Darin Leese and her partner were looking for a vacation spot about 20 years ago and settled in the New England area.
They narrowed down their choices to Vermont and Maine, and were particularly drawn to a quaint southern Maine coastal town called Ogunquit.
There, they not only discovered a vacation destination, but started a two-decade love affair with the city’s art history which resulted in a personal collection of paintings that they now share with the community even represented in these works of art.
Leese, a business systems analyst for My LINC via Information and Technology Services, was fascinated by Ogunquit and its history as an artist colony with competing art schools. He was particularly fascinated by the works of women artists from 1900 to 1950 and purchased dozens of paintings over the years.
From May 1 to July 16, 28 of these paintings are on display at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art as part of an exhibition of 31 paintings entitled “Remember the Ladies: Women Painters in Ogunquit, 1900-1950”.
“There’s that kind of scavenger hunt,” Leese said of collecting paintings from Ogunquit female artists. “A lot of them are not well known, even the best known students are not very well known. It’s this collector’s idea to find the next one.
“The show is the idea that a lot of them have been kind of forgotten in history.”
Leese has worked at university in an IT role for over 20 years, something he never envisioned in his youth.
The youngest of three children, Leese often had fun painting or drawing. Eventually it was just him and his mother on their large ranch, which had a wooden wall in a house full of drywall.
“I was allowed to put thumbtacks in this wall, so every holiday was my big showcase,” he said. “I could do the big Halloween display or the Christmas display of all my stuff on that big wall. She didn’t want hanging holes in the drywall, but the plywood was OK.
He continued his artistic career while earning a Bachelor of Science in Apparel and Textile Technology with a minor in Art from Western Michigan University. At university, he met his partner, Frank Vandervort, now a law professor at UM. In 1998, Leese took on a temporary position as a training facilitator for the MPathways project at UM. Other than about a year, he’s been in IT since then.
“I didn’t expect to do this as a career. I was really interested in art, ”he said. “Back when I came to Ann Arbor I thought I was going to be an artist for the job, but to think you’re going to do it and try to create things to sell is a whole different thing. I decided it wasn’t my thing.
To quench his thirst for art, he told Vandervort he wanted to collect art. It was also around the time the couple discovered Ogunquit.
On one of their trips, they visited a small art gallery, met the owner and fell in love with a work called “Purple Orange Trees” by Gertrude Fiske. Fiske was a pupil of Charles H. Woodbury, who ran an art school in Ogunquit at the turn of the 20th century. The Woodbury school was seen as a competitor to the one run by Hamilton Easter Field, and the story behind these schools, especially that of Woodbury, grabbed Leese.
They bought “Purple Orange Trees” from the gallery, the first major painting from this region and from that time that led to their collection. As of June 7, Leese had 163 works of art or sculptures in his possession and over 200 more that are prints – and “I’m expecting several deliveries this week from UPS and FedEx,” he told the time.
He collected 80 unique Woodbury prints and bought and sold countless works of art over the years, mainly to help him build his collection. He’s always on the lookout for more Ogunquit artwork.
“They tend to be very colorful or beach scenes, or vacation scenes, the ocean, so they’re visually appealing subjects,” he said. “I like to brag about having the largest art collection in Ogunquit, Michigan.”
Paintings are dotted on the walls of the Ypsilanti couple’s home as well as their Lake Huron home. But the collection is so massive that many are tucked away in a rack Leese built, or are neatly tucked under the bed.
“Sometimes I think I’m a bit of a collector and wonder why I buy so many things that I have to put under the bed,” he said. “But the really funny thing I learned is that I can have a painting that’s under the bed and I haven’t looked at it for three years, and then if anyone expresses an interest in it ‘buy, I say to myself, “No, this is my favorite painting.”
His favorite is “Purple Orange Trees,” which was among the 28 paintings shared with the Ogunquit Museum. After Ruth Greene-McNally, the museum’s curator and collections manager, contacted him in August about loaning the paintings for the exhibit, Leese sent two small boxes of paintings to Maine and drove the rest on the 1st. April.
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He spent three weeks there helping to organize and set up the exhibit, returned home for a week and then returned to Ogunquit with Vandervort for the exhibit opening on May 1.
“I don’t have a museum, but I always wanted the Ogunquit museum to know about me because that’s where you would like to show it,” Leese said. “It’s like a list of things to do to make it happen.”
Seeing the exhibit open to the public was overwhelming for Leese, who also heard some rather interesting comments from a visitor.
“I heard one of those two women say, ‘Well, that really pisses me off,'” he said. “And I thought, ‘What did we do that would have made someone crazy about the exhibit?’ And then I hear him say, ‘I don’t understand why there are all these not very good male artists that we know and here are all these women who are really good and that we have never heard of.’
“It was really cool, because that was the exact reason the show was made, to draw attention to these artists.”