Pencils. Tractors. Kitchen knives. Wooden spoons, bottle openers. Great pyramids, stone sphinxes, diesel engines.
Harrington, Wash., artist Leslie LePere, whose show is underway at the Jundt Art Museum, finds magic in objects – small and large, domestic and those found outdoors – that others find ordinary.
Their representation in his work may have started as a rebellion: When he was a student at Washington State University, in the 1960s and ’70s, his instructors emphasized abstract, “nonobjective” art, which made him want to draw real things.
A bicycle has grace, cattails charisma. The heft of a fork, the perk in a banana parked on a tractor dash, the surprising bend in a pencil – LePere’s 230 drawings, paintings, murals and other pieces at the Jundt illustrate not only real things, but his real admiration for them.
“I think maybe growing up on the farm, where form follows function, had a great deal to do with it,” LePere said. “I found myself falling in love with objects and shaped and recognizable things. To me, each of those recognizable things has a life, a karma, almost a philosophy of its own – thus magic.”
Residents of the Inland Northwest might know LePere’s work without knowing they know it.
Possibly familiar: The matchstick-bearing bird on the cover of Tom Robbins’ “Still Life with Woodpecker,” or the cowgirl on a moon in the author’s “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” The handshake and heart on the label for Shepherd’s Grain products. The chairs and teapots and candlesticks on posters for old Inland Craft Warnings events.
“You know that work, because it’s very singular, but you don’t really know the artist,” said Karen Kaiser, curator for education at the museum, on the campus of Gonzaga University. “This is an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who did this and this and this and this and this.’ ”
If Jundt hasn’t been busy mounting exhibitions of his work, he has been busy. LePere, 67, is a full-time farmer. He and a cousin grow soft white wheat on the 3,000-acre farm where LePere grew up, on land that’s been in his family for 80 years. The farm is 6 miles from Harrington, where he graduated from high school with a class of 24.
LePere returned to the farm after an eight-year, post-WSU stint in Seattle. He taught art at a private school and put on one-man gallery shows and made illustrations for an underground newspaper called the Seattle Flag.
He was “scraping out a meager existence” when his father asked him if he’d like to work the farm.
“One day I woke up and thought, ‘I think I could use farming to support my art habit,’ ” LePere said. It would give him independence and freedom and time to think, he thought. And it does.
While LePere is best known for commercial work, Kaiser said, he is a fine artist.
Among her favorites in the show is a 6-by-6-inch ink-and-pencil piece that looks out into the Harrington night through a kitchen window. The piece is both an interior and a landscape.
“No Kitsch Kitchen” packs dozens of objects into a small space. It’s part of a series of 6-by-6 pieces.
“They are just exquisite,” Kaiser said. “And everything about them is very personal. Every object has some sort of meaning and association. If you know anything about Les, you can trace his history by looking at these particular pieces. A lot of it has to do with the farm, but he also brings a lot of his world experience into that farm landscape.”
The pieces on display go back to a snowman LePere made in 1953, when he was 7, an 8-by-10. It’s a crayon drawing called “Snowman,” and he loves it. Work from LePere’s college years hangs alongside posters and illustrations and pieces he calls autobiographical narratives.
There’s also a Tom Robbins section. LePere has drawn the covers for 10 of his books; the cover for Robbins’ “Tibetan Peach Pie,” a memoir due out in 2014, hangs in LePere’s exhibition.
When the Jundt agreed to exhibit his work, LePere said, he panicked: He’d never have enough work for a gallery show. Once he’d gathered it up, from other people and his basement, he felt gratified.
“It surprised me that I was able to accomplish that much having a full-time job farming,” LePere said, “and it absolutely put a smile on my face and a song in my heart, to know that I was able to combine both loves and passions.”
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