By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun
8:49 AM EST, November 6, 2011
Somewhere along the way, Warren G. Sargent decided to stop giving away his watercolor paintings.
"As more and more of the old folks were gone and there were fewer new acquaintances to be had, it seemed like a good idea to keep them," the 93-year-old retired architect says.
As it turns out, that sentimental decision paved the way for a five-week exhibition of 17 of his landscapes at the Gary J. Arthur Community Center in Glenwood. The display has laid bare the walls of his nearby home of nearly 60 years and sent him back to the drawing board, he said.
"It's the first time I've seen them all together and it's just great," said Sargent, who recently took up painting again after a 15-year hiatus. The collection spans 20 years, he said, joking that he inherited his talent from artistic parents who "doused me with art and music once I got out of diapers."
The large, framed works of art line two main hallways of the center. They are not what you might expect from a busy architect who painted in his spare time while running a high-profile architectural firm in the Washington area, and it's clear the exhibit wasn't mounted as a kindness to an elderly member of the senior center.
The center has fielded "quite a few inquiries" as to whether the works of art are for sale, noted Regina Jenkins, the director of the facility's 50+ Center who calls Sargent "a celebrity."
"I have two in mind that I would redecorate my living room around if Mr. Sargent were willing to sell them to me," added Cathy Burkett, assistant director.
"These are my memories," Sargent said of the paintings, clearly flattered but still not planning to sell them. "It would be hard to part with them now."
And what wonderfully pristine places he has visited over a lifetime of traveling that began when he was 8 and used to tag along with his artist-musician father, Sam Sargent, on daylong painting trips taken in a Model T.
After graduating in 1941 with a degree in architecture from MIT and serving in the Navy for three years, Sargent's wanderlust continued into adulthood, when he owned an RV and a sailboat that slept six. Family camping trips to New York's Lake George were a favorite getaway.
"My wife and I raised our kids to be travelers" on land, sea and air, he said. Aside from trips by car and boat, mostly up and down the East Coast, he even built from scratch and piloted a two-seater airplane.
Fifteen of the paintings on display are seascapes; many capture the rugged waters, coves and shorelines of his New England destinations. He painted them in charming Maine towns like Pemaquid Point and Ogunquit, and in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts — his home state. His show also includes paintings of his favorite Maryland spots, Chesapeake Bay and Cunningham Falls, as well as landscapes done in New York and Nova Scotia.
Two paintings, autumn scenes, don't contain his favorite subject matter. "Fall foliage is picky stuff. You almost have to paint the individual leaves," he observed. "I guess I'm a broad-stroke, slapdash kind of guy."
In 1952, Sargent moved to Howard County from Massachusetts with his wife, Marguerite D. Ridgely. The couple settled on a 12-acre parcel in the Glenwood area that was given them by her parents. They built a house on Route 97 where he still resides; his wife died in 2008. A lifelong boater, he said the home resembles a boat's cabin with a 60-foot center hall and rooms opening off each side.
Sargent immersed himself in public service in Howard County as a member of two study commissions, one on charter government and the other on a county airport. He served as president of the Glenwood Lions Club, and also oversaw the restoration of historic Union Chapel in Glenwood.
But his five years on the county's Board of Education, from 1968 to 1972, stand out in his memories. They occurred at a crucial moment in county history, when the panel held meetings with James W. Rouse about building schools to handle the impending influx of population for his planned city of Columbia.
"The discussion centered on whether the county should place the buildings so that children could walk to school instead of being bused," Sargent said, which Rouse favored as an extension of his village center concept. The open-classroom model, which later fell out of favor in the county, was also a frequent topic, he recalled.
"There have certainly been a lot of changes in Howard County since I first moved here," he said.
While he kept busy in the community and with his family, which had expanded to include a son, Tom, and a daughter, Louanne, Sargent owned a Washington-area architectural firm from 1950 to 1984. He was responsible for such landmark structures as the Ocean City Convention Center and the art and sociology buildings at the University of Maryland, College Park. Locally, his firm designed West Friendship Elementary School and the Lisbon firehouse.
Fred Williams, a retired builder and developer, met Sargent 40 years ago when they began a long professional collaboration.
"Warren is strictly design," said Williams, 86, "and he has a good knack for New England flair. He's very, very intelligent and very intuitive. When he focuses on a project, no matter what it is, he does it. He never backs off."
Jack Savage, who met Sargent 20 years ago at a meeting of the Frederick chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, said he's a remarkable man who's full of determination.
"When I saw all of his artwork I was astounded," said Savage, a Westminster resident who lauded Sargent's building of a Bushby Midget Mustang II from blueprints instead of a kit, like most airplane aficionados. "I had no idea what an accomplished artist he is."
The more challenging the project, the better, Sargent said.
"Watercolor painting is pure discipline and every brushstroke means something," he said. His father had "painted like mad during the Depression" and sold portraits in oil from a roadside gallery, but Sargent never cared much for oil painting.
"You don't dabble in watercolors, you figure out what you're going to do and do it," he said. "Watercolor painting is utter concentration and you lose yourself in the process. You can't leave it that long since it's all wet at the same time."
Sargent said he gave up painting in 1997, as he began traveling less and the rugged waterfront vistas he cherished were overtaken by residential communities and so many boats that "you can walk across the river by stepping on them one-by-one."
He picked up his brushes again last spring, but wasn't satisfied with his initial results.
"The joie de vivre doesn't show up when you lose your spontaneity," he speculated, adding he plans to keep at it nonetheless.
"I've had a great life and I'm happy as I can be about it."
Sargent's watercolor paintings will be on display through Thanksgiving at the community center located at 2400 Route 97. For more information, call 410-313-4840.
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