Down East 2013 ©
Leo Brooks was a difficult man. He could be generous and charming, but anger and bitterness percolated beneath his neat, well-groomed, avuncular exterior. He could cut people off without notice, simply turning his back or turning off his hearing aid, and he could cut people out of his life entirely, as he did with his art dealer, his sisters, even his own son. Strangely, however, the conflict in Brooks’ life is nowhere evident in his art.
Between the time he took up painting at the age of sixty and his death in 1993 at age eighty-four, Leo Brooks created a small but distinctive place for himself in the annals of Maine art with a body of boldly colorful, oddly distorted, and crudely drawn watercolors that, in their seeming innocence, brought a child-like freshness to pictures of the fishermen and boats, lighthouses and rocky shore of Monhegan island. Looking at Leo Brooks’ bright, simple, upbeat coastal Maine watercolors today, it is hard to imagine that they were created by a grumpy old man who spent most of his life on the mean streets of the Bronx.
“His artwork was the best part of him, the energy, the passion for life,” says Elaine Reed, a noted Vermont watercolorist who befriended Brooks on Monhegan.
Leo Brooks was born in New York City in 1909, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a tailor who custom-made clothing for wealthy clientele, often taking his entire family to live on his customers’ estates while he created bespoke wardrobes. This exposure gave Brooks both a lifelong love-hate relationship with money and a habit of being well dressed himself.
Though Brooks spent his working life as a linotype operator for the New York Times, he definitely possessed a creative gene. During the Depression, he worked as a documentary photographer for the Works Progress Administration and later studied enamel and silver jewelry-making with Danish designer Adda Husted-Andersen. He was an intelligent, well-read, and opinionated man with a workingman’s preference for socialism.
Brooks’ second calling as an artist seems to have come about late in life and almost by accident. During a strike against the New York Times, he killed time by accompanying a friend to painting classes at the Art Students League. At retirement, he threw himself wholeheartedly into painting watercolors, studying first with Mario Cooper (1905–1995) at the Art Students league and then with Edgar Whitney (1891–1987), author of the influential Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting. When Whitney died, Brooks and a few dozen of Whitney’s other students formed 30 Artists and continued to paint together.
What might have been just an old age hobby turned into a second career for Brooks when, in the 1970s, he discovered the raw and rugged beauty of Monhegan, one of Maine’s long-established summer art colonies. On Monhegan, Brooks became a regular summer guest at the Trailing Yew, renting the same small room behind the laundry year after year in order to have access to water and the use of the back porch to paint and hold court.
A great admirer of the work of watercolorist James Fitzgerald (1899–1971), Brooks’ produced work that shows the influence of Fitzgerald’s Monhegan paintings, in particular the use of heavy black outlines and the simplification of forms. Though there are arguably more artists on Monhegan than fishermen, Brooks never really became part of the established art colony. Instead, he became the focus of his own little coterie of friends invited to the island for visits.
“He was not part of the art crowd,” says Sally MacVane, Brooks’ first collector and dealer. “Leo was an outsider almost by choice. He had an explosive temper. A lot of people avoided Leo on the island.”
MacVane, who owned and operated Monhegan’s general store for several years, met Brooks one day when she saw one of his watercolors tacked to the porch of the Trailing Yew. MacVane purchased the painting, a picture of fishermen cleaning fish on Fish Beach, for two hundred dollars, marking Brooks’ first sale. When MacVane sold the island store and moved ashore to Port Clyde, Leo Brooks’ watercolors became the mainstay of the Gallery-by-the-Sea, which she operated from 1989 until 2004.
“There was a naïveté about Leo,” says MacVane of the exuberant nature of Brooks’ popular paintings. “Because he began painting in his sixties, everything was new to him.”
MacVane sees a lot of James Fitzgerald and Marsden Hartley in Brooks’ bold, blocky work, but art critic Carl Little, who included Brooks in his book The Art of Monhegan Island, detects more subtle and foreign influences.
“Leo Brooks had a little bit of Marc Chagall in him,” observes Little, “a sense of the fanciful, but he also paid tribute to island livelihoods in a meaningful way. I think of him as one of those remarkable seasonal island artists, like Zero Mostel, part of a culturally diverse mix of painters who found welcoming refuge on Monhegan Island.”
And Monhegan surely was a refuge for Leo Brooks. By the time he took up painting, Brooks had lost his first wife to cancer and divorced his second wife. And though he told people he had no family, he did in fact have a son by his second wife, and two sisters. He was estranged from all three. Most of the year he lived in a rent-controlled, fourth-floor walk-up in a seedy neighborhood in the Bronx. He lived to paint — and for the summer months he spent on Monhegan. Sculptor William Zorach’s autobiography is entitled Art Is My Life, but in Leo Brooks’ case, art was his afterlife.
Though Brooks, who was as hard on himself as he was on others, often described himself as an amateur, he was ambitious for his work, and it sold well while he was alive. Much of the money he made from the sale of his paintings he gave away, his favorite charity being Planned Parenthood.
When federal funding for Planned Parenthood was cut drastically in the 1980s, Brooks, who had no great use for the U.S. government during the best of times, became incensed and donated heavily to the cause of reproductive health.
“Leo had made up his mind that, because he grew up poor, he would not benefit from the sale of his artwork,” says Elaine Reed. “He would use it to support other artists and Planned Parenthood. I once mailed a check he wrote out for sixty thousand dollars to Planned Parenthood. Sometimes when people purchased paintings, he had them make the check out directly to Planned Parenthood.”
Leo Brooks’ dislike for government authority ultimately played a part in his falling out with his friend and dealer Sally MacVane. As MacVane tells it, Brooks had sold a group of forty paintings to Japanese collectors, and suddenly had more money than he knew what to do with. “Leo decided he wanted to pay the rent on my gallery for the next five years,” explains Sally MacVane. “He said, ‘Either I do that or I have to pay taxes on it.’ ”
MacVane initially balked at the idea, as did her landlord, but MacVane was ready to acquiesce to Brooks’ demand when he called and blew up at her on the phone. When the yelling stopped, MacVane was stunned.
“Do you want your work back then?” she asked.
“What do I want that for?!” Brooks shot back. “I already gave it away.”
After the falling out with MacVane and the Gallery-by-the-Sea, Brooks started showing his new work at Gallery One in the Huston-Tuttle art supply store in Rockland.
Lori Chasse, who owned Huston-Tuttle from 1979 until 1992 when she moved to Arizona, still sells Brooks’ work on the Internet. Her assessment of Brooks’ volatile personality is quite simple. “His wife passed away at a young age of cancer,” she says. “That left him very bitter, I think.”
Toward the end of his life, Leo Brooks suffered increasingly from a bad heart, diabetes, depression, deafness, and failing eyesight. With the dimming of his vision, his late paintings became increasingly bright.
In the late 1980s, Brooks, who considered himself primarily a colorist and often made three copies of the same painting just to try out different color relations, wrote in a letter to Sally MacVane that he had spent the entire summer on Monhegan re-painting earlier paintings.
“The object — to do the same thing but with more color vitality,” he wrote. “I was pleased because I stepped things up a few notches color-wise. Now I need the energy to keep painting.”
The last two summers of his life, Leo Brooks was not well enough to travel to Monhegan. In the city, he became increasingly isolated and dependent on others. He did, however, find the energy to keep painting almost until the end.
One day in 1993, not long before Brooks died, Sally MacVane, who had not heard from the artist for some time, got a phone call. “You want some paintings?” Brooks asked bluntly.
Certainly, MacVane wanted some new paintings to sell.
“I’ll call when I get them,” she told Brooks.
“Don’t bother,” he replied. “I won’t be here.”
Shortly thereafter, boxes of paintings began arriving at the offices of the Camden Herald, where MacVane was then working as an editor.
Back in the Bronx, Leo Brooks summoned Elaine Reed and her husband to have dinner with him. At the restaurant, Reed noticed that Brooks was indulging himself with all sorts of foods that were not on a diabetic’s diet. “Leo, you’re not supposed to be eating that,” Reed reprimanded Brooks when he ordered a big piece of pie.
“I know. I know,” Brooks replied dismissively.
It was Leo Brooks’ last supper.
Two days later, when Elaine Reed phoned Brooks to see how he was doing, the phone was answered by a custodian busy cleaning out Brooks’ apartment. Leo Brooks was dead.
A long-time member of the Hemlock Society, Brooks had been stockpiling sleeping pills for years against the day he would end his life. That day, May 10, 1993, was clearly marked on his calendar with the words “I quit.”
Prior to taking his own life, Brooks wrote a long, elegiac letter to friends explaining, “the quality of life that I want is no longer possible.”
“But, as they say, suns coalesce from gases, grow old, shrink, and explode: mountains are pushed up from within the earth and wear down, and the Monhegan cliffs crumble and form jagged rocks which in turn are rolled by the sea to become pebbles and grains of sand, so we also come to an end.”
To mark his passing, friends on Monhegan held a memorial service and set a wreath afloat in the harbor. Sally MacVane mounted a posthumous retrospective that sold extremely well. Brooks’ long-lost son, Woody, then an attorney in Alaska, inquired about his father’s estate, but Brooks had provided Sally MacVane with legal documents attesting to her ownership.
Since she closed the Gallery-by-the-Sea in 2004, MacVane has consigned Brooks’ work to Greenhut Galleries in Portland, where prices range from $500 for a small sketch to $4,500 for a large watercolor. The lively scenes of fishermen and lobstermen, which have commanded as much as $18,000, are mostly gone now. The landscapes remain, along with playful nudes and odd, Picasso-sequel line drawings Brooks did with a hypodermic needle using white ink on black paper.
John Day, whose collection of Monhegan art was shown at Bates College Museum of Art in 2001 as “Monhegan, The Abstracted Island,” knew Leo Brooks and owns several of his paintings. “In the 1980s he was one of the best artists on the island,” says Day. “It was a shame he did not paint earlier or that his work is so dispersed.”
Leo Brooks, however, seems to have left his life and his art behind with no regrets. “I did what I wanted in a way that I wanted and envied no one,” he wrote in his final farewell. “Tho the possibility was there for what some would call a fuller life, what I had was fulfilling and satisfying and in finding a lifestyle that gave
existence an eagerness and serenity, I could not ask for anything more.”
According to Woody Brooks, Leo Brooks’ son, his father’s first trip to Maine came in the 1960s when, on the advice of an outdoor editor at the New York Times, he hired a guide in Fort Kent and took a trip down the Allagash.
For many summers thereafter, Brooks brought his young son to Maine to fish at Pocomoonshine Lake Lodge. For three summers, Woody Brooks also attended a canoeing camp on East Grand Lake. “He instilled a love of Maine in me,” says Woody Brooks, who lived in Windsor for several years while his wife was practicing medicine in Augusta.
Though he visited his father at the Trailing Yew twice after Leo Brooks discovered Monhegan, Woody Brooks, who now lives in Florida, says he had little or no contact with his father during the last few years of his life.
“He was a voluminous correspondent. He’d write these long letters, and I wasn’t able to respond the way he would have liked, and it upset him,” says Brooks of his estrangement from his father. “He decided I didn’t want any contact with him, which was not true.”
Noting that his father was a “very loving” man with “an uncontrollable temper,” Brooks says shunning people seemed to run in his family.
“His family did a lot of cutting people off,” explains Brooks. “In the generation ahead of him, there were thirteen siblings. They had a violent, purely political argument and the family, all Russian immigrants, split into two factions. There was the Leninist wing and the Trotskyite wing. I never met half of my great-aunts and great-uncles.”
Of the dispersed nature of his estate, which has made it difficult to establish a place for Leo Brooks in art history, his son says simply, “I guess that’s the way he wanted it. He did his best before his death to give everything away.”