Artist is a master of the quick draw; Portrait: Joe Sheppard has depicted well-known personalities of Baltimore and beyond for decades.


In less time than some people spend over a cup of coffee, artist Joe Sheppard works his pig bristle brushes to get an unmistakable likeness of the late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan.

On a blank canvas rectangle, Sheppard paints the prelate's gentle smile, square jaw and hairline -- and personality. In two more weeks, he'll complete the work and deliver it downtown to the Baltimore Archdiocese, where it will hang in Cardinal William H. Keeler's big gray house at Charles and Mulberry streets. A second version of the same painting will go to the Vatican.

"I work fast," Sheppard said the other morning, about 20 minutes into this, his latest portrait commission, the most recent in an ever-expanding catalog of who's who in Baltimore and beyond.

Three weeks ago, the mailman delivered a letter postmarked Houston. It was from former President George Bush, much the satisfied Sheppard subject: "Dear Joe: We honestly feel that your portrait is perfect. Both Barbara and I love it. Even Saidie wagged her tail a lot when she saw herself in that lower left-hand corner."

Sheppard, a hard-working 69, paints six days a week in a gallery-like loft at old Hampden mill at Falls Road and Chestnut Avenue. His east-facing studio overlooks the walls of charcoal stone millworkers' houses perched on tiny Pacific Street.

Sheppard is tall, his face dominated by white hair and beard and piercing eyes the color of root beer. His trim build suggests he must play tennis three days a week.

Like his art, he is disciplined. He sits at an easel in a forest of the bronze sculptural maidens, prizefighters and saints his hands have created in five very full decades of work. A radio plays classical music. He is seldom far from Bianca, a black dog who is so good at tricks she could join a circus.

These days, not many of the people who pay $25,000 for a Sheppard portrait (that's for one person -- family groups are more) come to the studio and take a seat.

"Nobody has the time to sit," said Sheppard, who has written and illustrated several books on drawing the human anatomy. "So I work from photographs. I've learned that if you take enough pictures, you'll get one right."

He did have lunch with George and Barbara Bush, a meeting arranged by Crown Central Petroleum Corp. executive Henry Rosenberg, who paid for the Bushes' portrait and also had paintings done of himself and his wife.

Sheppard painted two Bush portraits -- a solo version of the president for the Texas Capitol in 1995 and the most recent one for the Bush Presidential Library.

Sheppard has a knack for enriching his portraits with apt details -- civic leader Walter Sondheim's light blue oxford-cloth shirt; the porches on the Edgewood Street rowhouses where former mayor and Gov. William Donald Schaefer lived; the mud on Art Donovan's blue-and-white Colts' uniform.

These days Sheppard has a settled routine. From late October to the end of April, he lives in an apartment at a classic Charles Street residence, the Warrington, which he shares with Baltimore interior designer Rita St. Clair. He uses his Baltimore winters to line up portrait commissions and other work he will execute during the sunny summer months in his beloved 500-year-old farmhouse in the rocky Italian hills outside Pisa, which he bought 12 years ago.

On one of the walls at his Baltimore studio, Sheppard displays his first painting -- an evocative scene of his aunt's bake shop, a place where generations of Baltimoreans bought little chocolate cakes. It was called the Betty Patterson Specialty Kitchen and was on Read Street, near Tyson, not far from Bolton Hill. There, on Lanvale Street, the French-born master teacher Jacques Maroger taught Sheppard from 1948 to 1962.

Fine portraits were always part of Sheppard's work, but for a long time he turned out canvas after joyous canvas that celebrated an earlier Baltimore -- street parades on the west side, the Block and its strippers, especially Blaze Starr.

"I preferred Baltimore when it was even more diverse, more ethnic and the streets were so safe I could walk anywhere and be welcome everywhere," he said.

When the paint dries, not every subject likes what he or she sees. Entertainment giant Judy Garland, who agreed to a Sheppard painting in 1961, thought she looked too fleshy.

"And George Bush said, 'I have a sharp nose. You made me a Gene Hackman nose,' " Sheppard recalled. "So I straightened his nose. Everybody was happy."

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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