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CRANBERRY LAKE, ADIRONDAKS, NEW YORK
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|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following is excerpted from North Country News, http://www.northcountrynow.com/nc-this-week/story-of-day /full-story.asp?uid=566&area=NCNow+News|
"Wildlife artist still learning, but cutting back"
Monday, March 17, 2008, 3:55pm
By CRAIG FREILICH
Wildlife and landscape artist Robert Sleicher of Norwood, whose work hangs in private collections around the world, is cutting back on his painting.
At one point in his painting career, 12 galleries were simultaneously handling his work. A show of his work in Clarkson University’s Cheel Center lobby through March is the last one of large format paintings he will do. But “I still paint every day. I’m still learning,” Sleicher says.
Sleicher admits he’s slowing down a bit. At 81, that should be no surprise. But slowing down for him only means giving up the big paintings. The ones on display at Cheel took him about 10 months to complete.
He says the three-by-four-foot paintings take a lot of work. The smaller ones can take almost as much time, he says, but the smaller ones are easier to compose.
“Planning a painting takes almost as much time as doing it,” Sleicher says. “I must have the angles right. I want a person’s eye to go to a specific point. You have to design the angles.”
Sleicher calls his work “traditional, yet impressionistic, not photographic.” By that he means no slight to other artists. “Each realm has its place. There’s a place for photographs, for painting, for any medium.”
Heart Attack Changed Life
For more than 30 years, he ran a foundry in Rhode Island with his brother, working full days and painting half the night and on weekends.
He spent whatever spare time he had shopping around his work, spending time at galleries and artists’ studios, meeting the greats of the era and striking up friendships among his fellow wildlife artists.
Now it has been more than 20 years since he took up painting full time. It took a heart attack to force the decision.
“It finally caught up to me,” he says. “You can’t have two masters. Something had to give, and it did.”
He had gone to his camp at Cranberry Lake deer hunting in 1986 with a nephew and some friends. The day he arrived he reckons he made about 32 trips from the boat to the camp with supplies, “and I was tired, so I was going to take the boat out and go sit in the woods for a while.”
But the boat’s motor wouldn’t start right up. He took it off the boat and turned the prop by hand a few turns and got it to start. He put the motor back on and he set out for his tree stand but “my eyes didn’t seem to be focusing.”
Late in the afternoon he saw a buck and shot it, and cleaned it there. “I rinsed my hands in the cold water of a stream, and they turned white. I didn’t know it at the time, but putting hands in cold water to see if they turned white was a hospital test for circulation problems.
“I was dragging this good-sized buck out like it was nothing, like it was a five-pound bag of flour. Why? Adrenaline.”
He got back to the boat “and sweat was pouring off me, and I had chest pain. Then I knew.”
Considering the trouble he had starting the motor earlier, he was grateful when “the boat started right up. I had three miles to go, and I would get back after dark. When I got there, I couldn’t get out of the boat, so I fired a shot into the air.”
His nephew and his friends at the camp heard it. Luckily, one of those friends was a paramedic. They got Sleicher to Star Lake Hospital.
Moved to Norwood
He survived it, and went back to Rhode Island and the foundry. But he was faced with the decision to “either give up painting or the foundry. Well, there was no way in hell I was ever going to give up painting. So I said to heck with the foundry and moved up here, to Norwood.
“I wanted my son Bret to be in a college community, and I wanted to be close to camp in Cranberry. And I knew a lot of people here.”
When he was about 40, roughly 20 years before his heart attack, he thought his technique had progressed enough for him to be able to seek entry into the Society of Animal Artists. He submitted three original paintings, as required, but was disappointed to learn that he had been turned down. He asked Society President John Paul Branson why.
“He liked the landscapes, he liked the animals, but he said that in one painting, a muscle in a deer was in the wrong place. He told me to go back to my zoo sketches, get some good models, and start over again.”
He sought the help of artist Louis Paul Jonas, an expert in depicting animal anatomy and an unsurpassed animal model maker.
“He had made all the animals in the world in one-tenth-scale models. He’s in more museums than any other artist. He made the dinosaur models for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and people lined the banks of the Hudson River to see them go by on barges on their way from his studio to the fair. So he knew what he was doing.”
Sleicher had been loading up his station wagon with canvases, taking them to various galleries. He stopped at Jonas’s gallery, lined up several paintings around the wagon, and asked Jonas to take a look, to see if he might swap some of the paintings for a few of Jonas’s famous animal models.
“He turned his back on me and walked away. I thought, ‘Well, I tried.’ But he came back out with his whole studio,” everyone admiring the paintings.
“He gave me a whitetail, elk, grizzly, caribou, and bighorn sheep models. He knew I wanted to learn. After that, he became a true great friend of mine.”
Opened at Abercrombie and Fitch
The following year, he was chosen to open a new gallery at Abercrombie and Fitch on Fifth Avenue in New York, when Abercrombie and Fitch was still in its original business of outdoors outfitting.
“In fact Andrew Wyeth followed me” showing next at the gallery, Sleicher says.
It wasn’t long before he discovered that Robert Model, of the Rockefeller family, had been buying up his paintings, from Abercrombie and Fitch, and even some African-themed paintings he had left with the Adirondack Store because they wanted his work but he didn’t have any others available at the time. Model eventually bought more than 40 of Sleicher’s paintings, for his apartment in New York and his estate, The Point, near Saranac Lake.
He got to know many of the leading American illustrators and artists of the time, picking up tips and bits of wisdom.
He recalls spending time at the Stockbridge, Mass. studio of Norman Rockwell.
“He said once, ‘I spend half my time neatening up.’ That was a life lesson. Think about how much time you spend in your life putting things back. He was right.”
“I use eight colors” – down from ten just recently. “They’re the strongest colors you can have. You go into a paint shop and you’ll see 50 different colors. You don’t need them. You settle down to eight, and mix them, designing your own palette. This is how I can recognize just about any artists, just by the palette.”
He is also true to his ideas about the aesthetics of natural scenes.
“Field and Stream wanted a pastoral scene for their cover one month, so I did one. They said ‘We like the painting, but would you please put a fisherman in it?’ I told them I wouldn’t sell my soul, no. It was brutally frank, but that’s the way it is.”
But talent and ideals aren’t the only factors in success as an artist.
“Young artists would come up to me and say, ‘How come you sell your paintings and I don’t?’ And I would say, ‘How many letters have you written to galleries? How many pairs of shoes have you worn out? How much walking gallery to gallery have you done with paintings under your arm?’ Painting is like anything else. It’s work.”
Painting Since Childhood
He took up painting as a boy, and sold his first painting, of a trout, when he was 12. His father was a collector of books on the Adirondacks, and the wildlife and landscapes he saw outside and the pictorial representations in his father’s books built a desire in him to try to recreate on canvas what he saw around him.
He was one-week-old when his parents took him in a basket on his first visit to the Adirondacks from their home in Albany.
He has spent a lot of time out West, and has lived in many places, but he says “I love the Adirondacks. If I didn’t love the camp at Cranberry Lake so much, I’d probably be in Colorado.”
When Sleicher was 14, he entered and won a Scribner Book poster contest. As the prize, he was offered any book from the publisher’s library.
“‘You can have any book here,’ they said. I chose a nice big book of illustrations of birds. An editor came over and said ‘No, that’s the most expensive book here.’” But Sleicher was allowed to take the book, which turned out to be a first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.”
Painting got more difficult after a hand injury while he was pole vaulting with his Brown University track team. There have been several operations on the hand, most recently about five years ago when five bones were taken out, but he adapted and kept at it.
If asked for advice from young artists, he will tell them originality is key.
“It is most important to be original. You must do things on your own. It’s okay to use photographs, okay to use color as a guide. But you must do it on your own.”
His preference is painting, in oils, wilderness scenes with majestic wildlife. He also likes watercolor, but the techniques required are very different.
“Watercolor is harder. You don’t make mistakes. If I don’t like a tree where I put it in oil, I just take it out. You can’t do that watercolor.”
Over the years he came to know many artists, but most of them have passed away. “Bob Coon was the greatest. He died last month. Sometimes I feel like I’m alone. But I’ve still got my health. I will still get in my kayak and paddle the six miles to Wanakena and six miles back. I’ll be back at camp as soon as the ice goes out.”
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