- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Half a century ago, Baltimore art student Joseph Sheppard was desperately poor and painting pictures of his neighbors. While trading art for sandwiches at a sub shop called Harley's, he limned friends living in the city's predominantly black "tenderloin" district family parades, burlesque queens in bars, and boxers at Mack Lewis' gym.
Mr. Sheppard gave "life" to Baltimore then, and the city is returning that gift to him now. Three venues in the area are honoring the internationally and nationally celebrated artist with significant exhibits. The Gallery of the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) in Adelphi shows the large, traveling show "Joseph Sheppard: 50 Years of Art" that features his most recent work (through March 16). Smaller exhibits include the Walters Art Gallery's "Ringside: The Boxing Paintings and Sculptures of Joseph Sheppard" (until March 9), and Evergreen House of Johns Hopkins University, "Joseph Sheppard: The Early Years," a display of his colorful street scenes and genre works.
Mr. Sheppard was and is an artist who passionately works in the age-old tradition of realistic figurative art. He rejected abstraction and other art-world fashions throughout his career. Social-realist artist Reginald Marsh, a frequent Baltimore visitor, encouraged the young painter to meld the single human figure with Baltimore's jazzy crowds. The suggestion would influence Mr. Sheppard's signature style and ensure his eventual success.
In the early 1940s, Baltimore had emerged as an important center for realism. The movement centered around the Maryland Institute of Art, where Mr. Sheppard was a leading student.
The young artist made his name as a sympathetic recorder of Baltimore's people and cityscape. That reputation won him a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 to paint in Italy. It was also the beginning of a love affair with that country, where he now spends half the year in a home he built with his wife, interior designer Rita St. Clair.
Later, Mr. Sheppard also developed a thriving portrait business, painting former President Bush; William Donald Schaefer, the former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor and current state comptroller; and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat; as well famed Baltimore stripper Blaze Starr. Many know the artist solely through these portraits.
His most important work has been in Baltimore, New York and Washington. As a public artist, Mr. Sheppard created murals for Baltimore's police department, banks and public parks. In the 1980s, he made the moving sculpture that is now part of the Holocaust Memorial in downtown Baltimore. Several of the preparatory drawings are at his show at UMUC.
The Baltimore area exhibits, however, trumpet a single truth, loud and clear: that his heart resides in Baltimore, in its seedy bars and strip joints and the people he knew long ago. His works, also, almost always symbolize the clash of good and evil.
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Mr. Sheppard, now 72, loved boxing when he was younger and painted middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson in 1962. He did a powerful repaint of the work just two years ago, which is now on view at the Walters.
Mr. Robinson is the quintessential aggressor even killer. Every one of the champion's muscles in the painting throbs. His arms and legs tense. Light bounces off the shiny brown skin, gold shorts and brown-gold shoes. Legs slightly apart, he plants his feet firmly in the ring. A towel draped over the boxer's head partly shades his face. He stares at his opponent, who looks as if he wilted before he even entered the ring.
Mr. Sheppard describes the encounter in "Joseph Sheppard: Fifty Years of Art," the UMUC's book about his work: "The bell rang and Sugar Ray's pomaded hair never got mussed up. One punch to the kidney and it was over."
The artist spent time at Mack Lewis' gym at Broadway and Eager Street in East Baltimore, where he made friends with such fighters as Ernie Fox. He had sparred with Mr. Fox at the gym and later witnessed him get killed during a fight at the Coliseum, Baltimore's boxing emporium.
In the intensely emotional "Descent from the Ring" (1999), also at the Walters, Mr. Sheppard made Mr. Fox a metaphor for Christ's crucifixion by showing Mr. Fox's trainers gently lowering his body through the ropes. "Descent" grips the viewer as few paintings do.
The tempo quickens at UMUC with his most recent paintings of teenage dancers rocking ("Rock and Roll"), stripteasers teasing ("Striptease") and blacks parading as youngsters sing and dance and dogs romp ("Parade"). Again, they're redos of earlier work.
The beat is frenetic with the intertwined rockers. They gyrate to the pulse of the music, an implied erotic meshing of males and females. The center woman in red, crowned with curling purple tresses, thrusts an arm high. Her male dance partner with spiky chartreuse hair pushes a leg close to her red tights and shoots his hands out in a weird Frankenstein's monster-like movement.
Mr. Sheppard highlights the posterior of another woman who's even stranger. With sagging tights and dreadlocks, she coolly confronts an even weirder looking man. A woman at left dances her way out of the painting.
The scene is a marriage of opposites. The men and women are weird but realistically recognizable. The musicians behind are ghostly and otherworldly. Could this be a scene out of hell as well as a Baltimore dance hall?
His "Stripper" exists in another world, as well. He painted her from behind. Light glances off her back, rear end and high-heeled legs. It pierces the diaphanous red shawl around her arms. Her hair flies in all directions. The artist lights up the men below with psychedelic red. Their leering faces identify them with an unsavory universe.
Washingtonians familiar with local artist Fred Folsom's iconic, 20-foot-long "Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go-Go Bar)," recently shown at the Arts Club, can see the differences. Mr. Folsom made his men crueler and more sadistic. His dancer, seen from the front on a raised platform, is both celebrant and victim. Both painters chose opposite, highly effective, ways of showing the subject.
By contrast to his stripper, Mr. Sheppard's enormously sized "Parade" is a paean to joy and life. Brightly dressed majorettes beam as they march, male trombone players follow and dogs and youngsters play exuberantly. Wow. The people of Baltimore's black ghetto are, literally, having a ball.
The artist, unfortunately, includes later works clearly inspired by his life in Italy. "Girl With Sheet" and "Odalisque" illustrate the dangers a painter of meticulous detail confronts. The figure in "Girl" looks like a calendar art nude. "Odalisque," probably a take on Francisco Goya's "Maja Desnuda (Maja Undressed)," is equally commercial. The quality of Mr. Sheppard's sculpture is equally uneven, especially that cast in Italy.
His apparent dual success and failure raises a familiar question. Does Mr. Sheppard teeter when he loses the stimulation of his artistic roots? It has happened to many artists.
The painter now appears more preoccupied with technique than feeling. This is a shame because the works inspired by and painted during his early days in Baltimore are first-rate and moving. Perhaps, in seeing his output of the last half-century, Mr. Sheppard will return to the nitty-gritty of his hometown.

WHAT: "Joseph Sheppard: 50 Years of Art"
WHERE: Gallery, Inn and Conference Center, University of Maryland University College (UMUC), 3501 University Blvd., Adelphi.
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, through March 16
TICKETS: Free
PHONE: 301/985-7642

WHAT: "Ringside: The Boxing Paintings and Sculptures of Joseph Sheppard"
WHERE: Walters Art Museum, N. Charles and Centre streets, Baltimore
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. the first Thursday of every month, closed Mondays, through March 9
TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 college students and young adults (18 to 25) with identification, free children 17 and under. Free admission for members, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays, all day the first Thursday of every month.
PHONE: 410/547-900WHAT: "Joseph Sheppard: The Early Years"
WHERE: Evergreen House, Johns Hopkins University, 4545 N. Charles St., Baltimore
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. weekends through Jan. 26
TICKETS: $6 adults, $5 seniors, $3 students
PHONE: 410/516-0341


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