Duke University Alumni Magazine

Centering Artists

Creative force: Leeper, with her Great Dane, Sister, before one of her sculptures
Photo: Jack Mitchell

ising from the palmettos and pine trees of New Symrna Beach, Florida, is a testament to the artistic vision of Doris Leeper '51. Nearly two decades ago, the sculptor, painter, and environmentalist launched plans for what would eventually become the Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA), which now spreads out over sixty-seven acres of the coastal town.

      The campus itself is stunning: Raised wooden boardwalks meander through the vegetation, connecting cottages, studios, a resource library, and an amphitheater. But the center's significance extends far beyond the impressive architectural structures and pristine environmental surroundings. Throughout the year, the ACA is home to mid-career and master artists from all disciplines who come for three-week residencies. (Typically, each master artist selects up to ten students, called associates, as colleagues.) Musicians and poets create alongside dancers and painters. Play- wrights conduct readings of works in progress, composers oversee the performance of original scores, and choreographers present new dance performances. And while residents focus intensely on their particular specialty during the week, the informal interaction with other creative souls can lead to interesting collaborations.

     "The interdisciplinary nature of what takes place here is the essence of ACA," says Leeper. "We didn't want it to be an academic environment where [master] teachers come in simply to teach how something is done. Instead, these men and women are sharing their lives--the rough and hard and good parts of their experiences as life artists."

      Leeper's idea for the center originated in Winston Salem, North Carolina, in the mid-Seventies. Well-established as a professional sculptor and painter, she was selected as the inaugural artist-in-residence at Wake Forest University and SECCA (the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art). While there, she -was struck by the diversity of cultural opportunities available. But there was not much exchange between students and [professional] artists at the different institutions. I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if you could take all these things happening in close proximity and have an exchange of thoughts and ideas?"

     The following year, the Rockefeller Foundation agreed the idea had merit and awarded a planning grant for the center's development. (Leeper, who first visited New Symrna on a spring break trip, settled in Florida after graduation.) Even as the idea accelerated, her artwork continued to be commissioned and exhibited in dozens of state, national, and international spaces. Finally, though, she decided to put her own art career on hold to devote herself full-time to establishing ACA and furthering various arts initiatives. It helped that arts funding was a priority in Florida. But the concept struck a responsive chord with private businesses and individual donors as well.

      In 1982, the Master Artists-in-Residence program was launched--in a big way. That first year, participants included poet and author James Dickey, sculptor Duane Hanson, composer David Del Tredici, playwright and director Edward Albee, writer Reynolds Price '55, and sculptor and painter Mia Westerlund Roosen. Any arts organization would be fortunate to attract even one of these names. How did ACA manage to do it the first year out? -I think the fact that it was so unusual was part of it," says Leeper. -Edward [Albee] later told us that when we called him and told him about the idea he was overwhelmed by the sheer audacity of our calling him personally to propose it that he had to look into it. And like anything, once you get a few people, it feeds on itself. When we first told people we planned to bring in the best artists in the world to work with mid-career artists, people would tell us that there was no way we could get the best in the world to come. But it's gone far beyond what even we imagined it could be."

      In the program's nearly fifteen years, the roster of master artists has included such luminaries as photographer William Wegman (and his canine muse, Fay Ray); poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Maxine Kumin, and Diane DiPrima; composers Louis Andriessen, Karel Husa, and Yuji Takahashi; and writers Bobbie Ann Mason, Peter Matthiessen, Alice Adams, and Ntozake Shange. (In addition to Reynolds Price, the residency program has attracted other Duke faculty and alumni, including poet Fred Chappell '61, A.M. '64, composer and music professor Robert Ward, and English professor Elizabeth Cox.)

      While helping launch ACA initiatives, Leeper has also resumed her own art career. Last year two exhibits of her work--a major retrospective at Rollins College's Cornell Fine Arts Musem and a show of new works at the Albertson-Peterson Gallery in Winter Park--received critical raves. Included in the retrospective, which showed her progression from two-dimensional modernist paintings all the way through to her more recent -garden sculptures" for landscaped exteriors, is -Yellow Boats," painted in 1950 while studying with Duke art professor Charles Sibley.

     Despite the countless awards and accolades that have come her way, Leeper puts her past and future accomplishments into perspective. --People always think a new idea is impossible to carry out, but that's what creative people thrive on. It's staring at a blank canvas and wondering what you're going to do with it, what you want to accomplish. All the things I've been involved with I've been fortunate to get people to go along with what I have in mind. It's true of any effort; it's the people you surround yourself with who can make it happen."

    --Bridget Booher

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