Walter Chapman pushes his walker across his living room, dodging the frisky German shepherd/Rottweiler mix who scampers between the walker's aluminum legs.
"Simmer down, dog," he admonishes in a classic case of words falling on deaf ears. One would think a man six months shy of his 100th birthday might have harsher words for the lively young Sally.
But Chapman's nature is easygoing and assured, as hundreds of former students, customers, and friends know. Northwest Ohio's dean emeritus of watercolor will be honored Friday evening with a celebration in the Sylvania Historical Village. He has donated five paintings to be auctioned that night with proceeds going to the Walter H. Chapman Endowed Scholarship for Study Abroad at Lourdes University.
Concurrently, the inaugural Maple and Main Art Fair from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday will feature 45 artists, live music, and food vendors in downtown Sylvania.
"He's immensely talented, and he spent decades and decades educating people all over town," says Scott Hudson of Hudson Gallery in Sylvania.
Not familiar with Chapman's work? Perhaps you've seen the large portrait of the late Ohio legislator Barney Quilter that hangs above a fireplace in the lodge at Maumee Bay State Park. On Monroe and Main streets in Sylvania, light poles are hung with 107 cheery banners featuring reproductions of three Chapman paintings and they'll remain until mid-August. It's a happy example of what-goes-around-comes-around: In 1997, he created a poster for which he painted nine historic scenes of Sylvania. It was sold to raise a substantial sum for the Sylvania Arts Commission. A few posters are still available at the Sylvania Chamber of Commerce.
"I don't put a lot of detail in painting," he said in a 1988 interview with The Blade. "I only suggest it. I don't doodle everything out. You don't have to finish every window. My own painting I think of as realistic impressionism, a search for beauty and the spirit of things around me, people, landscapes, an old house, flower gardens, and on and on. Sometimes I try to make a small statement, but mostly, just the experience of painting is enough for me."
Multitude of interests
Chapman and his wife, Jean Chapman, 91, reside in a modest ranch-style home in (of course) Sylvania. Off the kitchen is the studio where every morning for decades he's fired up a cigar and pushed a brush into paint.
In the last few years he completed three sizeable portraits. "When you get going on something you keep going till you get tired or you're done," he says.
Until a few weeks ago the studio was packed with stuff from the Chapman Gallery the couple operated for 30 years on Main Street in Sylvania, as well as from the Phoenix home where they wintered until two years ago. Studio walls are hung ceiling-to-floor with art and awards, and the place was brimming with clues to his interests: golf and tennis balls, a bottle of Cutty Sark, Elmer's glue, rolls of masking tape, boxes of slides. Stacks of paintings leaned against each other. There were piles of mysteries (his genre of choice), a pocket thesaurus, and a small black horse.
Jean recently had the studio emptied, walls painted, and surfaces of paintings cleaned. "It needed to be done for years," she says.
"I think they look better when they're a little dirty," he says of the paintings.
Surrounded by art
Their tidy home is full of paintings, some by friends but mostly his: New England's coast, autumn foliage in Ohio, charming European architecture, and portraits. Before they embarked on their many trips, people often asked him to paint something for them, such as the Taj Mahal in India or Venetian canals, and those commissions helped pay for the trips.
Their favorite painting is a deserted, weather-beaten house they eye-balled when driving along the Maumee River near Texas, Ohio. They reluctantly sold it for $400 long ago. Years later when the owner needed money, Jean bought it back, paying nearly three times what she'd sold it for. Only fair, she figured, given that the piece had increased in value.
Larry Golba has painted alongside Chapman indoors and out. "What he is a master of is atmospheric perspective, the space between the view and the subject" such as droplets of moisture blurring distinct lines, distant light values, a limited palette for enhanced color harmony.
'Sweet and kind'
Five times every year (Mother's Day, Jean's birthday, their anniversary, Christmas, and Valentine's Day), he paints a "card" for her, "They're always about us," he says. For their 49th anniversary in January, his 11-by-14-inch card included 18 cartoon-like scenes of places they've traveled to or lived; the last scene has the two of them embracing on the couch, red hearts over their heads and one over Sally, too. Jean sometimes makes copies of them to share with friends. She's his biggest fan.
She produces a recent letter from a former student: "Certainly miss those Monday night portrait sessions as well as the workshops," it reads.
"All his students love him, men and women both, because he's so sweet and kind," she says. She should know. Fifty years ago she took his class and they fell in love. Both brought children to the union; two sons and two daughters. "We all get together quite often, here or at Eddie Lee's [restaurant]," he says.
Peggy Grant, Toledo's curatorial doyenne and a long-time friend, plans to feature his paintings at an exhibit this year in 20 North Gallery. "He has a marvelous personality, a way with people that makes them comfortable. He's been able to influence young wannabees to take up the brush and do a good job."
Such as the truck driver whose deliveries sometimes brought him near the Chapman Gallery around lunchtime.
"I'd go in and inquire about taking a class but it just didn't work out time-wise," says Aaron Bivins, who'd been painting on his own for a decade.
"I thought if I could just pick up some of the additional things and nuances, that would really help," says Bivins, a respected local artist who now teaches painting. Visiting the gallery one day, he told Jean he'd love to take a class. Walter's upcoming session at Lourdes was full, but she asked if Walter would squeeze him in and he did.
"I would sit in the back," says Bivins. "He'd look at my painting and say 'I don't know whether this is yours or mine.' I think at that time, I hadn't developed a style."
Bivins scrutinized how Chapman held the brush and the way paint flowed from it, the degree of pressure he applied to the paper, how he made his strokes, the addition or subtraction of water.
"I would jot down little notes and I'd emulate those things. It was almost as if he was painting from memory," he says. "I purchased one of his paintings years ago and I still look at it and wonder how he did this."
One of three children, Chapman grew up in the Old West End and Bronson Place. His father was successful in business; his mother was the daughter of an educator. He studied art at Scott High School and as the Great Depression began, he enrolled in what is now the Cleveland Art Institute, living with relatives and riding the bus to classes. He drew cartoons for the Plain Dealer and Cleveland Bystander magazine, got a few commissions, and then struck out for New York City and more training.
A few years later he returned to Toledo and, with another artist, was hired by the Works Progress Administration to create a huge, three-part mural that would be installed in a former library building at the University of Toledo. Painting in an empty space at the Toledo Museum of Art, they created scenes of historic Toledo. The canvas was destroyed years ago when being moved, a UT spokesman said.
Drafted into the Army during World War II, his infantry unit fought in Germany. He sometimes searched vacated or bombed German shops and homes for paper to draw on and made sketches of soldiers and prisoners, some of which were published in Stars and Stripes. After the war, many of his drawings and maps appeared in The Battle of Germany, written by his wartime buddy, Theodore Draper. His efforts won him a Bronze star.
Back in Toledo, he earned bread and butter by doing graphic design at a Toledo ad agency. In his free time, he accepted commissions, joined art groups, and taught all over town including at the museum. When people asked Otto Wittmann, former director of the museum, to recommend a portrait artist, he often suggested Chapman, who reveled in getting to know his subjects.
Summers he and Jean drove to Rockport, Mass., where he taught. And in 1988, he enjoyed the rare distinction of having 45 paintings in a solo show in the museum's Canaday Gallery.
"I think I've always had a lot of self-confidence," he said in a 1988 interview with The Blade. "I was never worried that I wasn't going to get where I wanted to go. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't succeed."
Succeed he has.
How will he celebrate his 100th birthday Dec. 7? He responds with characteristic humor.
"Just keep breathing."
Contact Tahree Lane at: email@example.com or 419-724-6075.