By Donna Doherty, New Haven Register
POSTED: 11/04/13, 11:47 AM EST | UPDATED: 10 SECS AGO
NORTH HAVEN >> Leonardo da Vinci has nothing on Maurice Sapiro, except perhaps expertise in botany and math, and while Da Vinci’s genius ruled the 15th century, Sapiro is arguably a candidate for a digital age Renaissance Man.
The former North Haven music educator is far too humble to think he should be mentioned in the same breath as an artist historians have called the most talented of all time, but he could give him a run for diversity and curiosity.
The musician turned artist as well as half a dozen other paths of interest, recently opened “Where The Land Sweeps The Sky,” a new show of his works at Eastern Connecticut State University’s Akus Gallery in Willimantic — what he jokingly calls “the 70th anniversary of my first exhibit when my fourth-grade teacher put my watercolor in the butcher’s window.”
The self-taught 81½-year-old painter, who works mostly in oils now, says that it was in France while playing trumpet with the 279th Army Band, that he realized that “painting was going to be part of my life. A lifelong obsession — that explains it,” he says in the living room of his home, where his paintings and his many eye-catching ceramic works are displayed.
“I learned by looking, by going to museums, going through trial and error in the process of learning to paint. I read every art book that was available. I would explore museums, and certain paintings would call to me. It may have been more time consuming, but in the long run, it was more valuable.”
And then three years ago, his son and webmaster, John Sapiro, made him an internationally known artist through the magic of the World Wide Web.
“I came kicking and screaming into the computer age,” Sapiro laughs of his website www.mauricesapiro.com, where John started posting images of Sapiro’s works to sell. “I said I was temperamentally unsuited for it, but John gets me involved in Facebook, Pinterest, Linked In. He posts everyday. He manages the site and email and set up a PayPal account.
“In the ensuing years, I am up to 100,000 views, and I have contacts from almost every country in the world. He got me a contact from Saatchi online and Artfinder in London, and suddenly there’s a commercial demand for the paintings … He made this whole miracle happen.
“… Self-representation wasn’t possible before the Web, and now anything is possible. I get letters from London and Germany, I have fans in Egypt and Russia. My very first fan was a girl in Slovakia.”
John says, “I think at first the two of us just thought that it would be fun, and we wanted something we could do together. … As more and more people became interested in his paintings, I realized it would be my way of sort of paying him back for having to support a family and not realize his lifelong dream of being a painter.”
Sapiro, who has been painting for more than 60 years, calls painting his obsession, but the wide-ranging curiosity of the educator’s mind has sent him down plenty of paths to explore.
He has worked in etchings, lithograph press, silkscreen, watercolors, photogravure, always driven, he says, by “the process,” not only in painting.
His two clay manuals have sold more than 48,000 copies. Like da Vinci, a fascination with optics drove him to build a machine to grind mirrors to make his own telescope.
A few years ago at the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, he says whenever the guard turned his back, he sneaked out his tape measure to measure its 15th-century Italian harpsichord, so that he could build his own replica at home, a project which took two years.
It’s now in the basement, but at the time, “I sat at it in front of the window, where I would start each morning by playing Beethoven while looking out at the snow,” he says of the music chapter in his life, which has since closed because of deafness.
Sapiro calls the Akus exhibit his “crowning achievement.” Roxanne M. Deojay, the gallery’s assistant director, found him online and contacted him in May about doing this show, which opened Oct. 24 with Sapiro’s tearful dedication of it to Sally, his wife of 52 years, who died just a year ago.
He says his first response to the call was, “Someone’s got to be kidding. Am I on ‘Candid Camera’?” But Deojay backed up a truck to the house and carted off 80-plus paintings for the show.
Forty years ago, his nascent career with several gallery shows in Manhattan and representation by The Davis Gallery from 1957-1960, and a favorable New York Times review, seemed to be off and running.
“But just as soon as it started, it abruptly stopped,” he says, as abstract expressionism became the style du jour and representational art fell out of trend.
A new marriage and family responsibilities forced Sapiro to lay down his brushes and give up his painting dream. He started teaching music, and for the next 40 years, had only what he calls “minor brushes with success,” one of them when Jeff Cooley of The Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme, gave him two one-man shows.
When he retired from teaching in 1996, Sapiro started painting full time “just to fulfill my inner need.” Sapiro found himself painting all day everyday — the lushly and complexly layered oils that take almost a year to finish using an overpainting process — dreamy landscapes and skyscapes with points or sweeps of other-worldly light in them, what Sapiro calls trying to “get atmosphere in the painting.”
“The magic occurs when you take 10 steps back, because the abstract flecks of pigment become reality, “ he says. “It starts with an interest in the process and at some point, it becomes an interest in capturing light and air.”
Sapiro, who is still having a hard time with losing his wife, says his son saved his life by giving him this new career avenue.
And, in a metaphor which could describe both his paintings and that lifeline, he says, “Painting is a lot like administering CPR. You keep working on it until it’s breathing on its own.”
Contact Donna Doherty at 203-789-5672.
Title: “Where The Land Sweeps The Sky – A Retrospective Selection of Oil Paintings: Maurice Sapiro
Where: Akus Gallery, Shafer Hall, Eastern Connecticut State University, 83 Windham St., Willimantic
When: Through Dec. 12; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 1-7 p.m. Thursdays, 2-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Info: 860-465-4659, http://www.easternct.edy/akusgallery
ABOUT THE AUTHOR