American Society of Marine Artists profile of Lisa Egeli


Notes from Brush Hill, by A.S.M.A. Fellow Charles Raskob Robinson

January, 2009

Three decades and a year ago, Charles Lundgren, the founder of the American Society of Marine Artists, sat in his basement studio in his pre- Revolutionary home in northwestern Connecticut with a dozen fellow artists gathered around a two-plank table for the first formal meeting of the Society. I can remember three things very clearly about that meeting: First, there was the setting – a windowless basement cell with Charlie’s easel and drafting table in one corner, walls lined with research books and ship models and a Franklin stove in another corner gasping for what little oxygen was left in air so thick with blue pipe, cigar and cigarette smoke you could hardly see from one end of the poorly lit room to the other. Second, there were the hours of talk – talk about the need for a marine artist society, talk about how it should be organized and talk about all of the wondrous things the new Society would accomplish. Mostly, it was about the latter and I was increasingly amazed at the scope of the ambition expressed. At the time, I was a banker by day and very conscious of the “bottom line” and by night, a fledging artist so I knew I was way out of my league in this company. Lest I be discovered and evicted, I had remained silent throughout the meeting but after four hours of talk that evidenced no “bottom line” reality, I finally spoke. “How do you gentlemen plan to pay for all of this?” I asked. The resulting silence was finally broken by Charlie Lundgren, who took the hallmark corncob pipe from his mouth and said, “Gentlemen, we have found our Treasurer!” (It took me twenty years to shed that honor and I have been cautious about speaking in the Society ever since.) But it was the third remembrance that has been most substantive over the following years as I watched the Society struggle to find its way and fulfill its goals. Again, it was Charlie. He reminded us at the end of the meeting – by way of bringing us all back to Earth and leaving us with a simple but basic mission statement for the Society, “Gentlemen, remember we are doing this for the kids.” The “kids” he had in mind were the young professional artists who had chosen to pursue art and, within that world, marine subjects. At the time I was in my late thirties and did not think of myself as a “kid” but have come to realize that from Charlie’s vantage point, anyone under forty was a “kid.” Two decades and a year ago “Lisa” – as Elizabeth L. Egeli is known personally and professionally – graduated from art school and, as a “kid,” set out to discover her new career in a practical but varied and colorful way. Lisa is now a successful and recognized artist – and no longer qualifies as a “kid.” So it is appropriate to ask her what advice, based on her own experience as a “kid,” she would offer to one who is just beginning her or his career. Without hesitation she said, “Work really hard and don’t give up. Do the best you can possibly do. But most of all, find the love.” Asked what this latter point about “love” means, she says, “This is what my father, Peter Egeli – who has been my most important art teacher over the years – used to tell me and I, too, didn’t really understand what he meant at the time but I have come to appreciate more fully the meaning and wisdom of his counsel over the years. He would tell me that given the same level of talent, experience and skill, the only difference between a really good artist and a mediocre one is love of art.” Although little known today, one of the most popular writers at the turn of the 20th Century was John Burroughs (1837 – 1921). He was born in the Catskill Mountains of New York and from there did much of his writing about nature – sort of the John Muir of the East but lower key in manner and prose. His writings led millions to the wilderness, forests and parklands and he was a close friend of the great conservationist, President Theodore Roosevelt. Much of what Burroughs offers is what Lisa learned on her own as she first sought to find “the love” and then as she came to know it. In an essay entitled “The Art of Seeing Things” Burroughs said: “The science of anything may be taught or acquired by study; the art of it comes by practice or inspiration. The art of seeing things is not something that may be conveyed in rules and precepts; it is a matter vital in the eye and ear, yea, in the mind and soul, of which these are the organs. I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love. Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it. Even the successful angler seems born, and not made; he appears to know instinctively the ways of trout. The secret is, no doubt, love of the sport. Love sharpens the eye, the ear, the touch; it quickens the feet, it steadies the hand, it arms against the wet and the cold. What we love to do, that we do well. To know is not all; it is only half. To love is the other half. . . Nothing can take the place of love. Love is the measure of life: only so far as we love do we really live.” (Italics mine.)12 This is the story of a young artist who set out to find if she was born with the love of art – like the successful angler was born with the love of trout. It is an informative and interesting tale especially for the “kids” among us. But first we should note that Lisa is the third generation of a family of outstanding artists, something quite extraordinary in American art. We all know about the three generations of Wyeth artists (Newell Convers “N.C.” Wyeth (1882 -1945), his son, Andrew Newell “Andy” Wyeth (b. 1917), and his son James Browning “Jamie” Wyeth (b. 1946) and Jamie’s aunt and uncle artists, Carolyn Wyeth and Henriette (Wyeth) Hurd, and Peter Hurd and John McCoy) and we in the Society have our own three-generation Blossom family of artists (Earl Blossom (1891 – 1970), his son David J. Blossom (1927 – 1995) and his son Christopher Travis Blossom (b. 1956) who is a Fellow and past-president of the Society). But few, if any, families of American artists have generated so many professional artists as has the Maryland-based Egeli family. The dynasty began when Bjorn Peter Egeli (1900 – 1984) at the age of fifteen immigrated to this country as an accomplished artist from Norway and eventually married artist Lois Baldwin (1908 – 1993). At one time, all five children were professional artists and two of these joined our Society – Mary Lois Egeli Ekroos (b. 1941) Artist Member and Peter Even Egeli (b. 193.) Fellow and past President of our Society. Peter married artist Elizabeth Stuart “Stu” W. (b. 194.) and Lisa (b. 1966) is their daughter – one of four in the third generation who are professional artists.13 In 1985 Lisa participated in “The Egeli Family Exhibition: The Fine Art of Eleven Family Artists.”14 That was nearly twenty-five years ago but even then the Exhibition Catalog was able to boast that the “Egeli family has produced well over 2,000 portraits, murals, landscapes and marine paintings. Of the portraitures, most notable would be those of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, Generals MacAuthur and Kates, Admirals Burke and Turner plus cabinet members, court judges, physicians corporate presidents and celebrities.” And the tradition continues with many more names added since. Among these, I can proudly report, Peter Egeli did a portrait of my wife, Barbara Paul Robinson, the first woman President of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the nation’s oldest bar. More recently, Peter just completed a portrait of Admiral Mike Mullen, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A Born Artist? It was not clear from the beginning that Lisa was a born artist. She arrived September , 1966 followed by a brother, Peter Stuart, on August , 1968. “One of my earliest memories was playing with scraps of mat board with my brother Stuart in our father’s studio while he painted. I did drawings on my scraps but it was nothing of consequence whereas my brother was very focused on using his scraps to make every configuration of airplane he could. He was fascinated with anything that flew. He was a born pilot and knew his love early on.” Stuart, indeed, went on to graduate from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1992 and become a Navy Aviator; better yet, he married his classmate navigator, Amy Delavan. 15 “Actually, I did little painting before the age of fourteen. At that time I had taken up charcoal and pen and ink drawings of raptors – falcons, eagles and the like – and my mother suggested that I put them in a local country store for Christmas and they sold. Retrospectively, it is interesting for me that I was first drawn to nature and wildlife as subject matter – something that would resurface in my career and which I have become increasingly interested in pursuing.” Lisa grew up in St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay; the Ark and the Dove brought the first settlers to St. Mary’s City in 1634 and it remained the colonial capitol until 1695 when politics moved it to its current location in Annapolis.16 She attended her local high school in Leonardtown for two years before transferring to St. Timothy’s School in Stevenson, MD, a girl’s school north of Baltimore. “My two years there were really my first serious exposure to formal art teaching. They had a great facility – the “Art Barn” – and an exceptional teacher, Cathy Hunter. Out of my graduating class of thirty-six, it is impressive how many are now professional artists.” Finding the Love in Art Following graduation from St. Timothy’s in 1984, Lisa enrolled at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, VA a bit to the west of her home in St. Mary’s County, MD. She was there for two years and then decided she would rather pursue art exclusively so, after looking at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA (where her cousin artist Arthur Bjorn Egeli went), the Art Institute in Chicago and others, Lisa settled on the American Academy of Art in Chicago where she began in 1986. She was attracted to its distinguished faculty and the emphasis the school placed the classical academic tradition from its founding in 1923. “It was all very exciting for me – not only the school but living in the middle of a big and dynamic city – quite a change for a country girl. But it was also the fact that I was out of the Egeli art environment and exposed to other approaches. It was a fundamental education in art – from the basics in drawing and design to color value and theory to painting techniques – all very focused.” Asked if any of her teachers stood out in her recollection, without hesitation she cited Ted Smuskiewicz (b. 1932) who also schooled at the American Academy of Art and who has spent his career painting, teaching and writing about art. “He taught figure and portraiture and I still have one of his books right here in my studio since I find it so useful, Creative Painting of Everyday Subjects.17 And there was Dale Popovich, also a graduate of the Academy, who taught fundamentals – perspective, values, color, etc.18 Ted and Dale had different approaches from what I was used to and I admired that.” Lisa also had Richard Schmid (b. 1934) in lecture classes; Schmid is widely recognized for his teaching and writing.19 In June 1988 Lisa graduated from the Academy and stayed on in the Windy City to pursue freelance illustration and commercial art until January of the following year when she returned to Maryland where she got a job as an illustrator with R. Mark Heath Design in Baltimore. For two years this was her day-job while at night and on weekends she painted portraits. “Just about every weekend I was back at my parents’ house where my dad would give me pointers about portraiture. He also referred some business my way and I began to generate other commissions. All the while, I was savsaving all I could for my big trip.” And a big trip it was – actually more of an Odyssey where Lisa set out to travel the globe over a period of nine months to paint and sketch and to answer the important question: Would she find love for art? Would art be her profession? “In the spring of 1991 I bought a round-the-world ticket, gave my cat, Maxfield Parish to my parents (I was all about Maxfield Parish for the longest time20), packed a backpack, a camera and film, a set of pastels, a watercolor kit and paper tablets and set off. As I filled the tablets with finished pastels and watercolor paintings, I mailed them and my exposed film back to my parents. (Surprisingly, all of these packages made it back home.)” Lisa landed in London but soon boarded a ferry to Norway, from whence her grandfather had come over seventyfive years before. She took coastal steamers, trains and buses all about Scandinavia before heading south to the Netherlands, France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. In the fall, she flew from Germany to India where she spent a month traveling by train, bus and, yes, even three days by camel. Landing in the capitol, New Delhi, she visited Agra to see and sketch the Taj Mahal, went on to Jaipur, the capitol of Rajasthan state whose prevalent use of a rose-colored stone earned it the appellation the “Pink City,” continued on to record Udaipur, the famous “City of Lakes” and to Jaisalmer on the Great Thar Desert of Rajasthan. She also visited Varanasi on the Ganges – the famous pilgrimage spot for Hindus and the oldest living city in the world – en route to Nepal. One should note that many of the countries of the “East” that Lisa visited – especially those in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China – are no longer recognizable. When Lisa traveled there in the early ’Nineties, these countries were still in the early stages of “emerging” – she saw them before globalization robbed them of their distinctness (and breathable air). It was still quite an adventure for a Westerner – especially a young, attractive, single American woman traveling alone – to visit many of the out-of-the way places Lisa went. Recall that at the time Hong Kong was still part of the British Empire and “Mainland” or “Red” were adjectives that still preceded “China.”21 Lisa continued east, flying from India to Thailand where she toured the southern reaches of that country before moving on to Malaysia and Singapore. She reached Hong Kong by December, obtained a visa for the “Mainland” and began her ambitious tour of China, including Yangshuo and Guilin in magically beautiful southern China, Beijing in the north and then to Dali City, the 14th Century gateway to the famous Silk Road in Yunnan in Southwest China. “I sketched and painted all the while and even did some portraits. It was a great way to break the language barrier! I then returned to Hong Kong and went on to beautiful New Zealand where I spent five weeks traveling both the North and South Islands and decompressing from East Asia. And then on to Hawaii and the West Coast where I bought a car and drove home to Maryland, arriving in March, 1992.” “The trip gave me a chance to decide whether or not I wanted to do art; it gave me a chance to step way outside my home environment and make a judgment and important decision. I decided that I really liked this ‘art thing.’” She had found “love” and did not waste any time pressing on with her chosen career. “I got back to my parents’ home, reviewed all of the sketches, pastels and slides I had mailed back and began some portrait commissions that were lined up for me. I used my mother’s studio that is next to my father’s and worked in this manner for a few months until I moved back to Baltimore to resume freelance illustration while continuing to grow my portrait work. In 1994 or 1995 I took a studio in an old mill building in Baltimore. By the late ’Nineties I was able to start turning down illustration work and focus more exclusively on my fine art and portrait painting.” Over the next ten years she would accomplish a lot to establish her reputation both on the portrait and nature fronts. In 1998 Lisa picked up on her travels again and, armed with the usual artist’s tools, traveled for three weeks in Alaska. “I spent five or six days alone living in Forest Service cabins in the Copper River Delta and also painted Denali. It was incredibly inspiring. Yes, it was summer and the mosquitoes were serious – I had a mosquito coil affixed to my palette and wore mosquito netting over my head. I would have made quite a sight but for the fact no one was around to see me!” Three years later, in 2001, she made two trips to Italy – Venice and Tuscany – and generated more paintings. In 2003 the Georgia Department of Natural Resources awarded her Artist Residency at Ossabaw Island.22 The same year Arts for the Parks chose her among their top 100 artists and the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown, MD exhibited her work. The next year she appeared in the National Juried Exhibition of the Oil Painters of America while in 2005 she earned an Award of Merit at the Paint Annapolis Exhibition23, participated in the “Mostly Maine” Exhibition at the Sherry French Gallery in New York City and was featured again at the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown, MD. In each of the next two years on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay she participated in the Plein Air-Easton Exhibition on the Eastern Shore sponsored by the Academy Art Museum and others. In 2007, she was awarded the “Best Pastoral Painting.” And last year she was very busy: A solo show in Baltimore; an exhibition in the Thos. Moser Showroom in Washington, D.C.; another National Juried Exhibition of the Oil Painters of America in Missoula, MT; participation in the week-long Telluride Plein Air Celebration of Outdoor Painting in July in Colorado; and, she gave landscape demonstration lessons to the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters’ Association just outside Annapolis, MD. And, of course, Lisa had her oil painting Low Tide, Zanzibar juried into the Thirtieth Anniversary Exhibition of the American Society of Marine Artists that opened in Wilmington, DE and is traveling to museums in four other states before it concludes in September 2009. Given all of this, it is no wonder that her work is found in a number of private and public collections. 24 Understanding the Love in Art The Role of Observation But during the years since Lisa knew she had found love in art, she was also exploring its various facets and getting to know it better. “Over the last fifteen years or so – ever since I knew that art is what I wanted to devote my life to – I have become much more sophisticated about the field yet I still am learning so much. I think I shall forever be a student! I continue to refine what it is I want out of my paintings and I find I am willing to work longer to get it – whether plein air painting or in the studio. And fundamental to the whole process is observation. I have always been an observer by my nature and observation has been the path of my career in art. It is through observation that a subject or scene makes an impact on me and I, in turn, try to convey this to my canvas.” These words would be music to the ear of the aforementioned writer and naturalist, John Borroughs for he said, “The eye sees what it has the means of seeing, and its means of seeing are in proportion to the love and desire behind it. The eye is informed and sharpened by the thought.” He cites his son’s love of ducks as an example but he could be referring to Lisa’s love of art. “My boy sees ducks on the river where and when I cannot, because at certain seasons he thinks ducks and dreams ducks.”25 Lisa cites her father as she acknowledges the importance of developing the ability to visualize a painting in one’s “mind’s eye” – Burroughs’ “the eye sees what it has the means of seeing.” “Through observation,” Lisa notes, “I am able to follow what I see and find the vision that I try to get into paint. But it must resonate!” Artist’s Relationship to Nature “While I have my ‘wish list’ of paintings to do in my head, I find potential paintings when a place strikes me and stays in my head,” Lisa continues. “It has to hit me hard to make a good painting and I find more opportunities by going to beautiful places – whether at home or afar.” Again, Burroughs would agree and encourage Lisa in her quest for he wrote, “Human and artificial sounds and objects thrust themselves upon us; they are within our sphere, so to speak: but the life of nature we must meet halfway; it is shy, withdrawn, and blends itself with a vast neutral background. We must be initiated; it is an order the secrets of which are well guarded.”26 Lisa lives on a creek that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay; subject matter is at hand. “I have to take a break after so many hours in the studio and just go outside back into nature. Actually, I have been doing more and more outdoors painting locally. But after months of local subjects, I find the contrast of going to a ‘foreign’ place stimulating – it helps strengthen the powers of observation since it is different. Last year, for instance, after months of painting around the Chesapeake, painting for a week in Telluride, CO was a great experience – even though it didn’t have any water! I love water. It must be my Norwegian blood and the fact that I have always been around water. Even while at art school in Chicago, I had Lake Michigan. So it was natural that I would want to be a member of ASMA. And the places I would like to go in the future to paint are all marine: the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, Antarctica (where the light, water, rock and ice must be fascinating), the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador and, of course back to Scandinavia. I am building a 15’ New Zealand-designed Hartley runabout27 that I shall keep in my creek and use to get around the Bay. But where ever I am – ‘foreign’ or local – being alone with nature is what it is all about; the experience is so valuable and provides rich food for painting.” Lisa is fortunate to have found a partner, Jacqueline Savitz, who shares her enthusiasm for nature and water. Actually, Jackie has also found a profession that allows her to work in and for the benefit of nature for she is the Senior Director of Pollution Campaigns for Oceana, the largest international environmental advocacy group dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. She works in Washington D.C. where Oceana is headquartered but travels widely and has a telecommuting arrangement with the firm that allows her to spend much of the winter in Florida where Lisa has earned a three-month residency with the Art Center / South Florida for each of the last four years. The mission of the Center is to advance the knowledge and practice of contemporary visual arts and culture in South Florida through education, exhibition and public outreach programming and to provide affordable workspace for outstanding visual artists in all stages of career development. Warm winter weather coupled with beautiful environments such as the Everglades have given Lisa a great deal of opportunity for direct painting of subjects in nature. The Painting Process: Plein Air and in the Studio Although Lisa still uses pastels for some portrait work, she rarely uses watercolors anymore; oil is now her preferred medium. There are differences in her approach when she paints in her studio or plein air. For plein air, she uses mostly untoned Claussen’s #13 linen mounted on panels in the 8” x 10” to 12” x 16” range although she is trying to work up to 16” x 20”28 and an Open Box M Pochade Box easel configuration.29 “I will draw the image if its properties are difficult but otherwise I’ll start drawing with a brush, first blocking in a tonality using a burnt sienna and ultramarine blue for the shadows. Once the tone is set, I start to get the colors in. I am particularly interested in mood so capturing the atmosphere and lighting of the time of day is important. I’ll use layering if necessary but I try to keep it airy and colorful – aspects that you see when you are working outside. In the end, the basic drawing (with brush or pencil) is important as well as the tonality and values in making the whole work feel natural and organic. Sometimes I have to go back and adjust certain aspects to capture this ‘together’ feeling.” “I use as little medium as possible – and then it’s turpentine and linseed oil. I sometimes use a ‘hatching’ stroke – short little brush strokes/lines that are like wavelets; these allow me to get more complex colors without losing what is underneath. I keep an example of ‘hatching’ by Dennis Miller Bunker (1861 – 1890) right next to my easel. He was an American Impressionist painter who used this technique in his land and seascapes.”30 In contrast to several of her plein air techniques, Lisa’s studio work is more studied. “My work there is more methodical and thought through. I do much more sketching in preparation for the painting and these include oil and can be as small as 2” x 3” on up to 6” x 10” – quite in contrast to the size of some of my finished studio work like a 30’ x 60” painting I did of the Everglades. In the studio I do more layering but it is not super textural. The works tend to focus on subtle relationship and balance where as the outdoor paintings tend to have a more Impressionist look to them.” Perhaps it is not surprising, given Lisa’s love of nature, wild places and fascination with moods of time and light, that she is attracted to the work of Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900), George Inness (1825 – 1894) Joaquin Sorolla (1863 – 1923), Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823 – 1880), and Sydney Laurence (1865 – 1940), among others. Of these, our readers probably least know Laurence but he is one of Alaska’s most beloved historical and nature painters. Born in Brooklyn, NY, he studied at the Art Students’ League and exhibited for many years before moving to the artist colony at St. Ives, Cornwall, England where he showed his work at the Royal Society of British Artists as well as at the Salon in Paris. In 1904 he left these comfortable cradles of civilization to become a prospector in the Territory of Alaska and gave up painting for several years. But he took up the brushes again and by 1920 was Alaska’s best known painter, documenting a wide range of what he saw – from what was then called Mt. McKinley (Denali) to natives, miners, trappers, coastal scenes and ships. Lisa experienced some of the life he knew in the wilderness and saw a retrospective exhibition of his work while she was painting in Alaska. One can look at the love of art a number of ways – the love of the creative experience of producing art, the love of the subject one is rendering into art or the love of the profession and way of life itself. Through the lens of experience Lisa now sees all of these facets in her father’s counsel about the importance of love in art. But she also puts a maternal twist on it. “I love the whole thing now – the subject matter, the experience and the way of life. And I am definitely enjoying it! My canvases are what are in my head and heart. These are my kids – my life.” Charles Raskob Robinson is a Fellow of the Society. He paints at Brush Hill, a studio built in 1752, located in Washington, CT and formerly owned by New Mexico artist Eric Sloane. Some of Charlie’s work may be seen on his website at: www.brushhillstudios. com.

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