Joseph Sheppard has painted a president, sculpted a pope, written books on art and shown his work across the U.S. and Europe.
But a new art gallery that opens Tuesday marks perhaps the greatest achievement of all for the Maryland-born artist: It will be the first time that a permanent gallery has opened in the state to house the works of a single living artist.
"I think it's my best work," the 79-year-old Sheppard says. "If this happens at all, the artist is usually dead. This is quite unique."
Sheppard is highly regarded because he is considered a master of realism, producing art that recalls the work of the Renaissance masters.
He is the sculptor of the Pope John Paul II statue near the Baltimore Basilica and the 15-foot bronze Holocaust Memorial, and he's working on a statue of former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson. He has painted portraits of former President George H.W. Bush, Pope Benedict XVI, former Cardinal William H. Keeler and many other dignitaries in the U.S. and abroad.
A prolific, classically trained artist, Sheppard was born in Owings Mills, educated at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and divides his time between Baltimore and Pietrasanta, Italy. In 2008, he received an international sculpture award from the Italian arts group Circolo Culturale Fratelli Rosselli, which recognizes sculptors from around the world who have made "extraordinary contributions to the art world."
Still working five to seven days a week, Sheppard said he has had several large retrospectives of his work in recent years, and seeing the permanent gallery come together evokes similar feelings.
"Every painting that I do has a memory to it," he said after a recent visit. "It's almost like my diary."
The 5,500-square-foot gallery, called the Leroy Merritt Center for the Art of Joseph Sheppard, cost $6.5 million and was privately funded. It's part of the University of Maryland system, on the campus of the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi.
A gallery such as this shows that Maryland values its artists, said Eric Key, director of the University Arts Program at UMUC. "It sets a standard that you don't have to be dead to be recognized."
More importantly, Key said, the gallery will give scholars and others a chance to study Sheppard's work, including his approach to anatomy, lighting and imagery.
"The more I see, the more impressed I get," he said.
UMUC has one of the largest collections of work by Maryland artists, including spaces devoted to Herman Maril and Gladys Goldstein. With the Merritt Center, it has gained more than 60 works donated by Sheppard, including paintings, drawings, and sculptures in bronze, marble and terra cotta. There are studies prepared for the Pope John Paul, Holocaust and Brooks Robinson sculptures, paintings of boxers and other athletes, reliefs of religious subjects, landscapes and much more. Sheppard is also donating his personal library of more than 1,000 books and drawings.
"It is most unusual for a living artist's work to be showcased in a facility like this one," UMUC President Susan C. Aldridge said, but "given Mr. Sheppard's standing … that honor is richly deserved."
Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs for the Baltimore Museum of Art, said it's not uncommon to find museums and galleries in Europe devoted to one artist, such as Auguste Rodin or Pablo Picasso, but it's less common in the U.S. In some cases, private foundations or estates will create a home for one artist's work, such as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, but single-artist museums typically don't receive governmental support in the U.S. the way they do in a country such as France, he said.
Fisher said the only other single-artist gallery he can think of in Maryland is the Amaranthine Museum at Clipper Mill, which is devoted to the work of the late Baltimore artist Les Harris, but that is in leased space.
In addition, Baltimore was offered a chance to build a home for the works of Maryland artist Clifford Styll, but the project is now under construction in Denver. Work by another artist with Maryland ties, Gari Melchers, has found a home in Virginia. The longtime home and studio of Baltimore artist Grace Turnbull were sold in 2008 after the Maryland Historical Society decided it could no longer afford to maintain them.
"I'm not aware of anything comparable" to the Merritt Center, Fisher said. "I think the opportunity to study any artist's work in depth is a rare experience. The reason is that it's difficult to obtain funding."
The Merritt Center contains areas devoted to Sheppard's paintings and drawings, plus a central indoor sculpture garden that opens onto a large reception area and a separate research area containing the artist's library and videos about his career. The paintings and drawings will be rotated periodically to highlight the works in the collection. The atrium garden features more than 20 of Sheppard's bronze and marble sculptures.
Sheppard said he is different from many artists today who don't receive classical training in drawing and sculpture. He said his work can be considered narrative, in that he strives to tell a story or deliver a message with each piece. On one wall near the paintings is his "credo":
"I believe that technical skill is still an important element in art.
"I believe that there is no object to non-objective, minimal is less, junk sculpture is junk, and form in painting relates to the illusion of three dimensions.
"My art is based on the return to those standards which demand the knowledge of composition, perspective, color, three dimensional form, draftsmanship and anatomy."
Sheppard said he knows that he isn't considered "a la mode" in the art world today, because his work is so traditional.
"I'm out of the mainstream," he said. "There are painters who paint the way I do, but you don't hear much about them. …I really feel like a dinosaur."
It used to be that a painting was worth a thousand words, he said. "Now you need 1,000 words to explain it."
That's not the case with the Merritt Center. Sheppard might not be the sort of high-tech, multimedia artist who is making a splash today. But by assembling such a complete collection in one setting, the Merritt Center shows how Sheppard has excelled with a variety of mediums and themes throughout his career. It's a place where people can not only learn about his work, but draw inspiration from it.