By Todd Wilkinson
Jeff Legg paints from a ranch in the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks. His studio sits above a garage and has cathedral ceilings, and out back cascades a waterfall. Pineville, the nearest burg, is a point of American geography neither decidedly North nor Deep South, neither East nor West. It’s a spot on the map with a twang embedded in the local patois, owning a heartland sensibility that reminds its children no matter what happens in the journey for truth, they can always return home.
It’s here that Legg, whose critical forte lies in painting ethereal, enigmatic still lifes, carries on the tradition of his Renaissance predecessors half a millennium ago. In the simplest of ordinary objects he sees the smoky, luminous glow of the divine. To encounter even the tiniest of his oil paintings is to be presented with a notion of time that has no firm date of origin nor contemporary cultural context. In recent years, what has set Legg’s vantage apart is that he has planted one foot in the modern world and another in the age of Rembrandt.
“My desire is to convey a personal vision through classical methods, but also to push the envelope with color, abstract design, and use of material,” Legg says. “I want to renew the approach to light interpreted by the old masters.”
In the award-winning piece iron helmet, which won a top prize in 2004 from the Oil Painters of America, Legg demonstrates his ability to transform a simple composition into a vision with dramatic impact. “It was inspired by my interest in medieval times,” he explains. “I love the armor. I love dirt and grit and the hardness of living. I love the primitive technology of the weaponry.”
Somehow, Legg avoids the trap of being labeled prosaic. Color appears to spark in the furrows of his brush strokes, and his simple objects become platforms for meditation. As a 21st-century adherent of the age-old technique of chiaroscuro, Legg is interested primarily in the exploration of illuminated surfaces, in the gravity of shadow, volume, and texture. “I want people to believe they are peering into another world or into another time and place,” Legg says. “I try to bring air into a painting, and with it the stuff of life, the texture of life.”
Legg, who also paints plein-air landscapes of the West and figurative work, was born in Joplin, MO, in 1959. The son of an entrepreneur father and a homemaker mother who was also a vocalist, Legg lived in Minnesota until he was 13. Although his father and grandfather both had talent in drawing, neither pursued careers in art. During his teenage years, Legg received mentorship in drawing and color theory from the late Darrell Dishman, a college art professor. Upon graduation from high school, he attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but left in search of more rigid classical training. He found it at the Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, yet he got sidetracked by a yearning to travel in the Colorado Rockies.
Eventually, he found his way back to school, attending a small Christian college and then settling back in Joplin where his family has roots dating back to the middle of the 19th century. After marrying his wife, Barb, and starting a family, he had to earn a living. So he opened a bike shop that expanded into a successful fitness equipment business and occupied 11 years of his life. Eventually, burned out by the rigors of running a retail store, he sold it and heeded a calling, in 1991, to start painting full time. Soon afterward he had his first show at American Legacy Gallery in Kansas City, where he sold seven paintings, six of them to Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett, who was a star with the Kansas City Royals. (Another noted collector is astronaut Neil Armstrong.)
oday, Legg and his family reside near Pineville on 240 acres in what used to be considered the Ozark hillbilly country, famous for its forested mountains and isolated hollows. With the exception of a few paintings hanging on his own wall, Legg has sold every work he’s produced over the past decade and a half.
Zealously eschewing photography, Legg says the medium serves no useful purpose in aiding his desire to transcend two dimensions. Influenced somewhat by David Leffel and Sherrie McGraw, from whom he has received instruction at workshops, Legg is a methodical and disciplined painter who refuses to rush his work. He may spend days thinking about a composition and the objects that will inhabit it, then meticulously arrange and rearrange them beneath different sources of light.
Studying the assemblage like a sculptor, he is attuned to the illusionary projection of mass and volume of space. He loves experimenting with visual props that are ordinary yet alluringly tactile. His arrangements may be complicated or involve nothing more than an apple plucked from a neighbor’s tree and set down on a table with moody, muted incandescence.
“I try to envision a painting finished in my mind’s eye, but I like to allow the journey of each piece to unfold in its own way. I may discover things while painting that I hadn’t thought of, or didn’t see—things that happen through the brushed application of paint that are so beautiful. I wouldn’t call them accidental so much as they are spontaneous,” he describes. “The act of handling objects and looking behind, over, and beneath them helps me to paint and express what they are. I’m trying to create something that is more real than real.”
Legg says his “heart flutters” when a visitor comes into the studio, takes a look at a work in progress, and suggests that the painting is more essentially vivid than the objects being portrayed themselves. Depending on the effect he sets out to achieve, his still lifes may create an air of order and peace or mystery and dramatic tension.
With pear, grapes, and a cup, he communicates his narrative through nothing more than chromatic progression. “I tried to see how bright I could push the red, because I wanted the pear to glow,” he explains. “The objects connect like the reading of a book, from left to right, with the brilliance of color pulling the eye.”
Meanwhile, in vessel with apricots, Legg uses pure form, in this case a large piece of green terra cotta, to communicate volume. He added the apricots as a design element. “I love green and I love orange, and I wanted to combine the two in a painting,” he says. “When you put the green against the red background, you get a color vibration, because the complementary colors create a wonderful tension.”
“The feelings that his paintings convey stay with you,” says Indiana businessman Steve Zimmerman, whose collection of the work of living American painters—while focused primarily on western artists—is known for being eclectic. “I typically have between 10 and 15 artists come and visit me every year, and invariably everyone takes notice of Jeff Legg’s work,” Zimmerman says. “Some have never heard of him, and he still has that mystique of being an emerging artist, but I get the sense that is changing fast. People all over the country are taking notice of his still lifes.”
In the autumn of 2005, Legg went to Europe on a research mission, spending hours in museums reflecting on how the master Dutch and Flemish painters transformed the common and mundane into sublime wonders. “We’ve lost so much over the years since they painted. We have more stuff in our lives, but it holds less meaning,” he says. “I’m foolish enough to believe that if I try hard enough, I can communicate the substance of beauty they passed on.”
In today’s age of pervasive material hedonism, Legg wants to remind viewers to be spiritually aware. “I happen to be a Christian myself, but I believe we are all spiritual beings, and that there is a spiritual aspect, if you allow yourself to feel it, in great art,” he says. “You know it when it moves you. There’s a force you can’t put your finger on that is transmitted by the artist to his creation. Great paintings possess something more than technical virtuosity.”
Legg is represented by Red Piano Gallery, Hilton Head Island, SC; Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Miller Gallery, Cincinnati, OH; and American Legacy Gallery, Kansas City, MO.
Featured in December 2005