Leslie LePere was already a well-known Northwest artist in 1980 when he decided to call it quits living in Seattle. The then-34-year-old moved back to Eastern Washington to pitch in with running the family farm in his hometown of Harrington, population 400.
He moved back to the rural wheat fields of his youth just three months after Mount St. Helens had erupted. The town was still in upheaval from the disaster.
“I came back to Harrington because I knew I could use farming to support my art habit,” said LePere. The artist-farmer was born in Spokane, but raised in Harrington. Now 71, he still lives in the 1953 brick farmhouse his parents built.
LePere made a name for himself in Seattle and beyond, using his colored pencils to create highly original book covers for edgy, best-selling authors, including Tom Robbins’ “Still Life with Woodpecker” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” He was the Northwest “it guy” when it came to poster art. His 1970s Seattle Bumbershoot and Fat Tuesday posters were iconic, and the first for both of those film and music festivals.
The work he did collaborating with fellow artist Ken Cory from 1966 to 1986 as “The Pencil Brothers” challenged abstract expressionist themes of the 1960s, and helped define the American Northwestern narrative jewelry aesthetic. LePere’s Pencil Brothers’ works can be found in the Racine Art Museum, LA County Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, and the Boston Art Museum, among others.
LePere became known as a reactionary in the art world, employing precise lines and bright colors to represent recognizable subject matter at a time when abstract expressionism was all the rage. Even his thesis for his MFA at Washington State University was titled “Standard Objects as the Subject.”
“An appreciation for recognizable subject matter is my underpinning, my foundation, my cat’s meow,” LePere laughed. “That’s the flag that I fly!”
“There’s some abstract art I like, don’t get me wrong, but we (The Pencil Brothers) were reacting to the abstract works we thought didn’t deserve so much acclaim,” LePere added. “Frankly, some abstracts were real yawners.”
Through his design firm Sandy Parr, LePere continues to create hand inlaid champlevé enamel emblems exploring the mystery and shapes of real things. He has incorporated meticulous designs into ball markers, pins, and fine jewelry for golf and ski resorts, nonprofit organizations, and businesses of all kinds, including local nonprofits such as the Spokane Symphony and Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox. He creates cards, packaging and logos that tell a narrative tale for organizations based on their histories and personal biographies. He is currently working with an author on a children’s book and illustrations for the narrative history of Shepherd’s Grain company, among other things.
LePere has strong opinions about some of the popular illustrators and designers he sees prevalent today. He calls himself “old-fashioned when it comes to brand recognition.”
“I’ve grown tired and disgusted with the concept that if you have a computer you can be a designer, cutting and pasting art that takes away from the handmade, hand-done, hand-rendered images,” LePere said.
“Also, that artist who has designed the work, has listened to a business person, or the author, or maybe another artist, and has used that information to glean the point of departure for the piece,” LePere continued. “Rather than automatically plugging something in that nobody knows anything about.”
Artist-farmer LePere knows a lot about a lot of things. By day, he uses a tractor to till the earth and pliers to fix engines. By night, he employs pencils to draw pictures and hammers to flatten copper. LePere likes the repetition of both farm work and art work. He likes the strangeness of being both an artist and a farmer. But art has always been paramount.
Since having three stents placed in his heart 19 months ago, for the first time, LePere felt weary at the drawing board. He complained to his big sister, celebrated Spokane fiber artist Lousie Kodis, with whom he talks almost daily. But he didn’t get a lot of sympathy from his older sibling.
“She said, ‘Well, Leslie, some of the rest of us are getting older too,’” LePere chuckled. “That made me so mad.”
Fortunately, the past couple of months have energized LePere, as his strength and concentration have returned. He is back at work, a little slower, but as accomplished as ever. His latest show – his first since his 2013 retrospective “Magic of the Objects” at the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University – launches with an all-day event this Saturday morning, in Harrington. The show opens at the town’s only coffee shop, the Post & Office.
Two other former Seattleites, couple Heather and Justin Slack, opened the coffee shop last October. The Slacks are among a new crop of young people inspiring LePere as they leave big city problems behind to embrace small town life in places such as Harrington.
“You could barely get Wonder Bread and Vienna sausages in this town for a while there,” LePere said. “The Slacks have injected good energy into Harrington and are contributing to a revitalization.”
Gonzaga fine arts graduate Slack said that opening a coffee shop was never something she dreamed of doing in Seattle. But after moving to Harrington and becoming involved in local government and schools, she and her husband sensed a gap. The atmosphere felt stagnant without a common gathering place. They bought the old post office downtown and renovated it into a public space that sold coffee, hoping to promote community.
“We wanted to create a space where people could run into each other and meet face to face,” Slack said.
The shop now hosts chamber of commerce meetings, crafting meetings, watercolor painting classes, hand lettering classes and a vintage Christmas sale. There was even a workshop on how to use Instagram. LePere’s exhibition will be the shop’s first art show.
“What’s exciting is that not everybody realizes all the great things (LePere’s) done, so it’s an opportunity for us to feature something that is local and that really isn’t getting the attention that it deserves,” Slack said.
LePere’s show will run through May. However, the artist will be on hand to autograph works at the Post & Office from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday as part of Harrington’s 7th annual car show, Cruizin’ Harrington at The Studebaker Garage. There will also be live music, food trucks, a beer garden, a communitywide yard sale, a quilt show at the Opera House, a rummage sale at Harrington School put on by the Parent Teacher Association, and a plant sale behind the school in the greenhouse put on by the Future Farmers of America.
There will be many magical objects to explore. All local, of course.