinking you’d want to tidy up before having your home documented for posterity, you’re missing the point.

“I didn’t want him to clean up the house, that wouldn’t be him! That’s him! He’s very messy,” Leipzig says, adding, “but he knows where everything is.”

The result is work that feels intimate and realistic.

“He’s a graffiti artist,” Leipzig explains pointing to a painting in the show.

“Is that Will Kasso by any chance?” I ask.

“Yes!” Leipzig exclaims. “Oh, fantastic!”

Of course, not all spaces make easy backgrounds, so Leipzig likes to play with vantage points.

“One point perspective is an illusion,” he says. “It means you’re standing there looking at something with your eye in one spot, like this. That’s not true! You go over there, you go over there, you look all over the place.”

Though sometimes an altered perspective, like this one that looks up at a rehearsal, is just a choice.

“What does it mean?” Leipzig asks. “Because I’m old and I want to sit down! I don’t want to stand!”

Leipzig has wanted to be an artist since the age of 5. Now 80, his work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the New Jersey State Museum and even the White House. The Trenton resident and former Mercer County College professor says it makes him feel like he’s done what he’s supposed to do. And his advice for others?

“You should always try, as much as you can, to do something that you really love,” he says. “Painting is extremely pleasurable. Even when it’s hard, it’s pleasurable.”

Leipzig will participate in a conversation about this show, and portraiture in general, this Saturday at Aljira.