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Reuben Becker Jr., 66, artist of bay, Smith Island

Reuben Becker Jr., an artist who for more than 30 years captured in his paintings the Chesapeake Bay and the insular beauty of Smith Island and its people, died of a heart attack Aug. 8 in Ewell. He was 66.

Mr. Becker's interest in art began when he was a child in his native Hanover, Pa. As a youngster, he made extra money selling - for 15 cents - jelly jars on which he had painted flowers.

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After graduating from Hanover High School in 1954, he served for two years in the Navy as a radioman on a destroyer.

In his early 20s, Mr. Becker studied art with Ernest Krape at Gettysburg College. In 1968, he moved to Baltimore and enrolled at Maryland Institute.

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To support himself, Mr. Becker took a job at the Cooper Dental Laboratory on Howard Street, where he spent his days making gold crowns, inlays and false teeth. In his spare time, he painted in a small studio he maintained in the building.

Eschewing commercial demands of painting what potential customers wanted, he yearned for the freedom to paint when and what he chose.

He moved to Ewell, on Smith Island, in 1972, when his second wife, a nurse, was offered a job taking care of island residents. He stayed. She didn't.

"I think that islands have an anthropological something about them," he told The Sun in a 1992 profile. "I think island people are a special breed. My life was going past in a grayness. Some days were sunnier than others. Some were cloudier. I thought an island situation might be the answer."

Mr. Becker found not only tranquillity, but also inspiration on the diminutive windswept island in the middle of the Chesapeake.

He bought and renovated a 1900-era house with Francis "Hoss" Parks, using castoff building materials and flotsam and jetsam from on the island. An old stove, the sole source of heating, was fueled with wood the pair gathered.

"Anyone who survives long out here has to be creative," he told Tom Horton, Sun environmental columnist and author of the book An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake.

"I've experienced more miraculous things here than any other place," Mr. Becker said. "It is a miracle most weeks that I eat, and keep a roof over my head. I'm a lily of the field. Part of what drew me here was that it seemed a place where I could slough off lots of things like money, cars, insurance to just paint, and I did, but if I were to project my life a week ahead, most times I'd be starving to death."

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He was as resourceful when it came to his painting materials. He filled his attic with castoff interior doors from a Crisfield public housing project. Because he painted in oils, surfaces of the old doors provided a perfect medium for the paints he applied by palette knife.

Mr. Becker preferred his wooden doors to canvas, which was expensive and prone to tears and shredding because of the damp climate.

His paintings, which tended toward an impressionist style, were known as "two-nailers" because they were a bit heavy and could pull a single hook off a wall when hung.

It wasn't uncommon for him to roam marshes in search of inspiration and of the reeds he harvested and fashioned into pens for use in his work.

"He was one hell of a painter, and I consider him the most important painter of the bay today," said Dennis L. Gray, a Roland Park artist and longtime friend. "He was really world-class, and no one knew about him. He sold from his house. His friends were watermen, doctors, boaters and entertainers. And he loved entertaining the cadre of people who arrived by boat to visit him."

Seldom leaving the island and not wanting to deal with art galleries, Mr. Becker depended on word of mouth from satisfied customers to sell his work, at prices ranging from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars.

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"He really caught the feeling of the bay through his use of textures and colors," said Don Baugh, director of environmental education for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "And when you spent as much time as he did in the bay, creeks and marshes, you understand how he was able to see how the light was reflected. He was able to capture that feeling better than anyone."

Mr. Becker was burly, with a ruddy complexion and a carefully trimmed beard. He was a gourmet cook and enjoyed producing memorable dinners with vegetables grown in his garden and fresh seafood.

He also relished good conversation while sipping fine wines and puffing hand-rolled cigarettes fashioned from Roll-Rich tobacco.

"He was certainly one of the lower bay's great characters and chose the right place to live," said William Thompson, a former Evening Sun reporter who is public relations director at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. "He became more of a Smith Islander than the natives."

The day he died, Mr. Becker completed his last painting and walked seven miles over his adopted island, relatives said.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at his home in Ewell.

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Mr. Becker is survived by a son, Justin D. Becker of Locust, N.C.; a daughter, Katherine B. Sanford of Virginia Beach, Va.; his mother, Shirley G. Becker of Hanover, Pa.; a brother, James Becker of Nacogdoches, Texas; and four grandchildren. His marriages to the former Gloria Livelsberger and the former Lynette Schimmelbusch ended in divorce.

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