For Malcolm “Skip” Liepke, a St. Louis Park native, art always came naturally, but he didn’t think of making a career of it.
At least not when he was in high school. Back then, he’d considered art more of a hobby.
“I didn’t know anybody making a living at it,” he said.
His high school art teacher, Bob Anderson, knew better. Anderson encouraged him to pursue art professionally, and gave him a brochure for the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Liepke tucked it away, but eventually he came back to it, and he decided to give it a shot.
Four decades later, Liepke has done more than make a living with art. His paintings can be seen at the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, and he’s had sold-out shows with major galleries around the globe. Some of his pieces sell into the six figures. And his illustrations have been featured on the cover of Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek.
On June 10, as a part of the St. Louis Park High School’s graduation ceremony, Liepke, who was part of the class of 1972, was recognized with the St. Louis Park Distinguished Alumni Award for 2014. Every year, the award goes to a former St. Louis Park student who’s made “significant contributions to their community and society through service or a distinguished career,” award materials state.
Previously, the award has gone to Grammy Award-winning musician Dan Wilson, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and nuclear physicist Clayton Swenson. Plaques showcasing each award recipient are displayed on the school’s “Wall of Fame.”
Nancy Lapakko, who chairs the committee that makes the selection, said the group tries to find someone who reflects “this moment, this snapshot in time.”
Committee members also “look for someone who is inspirational for students,” she said. Liepke stood out for his impact on the art community on a global scale.
From illustrator to fine artist
Liepke, whose parents ran a design business doing seasonal décor for shopping malls, says, “Art chose me.”
“It was the thing I did best,” he said. “When everything else fell by the wayside, it was standing there facing me.”
He attended the Art Center for about a year and a half. It was an intense school “where you were required to pursue art with a frenzy,” he said. “It was ‘sink or swim,’ and it was good for me.”
Afterward, Liepke did some TV work, including more than 30 drawings for the “Rich Man, Poor Man” TV series starring Nick Nolte, which became a hit for Universal Studios. The drawings appeared on the TV screen as the credits rolled. “It was the first thing my parents saw,” he said. “They thought, ‘Hey, the kid’s going to be OK.’ ”
That gig opened the door to other opportunities. In 1978, Liepke moved to New York. He put his talents to use doing illustration. It was good career-wise, but eventually he got tired of the compromises involved. “You’re always solving someone else’s problem,” he said. There was always a corporate board weighing in. In his mind, “nothing great could be done that way. I got tired of the re-dos,” he said.
In 1990, he left illustration to pursue fine art. He’d always done his own artwork in his spare time, so it was an easy transition. The following year, he and his wife, Michelle, bought a house in Minneapolis, though they continued to live in New York part of the year. Four years ago, they decided to stay put, to raise their two sons.
The human figure
Liepke has always been drawn to people. In New York, he spent time painting interior and street scenes — the Garment District, restaurants and cafes — just about any place where people congregated. “New York is a great place for just seeing people in front of you. They’re not in cars, but in the world around me,” he said.
Though the landscape has changed, people continue to be compelling subjects for him.
“I like the emotional arc you get with people that you don’t get with a car or a still life or something,” Liepke said. “You get a response. You look at a portrait at a museum and the person stares back at you.”
And, even as clothing or the environment change, people stay the same. “They have a timelessness,” he said.
Early on, Liepke was inspired by the Old Masters. He loves Edgar Degas, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Diego Velázquez and John Singer Sargent. He tries to reinterpret what they did and put it in a modern context.
“You take from the generation before you, give it a twist, make it yours,” Liepke said. “It’s how art progresses.”
How does one get to his level? “You’re not just born with it,” he said. “Talent is helpful, but it won’t get you over the finish line.” It takes drive, determination and business savvy. Those things are more necessary than talent, he said.
Liepke has a show coming up in October at a big gallery in Toronto. It could mean a major career change. “I’m under the gun to do some pivotal paintings,” he said.
Reminiscent of classics
Gregory Hedberg, a past St. Louis Park Distinguished Alumni Award-winner who is a senior consultant in European art with Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York, said Liepke’s work “stands out from most contemporary art by being linked to the Old Masters, not only in his technical skills, but by how he treats his figures.”
Liepke’s one-man show at the Albermarle Gallery in London last year was quite striking, as “one could see an entire gallery filled with his work,” he said. “Like Degas, he gives them intriguing poses. Like Sargent, his figures have a certain elegance. Like Vuillard, Liepke poses his figures against interesting patterns and textures.”
In a broader context, recently there’s been a resurgence of figurative work. “Younger artists are looking more and more to carefully crafted figurative art to make new artistic statements,” he said, adding that Liepke is a leader on that front.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.