Darin Leese and his partner were looking for a vacation spot about 20 years ago and settled on the New England area.
They narrowed their choices to Vermont and Maine, and were particularly drawn to a quaint coastal town in southern Maine called Ogunquit.
There, they not only discovered a vacation destination but launched a two-decade love affair with the town’s art history that has resulted in a personal collection of paintings they are now sharing with the very community featured in those works of art.
Leese, a business systems analyst for My LINC through Information and Technology Services, was fascinated by Ogunquit and its history as an artist colony with competing art schools. He was particularly transfixed with the works of the women artists from 1900-50 and purchased dozens of paintings over the years.
From May 1 through July 16, 28 of those paintings are displayed at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art as part of a 31-painting exhibit titled “Remember the Ladies: Women Painters in Ogunquit, 1900-1950.”
“There’s this sort of treasure hunt,” Leese said about collecting paintings by Ogunquit women artists. “A lot them aren’t known, even the best-known students aren’t very known. It’s that collector idea of finding the next one.
“The show is the idea that a lot of them were sort of forgotten in history.”
Leese has been with the university in an IT role for more than 20 years — something he never envisioned as a youngster.
The youngest of three children, Leese often entertained himself by painting or drawing. Eventually, it was just his mother and him in their large ranch house, which had one wood wall in a house full of drywall.
“I was allowed to put tacks in that wall, so every holiday that was my big showcase,” he said. “I could do the big Halloween display or Christmas display of all my stuff on that big wall. She didn’t want any tack holes in the drywall, but the plywood was OK.”
He continued pursuing art as a career while earning a Bachelor of Science degree in apparel and textile technology with an art minor at Western Michigan University. While in college, he met his partner, Frank Vandervort, now a U-M professor of law. In 1998, Leese took a temporary position as a training facilitator for the MPathways project at U-M. Other than for about a year, he’s been in IT ever since.
“I did not ever expect to be doing this as a career. I was really interested in art,” he said. “About the time I got to Ann Arbor, I thought I was going to be an artist for work, but thinking you’re going to do it and trying to actually create stuff to sell is a whole different thing. I decided it was not my thing.”
To quench his thirst for art, he told Vandervort he wanted to collect art. That was also around the time the pair discovered Ogunquit.
On one of their trips, they visited a small art gallery, met the owner and fell in love with a piece called “Purple Orange Trees” by Gertrude Fiske. Fiske was a student of Charles H. Woodbury, who conducted an art school in Ogunquit in the early 20th century. Woodbury’s school was considered a competitor to the one run by Hamilton Easter Field, and the history behind those schools, especially Woodbury’s, grabbed Leese.
They purchased “Purple Orange Trees” from the gallery, the first major painting from that area and era that led to their collection. As of June 7, Leese counted 163 pieces of artwork or sculpture in his possession and more than 200 others that are prints — and “I’m waiting for several deliveries this week from UPS and FedEx,” he said at the time.
He has collected 80 unique prints by Woodbury and has purchased and sold countless works of art over the years, mostly to help build his collection. He’s always on the lookout for other Ogunquit works.
“They tend to be very colorful or beach scenes, or scenes of vacation, the ocean, so they’re appealing subjects visually,” he said. “I like to pride myself as having the biggest collection of Ogunquit art in Michigan.”
The paintings are sprinkled throughout the walls of the couple’s Ypsilanti home as well as their Lake Huron house. But the collection is so massive that many are stored in a rack Leese had built, or are slid carefully under the bed.
“Sometimes I think I’m a bit of a hoarder and wonder why I’m buying so many things I have to put under the bed,” he said. “But the very funny thing I’ve learned is that I can have a painting that’s been under the bed and I haven’t looked at it for three years, and then if someone expresses an interest in buying it, I’m like, ‘No, that’s my favorite painting.’”
His favorite is “Purple Orange Trees,” which was included among the 28 paintings shared with the Ogunquit museum. After Ruth Greene-McNally, curator and collections manager at the museum, contacted him in August about loaning the paintings for the exhibit, Leese mailed two small boxes of paintings to Maine and drove the rest April 1.
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He spent three weeks there helping to arrange and set up the exhibit, came home for a week then returned to Ogunquit with Vandervort for the exhibit’s opening May 1.
“I don’t have a museum, but I’ve always had a dream that the Ogunquit museum would know about me because this is where you’d want to show it,” Leese said. “It’s like a bucket list thing for this to come about.”
Seeing the exhibit open to the public was overwhelming to Leese, who also overheard some rather interesting commentary from a visitor.
“I overheard one of these two women say, ‘Well, this really pisses me off,’” he said. “And I thought, ‘What did we do that would have made someone mad about the exhibit?’ And then I hear her say, ‘I don’t understand why there are all these male artists who aren’t very good that we know about and here are all these women who are really good and we’ve never heard of.’
“That was really cool, because that was the exact reason the show was done, to bring attention to these artists.”