Navigate your city with the ultimate survival kit at Benefit 2016, February 5 – 6 at Crane Arts. Gift certificates, tickets, fashion items, and more grant you access to your favorite restaurants, theaters, and local designers.
Benefit 2016 artist Lee Lippman has been navigating the city of Philadelphia since the ’50s. Now, the 89-year-old breaks his time up between painting and the jazz clarinet. He recounts his history in the local arts scene, as well as an exciting stint studying and living in Mexico, in an interview below.
Erica: Can you tell me about your arts background?
Lee: As a kid I always drew. I had an eighth grade art teacher who was extremely encouraging, and she sent some of my work to Gimbles. And they had a contest and I won a pack of oil paints and I started to paint. And I loved it. I loved the feel of it.
I went to the Philadelphia College of Arts, now it’s the University of the Arts. I had a painting teacher, the name of Paul Froelich, who nobody liked, but he would teach to you if he saw you were interested. I remember once I did a still life that I thought was the world’s greatest still life that had ever been painted. Now Paul had never touched anyone’s work before, but he got up and mixed some black paint and made little black X’s all over my canvas. And I stormed out of the room and I went down to the courtyard and sat up against the wall with a cup of coffee. And he came down and he started telling me why he had done what he did, what was wrong with the painting, etc. And I loved it. He was wonderful.
I met my wife. We got married and I had to make a living. So I finished up there and I went to work as an art director. And in 1978 I got up one morning – I’d been painting part time – and I said I’ve gotta paint full time. And I started painting full time and I have not stopped since.
Erica: Since 1978.
Lee: I’d been painting before that. I’d been painting from my kitchen since 1952. But the full time was 78. And I had a wonderful time.
When I was in school I heard about a scientist painter in Mexico City who was experimenting with vinyl, crystals,and all kinds of stuff to make painting mediums. I was in my third year at that time. I wrote him a letter and asked [if] I could come down and study with him for the summer. And he said, ‘Sure, come on down it’s a free school.’ So I went down and it was called the Instituto Politécnico Nacional and his name was Jose – wonderful little roly poly of a man. But the great thing was we had seven art classes with Diego Rivera and Siqueiros. I fell in love with Mexico. Now we’ll skip ahead a few years. That was before I was married.
And then I don’t remember the exact date but my daughter was married, and we had no responsibilities except for ourselves. We said why don’t we go to Mexico? We traveled around on a second class bus, we had never been to Oaxaca, Mexico. We got off the bus and sat down at a cafe table and said this is the place. We started renting houses. We didn’t have any Spanish at the time. We saw next to us some people were eating French Fries. It looked real good. We looked down at the menu which was in front of us and we saw the word Patitas [and thought] that must be French Fried potatoes. They brought us pigs’ feet. Immediately registered with a Spanish language school. We rented a house, we stayed there for three months in this little tiny concrete hut and we loved it. We had no materials with us so [my wife] Arlene began to draw. I made a series of paintings with glue and earth and shellac and whatever I could find. From then on we started renting houses and we took more materials with us. We said we had to have our instruments. We found a wonderful house with two big outbuildings that used to be a weaving studio. And I had a big studio and Arlene had a big studio, and we made a farm. We had 15 chickens, two pigs, because in Mexico you can afford to do that. And we had a corn field. We had a pet donkey that we loved. I did some of my best work there. I had been an abstract expressionist painter. We lived high in the mountains with indigenous people and farmers and began to learn Spanish. We spent 12 years there. It was the most wonderful part of our lives.
And then finally things began to change. We had no telephone, no television, none of that. Nothing to interfere. They began paving the roads, putting up street lights. We said this is not what we wanted. We wanted to live in the 19th century and now they’re bringing the 20th century even though it’s the 21st. So we came back. That’s when I started painting on paper because I don’t have room to store stretched canvases anymore. We have two storage closets loaded with artwork. I’m working. She’s working. And then I found InLiquid. And I think you’re the best thing that ever happened to an artist. Especially once my gallery closed. And you seem to be doing good things for me and I love you all.
Erica: That’s so nice to hear. What was the art scene like in Philadelphia when you were starting out versus today?
Lee: I thought it was terrible. We sold, not as much as I’d like to have sold. Arlene was selling life size sculptures, she had big commissions, and so we got along.
Painting a painting is the most wonderful thing for me. I love the exchange between the thing I’m painting on and me. This nonverbal dialogue that goes on. For instance I’ll do a painting and I’ll think it’s coming along fine and then it isn’t. And then I’ll wipe it down and I’ll see a magic being there and suddenly it takes off. I love the process of painting.
Erica: I love that description of what it is to paint. How often do you paint now?
Lee: Every day. Every morning. I have a routine. I’m 89 years old. I paint in the morning, have lunch, I take a nap, I get up, I study Spanish again, and I play jazz clarinet and I read. Life is good.
Erica: That sounds like the perfect day to me.
Lee: It is. I started playing clarinet when I was seven years old. Jazz is my third love. First is my wife, then painting, then my clarinet.
Erica: Can you tell me about the piece you’ll be donating to the Benefit this year?
Lee: It’s one of the paintings I did when we lived in Mexico. And one of the things that was so wonderful – we had all the mountains around us of course and the clouds would come down – big white clouds. And they would cover parts of the mountains and make them look almost abstract, broken up. And that’s what the painting is.
Press Bid to Play at Benefit 2016, February 5 – 6 at Crane Arts.