The Secret Life of Color
Painter Edward Loper Sr. has spent a lifetime looking for the light. Having earned a solid place in the art world, all that’s left to find are the young people who need to know his story.
Edward Loper is surly, impatient, critical. Ask anyone who’s studied with him.
Loper has checked his watch five times in the past 12 minutes: 9:32, it reads. Six out of 10 students are late for his 9:30 Wednesday art class.
“I’m used to people being on time,” Loper says, planting a stool in the middle of his studio. It’s a good vantage point for staring down the students as they trickle in at 9:37. As they do, few look him in the eye. One manages a sheepish, “Good morning.”
The teacher taps his watch and holds it up in the students’ faces. As the class members march in silence to their individual still life stations, Loper folds his arms, shakes his head, grunts and sighs. He walks around the cramped studio, squinting at each canvas. He leans so close, it looks like he’s smelling the paintings rather than observing them.
Classic Loper comments follow.
“Don’t you know how to clean your palette? What color is that? You’re listening to your brain. You don’t trust your eyes. Use your eyes. Look harder. Can’t you see it? Do you see it?
Loper has inspired a river of tears over his 60-year teaching career.
“I’m tough,” he says. “I want my students to do things that the best of Delaware artists do. They can out-paint anybody in the state.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone. Yet the students keep coming back.
“I like to get beaten up once a week,” says Veronica Mauro of Landenberg, Pennsylvania. She has studied with Loper for 10 years. “Ed’s full of salt and vinegar.”
“You mean piss and vinegar,” says Frank Gay of Kennett Square. He has studied with Loper for 30.
Loper is one of Delaware’s foremost artists. He is also the state’s most beloved art teacher, despite his crotchety nature and roller coaster moods. “There’s a lot of love and camaraderie in those classes,” says his biographer, Marilyn Bauman, who studied under him for 30 years. “Edward taught me to see color. I will always be grateful.”
Loper was born in 1916, about 38 years before the Civil Rights Movement began. To paint professionally, he had to open gallery doors that were initially slammed in his face, finally winning exhibits in museums when museums were closed to blacks. That fortitude—and gall—helped him earn a national reputation. What he considers his crowning achievement is, indeed, spectacular: Loper is not considered a black artist—he is an artist.
It took a lifetime to eliminate the label. But long ago Loper made a deal with God, promising that if he could make a living by painting, he’d give back by teaching. Both God and Loper came through.
No need to sugarcoat here. Loper lives up to the negative things often said about him. He’s brusque and confrontational. He can destroy an artist’s sense of self with one cut.
Yet he has another side, perhaps his real side. You see it when he looks at a Cézanne or a Picasso then lights up like a teenager eyeing his first Corvette. Then you see what his students see: an intensely dedicated artist who longs to pass down a legacy to those who share his passion.
There are disappointments.
Scholars call Loper “the true son of Wilmington” (he’s lived there all his life), yet only one Delaware gallery sells his work. Just two of his paintings hang at the Delaware Art Museum, though he taught there for 25 years.
A deeper concern involves the welfare of many young African Americans. Loper says they’re unmotivated. They don’t know about his struggles. And if they did, he says, “I don’t think they’d care.”
On April 6, a day before his 91st birthday, the University of Delaware will present “The Art of Edward Loper, Sr.,” a comprehensive retrospective. Loper wants African Americans to go, if only to understand how his difficult journey may have made theirs a little easier. And if they do, the artist has a few more things he’d like to say.
Loper is working on a still life. He sits at a stool, shoulders even with the top of a canvas that rests on an old wooden easel. The painting is of a wine bottle, grapes, a cleat and a burgundy drape as background. So far it’s a skeletal charcoal drawing—Loperites never say sketch—that he started yesterday.
For about 10 minutes, he stares at the scene, dips an angled brush into a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine, then wipes it off with an old rag. When he stares at an ordinary object, he’s looking for “the magic in the color.” Of course to Loper, who thinks about color all day long, nothing is ordinary. The grapes are not purple. They are orange and red and yellow and myriad colors you’d never think of.
The wine bottle catches his eye, more specifically, its rectangular white label. Loper fixates on a shadowed corner. “White is not a color,” he says, dipping a brush into yellow, then burnt sienna. (Never, never say brown.) He then makes bold, chunky strokes with both. He works on this one inch of canvas for about 20 minutes, until the precise amount of crème creates the light or, as he calls it, “the sparkle.”
Loper doesn’t see objects. He sees the color within them. The lights and darks, warm colors next to cool, reveal a subject’s forms. “I paint lines, color and spaces,” he says. “That’s what my paintings are. You have to learn to see it. And you only learn that by doing it.”
“It took me six months to see color,” says Bauman. “In the beginning I thought he was nuts. The lemon was yellow. Then one day the defining moment came. Suddenly I could see the lavenders and the peaches in what used to be green trees. This is what Edward did. He made the invisible visible.”
Loper is self-taught. Every space in his studio holds a book about art. He uses the examples and techniques of the masters to help students understand the complexities of color, just as he did. He stresses the styles of his main influences: Cézanne, El Greco and Tintoretto. Quoting a passage from “Cézanne’s Compositions” about how inner light emanates from various subjects, tattered pages start falling out of the volume. He regularly forces students into circles, hammering the same points over and over because, he says, “They hear but they don’t listen.”
“You’re working to get that delicacy until it explodes on the canvas,” says Mauro. “This is not just putting one color next to another. You’re learning to see things with your eyes, things that human beings see every day but don’t know it.”
In the 1930s, racial segregation and intolerance limited opportunities for young black Americans. Loper changed some of that, at least in Delaware. In 1937 he became the first African American to have a painting accepted at the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts. In 1941 he exhibited at the University of Delaware, well before blacks were allowed to attend as students. Seven years later, his work was featured in a two-person exhibition with no less than Andrew Wyeth, also at the university.
Born in a poor section of Wilmington called Frogtown, Loper lived across the railroad tracks from what is now the Young Correctional Institution, a hideout for criminals where gunfire was commonplace. His mother was 16 when he was born. His father, a minister, fled to Washington, D.C., to start a church. Loper was raised by his maternal grandmother.
In East Side neighborhoods, Poles, Jews, Italians, Irish and Swedes tolerated each other. All immigrants struggled. But life was toughest on black kids.
“I remember when I was 14, one girl, a very pretty girl who had literally just gotten here from Italy, said, ‘Nigger, go away,’” Loper says. “How did she learn to call me a nigger right away?”
The insults hurt though Loper never really felt hate like he thinks African Americans feel today. “We had respect for each other. Today, we’re shooting each other.”
There wasn’t much for him to do. Public playgrounds were open to blacks only once a week. Loper excelled in sports at Howard High School, though he admits that he liked girls, and girls liked athletes. He graduated in 1934, then married Viola Virginia Cooper a year later. During the Great Depression, Loper worked in the Delaware division of the Works Progress Administration, where he learned illustration by rendering drawings of decorative art for the Index of American Design. He earned less than $20 a week.
Walter Pyle, a WPA colleague and nephew of the great illustrator Howard Pyle, urged Loper to paint. Loper studied Howard Pyle’s work at the Wilmington Public Library every day after work. On weekends, he took the train to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The guards got to know me so well that they let me put my nose right up to paintings by Corot and Van Gogh to study their (brush) strokes,” Loper says.
He started exhibiting and teaching art, winning several awards. While featured at the Robert Carlin Gallery in Philadelphia in 1941, he sold more than 35 paintings. Then Viola died during childbirth in 1944, leaving him to raise three children. (He married Claudine Bruton in 1945, but the couple divorced. Loper and his current wife, Janet Neville, exchanged vows in 1986.)
Through the 1940s and ’50s, Loper’s work told dark, heart-wrenching stories through real-life subjects such as city backyards and dilapidated houses. His work cried out with emotion, revealing a haunting artistic sincerity in pieces like “Burned Out Building” and “Port Penn.” In “My Father the Bishop,” warm reds, dark blues and oranges convey confused and angry feelings toward his subject. He painted old houses in Claymont, his daughter reading the paper, a series of nudes and, in 1945, a powerful “The Black Crucifixion.” Then touches of Picasso and Jackson Pollock crept into his work. As his brushwork became bolder, the fractured, kaleidoscopic effect, an amalgam of various styles and influences, became his signature.
Loper’s true artistic direction—he will not call it a style—emerged in 1963, when he was invited to attend classes at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, which houses one of the world’s largest private art collections. The Barnes was established by Albert C. Barnes in 1922 to advance the fine arts and educate the disadvantaged. When Loper gained acceptance there, he says, he was accepted as an artist.
He already knew how to paint. What he took from the Barnes was theory. His teacher, Violette de Mazia, helped him analyze classical techniques. Then he turned a corner after a class one day and saw Cézanne’s “The Boy in the Red Vest,” a festival of color, from the subject’s red waistcoat, blue kerchief and blue belt to his backswept hair. “It changed my life,” Loper says. “I never truly saw color until that moment.”
From then on, Loper “emphasized color, abandoned shading and began to juxtapose colors, working from dark to light and vice versa,” wrote Jenine Culligan, a former associate curator of Delaware Art Museum who organized Loper’s first retrospective in 1996.
Loper and de Mazia remained friends until her death in 1988, but she gave him a gift long before that. On September 14, 1964, a News Journal critic wrote a scathing piece on Loper, accusing his students of copying him. “He tried to destroy me,” Loper says. “He called my students non-artists.”
He could handle racism. But criticism of his teaching cut deep. He nearly gave up. Instead he took his students’ paintings, and a few of his own, to de Mazia’s home. “She laid them all out across the room and stared at them for a long time,” Loper says. “And she said, ‘No, they do not look alike and your students do not paint like you. Instead, you have all started a new tradition in Delaware.’”
Loper is known in Philadelphia galleries and has won praise from such organizations as the Wilmington Society of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Arts Alliance and African American institutions nationwide. Bauman has written his biography, “The Prophet of Color,” and his work has been discussed in prestigious publications such as Art Digest and Art News. His paintings hang at the Christina Cultural Arts Center, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
New Lopers, which start at $12,000, are hard to come by. Janet says inventory is low because her 90-year-old husband doesn’t produce as quickly as he used to. “Things are not bad for us at all,” Janet says. “What is bad is that Edward’s work is not shown much in Wilmington galleries.”
Hardcastle Gallery director Allison Weer and Somerville Manning Gallery co-owner Sadie Manning both say Loper’s lack of local representation might be a matter of faulty communication. They enjoy Loper’s work and would consider exhibiting it as long as customers request it or if the Lopers ask. But they have bottom lines to think about. Delaware buyers tend to be conservative, often opting for Pyles, Wyeths and light pastels over the darker, more abstract Lopers. The Federal Street Gallery and Espresso Bar in Milton, the only Delaware gallery that does represent the painter, has enjoyed a profitable relationship, says owner Gary Merz. So far, its two Loper exhibits have been sold out.
The Loper collection (whatever is left after his death) is bequeathed to the University of Delaware. The Delaware Art Museum did not have the capacity to store it when the Lopers asked 10 years ago, says then-director Steve Bruni, who, with Culligan, oversaw the first Loper retrospective. (It was one of the museum’s most popular events.) Bruni asked the Lopers to donate more recent work, but they refused.
The Lopers still view the museum’s decision as a rejection. “It hurt,” Loper says. “I taught there for 25 years, back when white men would go through the museum and come by where I was teaching and they looked at me with such hatred. There I was, a black man teaching white students.”
Current museum director Danielle Rice understands, but says the costs of owning a collection are substantial. “You have a responsibility to exhibit it and store it,” she says. (The financially strapped organization is in no position to take on a collection, though, after its multi-million dollar renovation, there is ample storage space.) “We do have some very beautiful Lopers on view,” Rice says. The museum owns four. Though two hang, Loper cringes at the thought. They do not, he believes, represent his later work.
“I have hinted to them that we’d like some late Lopers donated,” Rice says. “Edward is much beloved. He has a very strong following. And there are so many that have a direct connection with him. That being said, many of our visitors come from out of state and don’t know about Edward. But it could be that we have some responsibility in that, that we are not working hard enough at our own community relations.”
That leads to an important question. Loper is known locally. But does he have a place in American art?
Robert Hall, a visual arts specialist at the Anacostia Community Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, thinks he does.
“Mr. Loper’s work is engaging and energetic,” says Hall. “His use of color and bold strokes are reminiscent of Picasso. He is still kind of figurative, but you can see that people have something to do with the images he presents, though they’re often not there. I would say that his success and talent has to do with his own experiences and I can certainly see why people would be drawn to Loper’s works. What he has created is universal. I definitely think he is of the caliber of national artists.”
Marcelle Pick, president of the Violette de Mazia Foundation, a nonprofit organization she calls “a realization of Barnes’ theories,” says, “Edward’s work is critically important in the art world, and he has also enriched the lives of thousands of people through teaching.”
Both Pick and Hall believe that, like so many great artists, including Cézanne, Loper’s talents won’t be recognized until after his death.
Loper has made peace with the possibility. “I would like to sell all my paintings,” he says. “But we have enough money, and true artists know me. But one day I want to go to heaven where Cézanne and Renoir and all those guys will be having a party. I want to talk to El Greco and Tintoretto and tell them that I took what they passed down and I used it and, now, here I am. If I can walk right through that door, and those guys say come on in, that’ll be enough for me.”
As he discusses painting, the curmudgeonly persona melts and a man of great passion and gentleness emerges. “I wanted to learn everything I could learn,” he says. “That’s all.”
Loper sits in his basement studio, staring at a small glass prism. As he raises it to the window, red, purple, blue, green and yellow dots begin to flicker around the room. His eyeglasses mirror the dance of color.
So many colors. So much to say. And, as Loper says, so little time.
He knows he has given students the gift of color. He knows they’ll expand on it. He knows that fellow artists of all ethnicities can benefit from his struggles because he dared to go against type. He would not allow anyone to pigeonhole him because of race.
“I refused to do African art,” he says. (By definition, African art is any form that originates in Africa. But the continent is so diverse and the artists so innovative that it is impossible to label. In any case, abstract African work tends to represent ideas rather than depict them in the kind of detailed way Loper has strived for.) “I didn’t want to paint saxophones and people dancing. I wanted to be on the same level as the great artists, in the tradition of Cézanne and El Greco and Tintoretto.”
On one hand, Loper shunned African art, rejected the term “black artist.” On the other, he wants African Americans to appreciate his journey. It sounds inconsistent, though it explains why Loper has heard the pejorative “Uncle Tom” a few times in his life.
He explains the contradiction the way he always does, by finding another art book, “The International Review of African American Art.” A product of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the cover features the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the first African-American artists to achieve a reputation in both America and Europe. Loper thinks Tanner is “unusually” excellent.
“Black artists, it’s an issue,” Loper says. “Look at this.” He points to works by John Farrar and Debra Simon, among others. “Pretty bad. No color. No designing. That one is a bunch of squares. This one makes no sense. They are not up to the level they should be to be in a book.
“This is sad to me, very sad. Black artists draw and they paint, but they don’t paint well. Because they can get away with it. Because no one demands better of themselves. But I don’t dare insult them. I’m afraid.”
Kamille Catchings, the African-American owner of Magnum Opus Gallery in Mendenhall, believes that not enough people know about Loper, which is why she invited him to lecture. “He was incredible. The room was completely silent,” she says. “African-American collectors do gear themselves toward a specific type of art, and anything out of that spectrum can be foreign to them. Edward opened everyone’s eyes to a whole new world. I think we’re just starting to understand what he did for us.”
Dr. James Newton, an accomplished artist and former professor of Black American studies at the University of Delaware, says, “There’s not enough recognition of the trials and tribulations that a person of Ed’s stature has had to deal with in trying to meet the highest standards of excellence in the arts.”
Yet Newton has more faith in younger generations. He thinks Loper could, and one day will, be an influence, so he believes the University of Delaware show in April should be standing room only. “We can clearly state that he rivaled such prominent artists as Andrew Wyeth, his friend and contemporary,” says Newton. “That’s why he’s so important. Younger artists can be inspired and they can stay in Delaware like he did and still survive. He is to black artists what Clifford Brown was to black musicians.”
“I’m hoping for a renaissance,” he says. “And in this renaissance, the youth of Delaware would be the participants, and Loper would serve as the catalyst. And we would awaken the artistic spirit of young black Americans.”
“That would be nice,” Loper says. “I wish that the black population of Wilmington and Delaware knew what I had done. They don’t have the least idea.”
“When I was a kid, we wanted to get ahead,” he says. “We wanted to beat the white boys. We wanted to beat them at sports, at everything. So whenever we got a shot at something that black people didn’t normally get, we went to work for it. When we became doctors, we became super doctors.
“We’ve lost that. Things are easier, and kids today have so many more chances. If they want it, their futures can be bright. I want them to know that they can be more than better. They can be exceptional.”