Leo Dee (1931-2004)
by David B. Dearinger
LEO JOSEPH DEE was born in 1931 in Newark, New Jersey, a city and state with which he kept a life-long affiliation.[l] Given his eventual decision to become an artist, it is worth noting that his maternal grandmother, Elenita Roloff, was an accomplished painter, sculptor, and decorative artist. She was educated in New York City and later studied art and design at the Fawcett School of Industrial Art in Newark, which would play a major role in Leo Dee's life. Because her father was an importer, her time in Europe as a girl gave her opportunities to study art in Italy. It was in Italy that she met Thomas Kennedy, who would become her husband. Trained as an educator, he eventually became principal of South High School in Newark.
Leo Dee's own father was a graduate of Syracuse University and a businessman, an occupation that caused the family to move a number of times while Leo -- known to his friends and family as Joe -- was a child. At various times they lived in Caldwell, New Jersey, Flushing and Hampton Bays, New York, and, of course, Newark. In Newark, Joe Dee attended Arts High, where he met and studied with his first mentor, Seymour Landsman, who also became a friend. Landsman gave Dee some hands-on experience and encouragement by commissioning the young man to design Christmas cards for him.
Following graduation from high school in 1950, Dee enrolled in the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art -- the new name for the Fawcett Art School, where his grandmother had studied -- on a three-year scholarship. The institution had been founded in 1882 and, unique among art schools, was maintained by the city's Board of Education. Its purpose, as stated in a course catalog from the 1940s, was "the Promotion of Art in Education, in Industry, and in Commerce." When Dee enrolled there, the school was at its peak in both the quality of its curriculum and faculty and in its popularity among art students. It was located in a large, impressive building constructed in 1931 at 550 High Street in downtown Newark, which, at the time, was a thriving city with an active cultural life that included a major museum of arts and sciences and venues for the performing arts. Although Dee entered the school with. a major in illustration, he took classes in a number of subjects, which, in their variety, suggest the seriousness and importance of the Newark School. He took classes in portrait painting with Leopold Matzel, graphic arts with Hans Mueller, illustration with Gould Hulse and Avery Johnson, lettering with Samuel Millet, sculpture with James Rosati and Reuben Nakian, color theory with Ben Cunningham, and realistic drawing with Charles Goeller. Many of these instructors were widely recognized artists in their own right, some on an international level. Rosati and Nakian, for example, were well-known sculptors; Cunningham was a leading painter in the Optical Art movement; Goeller was an established Precisionist artist. Goeller's methods and theories were especially important for Dee's development, a fact made obvious by even a cursory examination of Dee's oeuvre. In his classes on realistic drawing, Goeller insisted on tight draftsmanship and instilled in his students an appreciation for the power of even the simplest drawn line, an influence that for Dee was profound.
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