- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Artist Joseph Sheppard of Baltimore and Pietrasanta, Italy, strides purposefully into his solo exhibit at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). The gallery, located in the lower level of the UMUC Inn and Conference Center in Adelphi, is spacious enough for Mr. Sheppard's oversized works.
The tall, heavyset artist with white beard and ponytail is clearly delighted until he sees several round tables holding luncheon guests near the paintings. The visitors are members of an association meeting at the center. Mr. Sheppard, 72, diplomatically shrugs his shoulders. "I guess my art goes with the food," he says.
The exhibit, "Joseph Sheppard: 50 Years of Art" shows his larger paintings, including include several based on earlier work. "Over the past 50 years, I have painted and sold nearly 2,000 paintings," the artist says. "There were 20 that had special meaning to me as far as subject and composition. I recently reworked them on a larger scale and am showing them here."
The exhibit, part of a traveling display he organized, started in Pietrasanta, journeyed to several venues throughout Italy and then came to the United States. In addition to UMUC, sections of the traveling show can be viewed at the Walters Art Museum and Evergreen House of Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.
Mr. Sheppard points to paintings created from "old friends," such as "The Parade" with what he calls its "joie de vivre and golden girls"; "Rock and Roll," which he calls "incredibly frenetic"; and "Da Martick's," the Baltimore bar "where I lost a wife to the Dixieland band's drummer and sold my first painting."
Sitting at one of the now-empty lunch tables, Mr. Sheppard reminisces: "It all started with Mrs. John Garrett, the Baltimore art patron who not only collected, but brought Jacques Maroger to the Maryland Institute of Art from France." Mr. Maroger, the former technical director of the Laboratory of the Louvre, was renowned for rediscovering the oil-painting mediums of Jan van Eyck and other Flemish and Italian Renaissance painters.
"He taught us to paint with the old masters' mediums but also insisted we learn the traditional skills of drawing, perspective and anatomy. He made us copy famous paintings in the local museums. So, when I went to Italy on a Guggenheim [Fellowship], I felt right at home," the artist says.
He remembers also that New Yorker Reginald Marsh, a famous social-realist artist friend of Mr. Maroger's, came to sketch with the students. At the time, Mr. Sheppard was painting Baltimore street scenes but was afraid to put in figures. He liked painting single figures but hadn't tried groups.
"You'll never find out unless you try," Mr. Marsh told him. Mr. Sheppard did and began rendering Baltimore nightspots, rough neighborhoods where it was dangerous for whites to visit, and boxing prizefights, which have become his trademark. "Baltimore was heavily segregated at the time," the artist notes.
"I came from a family in Owings Mills that didn't have any money. I faced making a living realistically and sold paintings while I was still in school on scholarship. I knew I had to produce something to get something back," he says.
Fortunately, his sympathetic, highly detailed paintings of Baltimore nightspots, black neighborhoods and prizefighters all unpopular subjects for serious artists in the 1950s sold well from the beginning. (Paintings from the decade after he graduated from the Maryland Institute are on view at Evergreen House.)
He remembers that Mr. Maroger helped him and other former institute students exhibit at the Grand Central Gallery in New York and the Mount Vernon Club in Baltimore. Soon, the artist and his painter friends came to be known as the Baltimore Realists. On the strength of his reputation, he won his Guggenheim Fellowship to Europe in 1957. "By 1958, I had had one-person shows in Paris, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and New York," he recalls happily.
Mr. Sheppard had enough success by the 1970s to live first in Florence, Italy, and then to divide his time between Baltimore and Pietrasanta. "I had a wife who was a sculptor and wanted to live in Pietrasanta. So I went there, too, and began sculpting," he says.
Now married to interior designer Rita St. Clair he declines to specify his exact number of wives the artist appears happy with his two lives. He says he feels an intensification of his old-masters training when in Italy. The artist points to "Quinto's," a rowdy drinking and eating scene in a small Florentine trattoria reminiscent of paintings by Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer.
He sculpts, mainly in the Italian Renaissance mode, in Italy also. "Artists as different as Michelangelo and Isamu Noguchi worked at Pietrasanta because of the famous Carrara chain of marble," Mr. Sheppard emphasizes. The marble quarries and bronze casters drew him to the artists' colony and keep him working there.
He hasn't forgotten the importance of his Baltimore years, which he considers crucial to his development as an artist. "I felt I had to dig into the life of Baltimore in the 1940s and 1950s," Mr. Sheppard concludes, "because it touched me, and my feelings for humanity, so deeply.
He jumps up suddenly, looking at his watch.
"Oh, my gosh, I have to pick up Bianca at the vet by five, and there'll be all that traffic," he says apologetically and runs for the door. m


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