Sept. 16 2015 01:48 PM

Retrospective exhibit honors sculptor Mel Leiserowitz

The Lansing art scene lost a prolific sculptor and educator earlier this year with the death of Melvin “Mel” Leiserowitz. The late artist is survived by a legacy of numerous and varied works, including several in the Greater Lansing area.

The Greater Lansing Housing Coalition is hosting a retrospective exhibit that features a wide array of Leiserowitz’s works, spanning his entire career as an artist. Many people know Leiserowitz’s metal goliath “Orpheus,” the geometric sculpture that sits in front of MSU’s Wharton Center. He also created the massive “Creation Wall” that takes up a handsome amount of space in the Molly Grove Chapel in Lansing’s First Presbyterian Church. Unfortunately, the ceiling of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition building cannot accommodate the massive pieces Leiserowitz was known for. But the exhibit sheds light on a different facet of his artistry, one in such great contrast to his normal work that his own family barely recognized it.

“We’ve had several people come through, and a lot of them assume that there are two different artists,” said Julie Powers, executive director of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition. “Even his own family was like, ‘Uncle Mel did that?’”

The exhibit fills much of the wall space in the building and is arranged by the different periods of his work. Visitors see a variety of styles, sometimes veering slightly into other mediums but always relating back to sculpture.

An interesting example is the “Oaxaca” series. On sabbatical in 1978, Leiserowitz lived in camper in Oaxaca, Mexico. The modest confines of a camper aren’t the most ideal quarters for producing massive sculptures, so Leiserowitz produced tiny compositions by gluing brightly colored decal paper to aluminum squares. The result is a series of sharp-edged shapes which jump all over the color spectrum. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the dozens of tiny pieces is that they served as compositional studies for large sculptures he created a few years later.

Another highlight from the exhibit is the multiple series of relief sculptures on the subject of nature, especially plants. Cement panels of various sizes become windows into wild fields resplendent in flora. Lesierowtiz’s 1994 cement relief sculpture, “Window No. 1,” gives the viewer a sense they’re peering outside from a cottage situated deep in the wild. Powers cited these works as some of the artist’s most surprising, given his reputation for works on such a large scale.

“He goes from this macro level of art and then produces this 5 by 7 (inch) relief of cattails that are so detailed you can see them swaying in the wind,” said Powers. “His juxtaposition of different styles was crazy.”

The exhibit has been a major draw for the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition since it opened last month. Guests have turned up from all over the country, some from as far as California. It’s no surprise, given the generations of artists Leiserowitz worked with during his time at MSU. Leiserowitz taught at the university from 1964 to 1991. Retirement did little to diminish Leiserowitz’s passion for teaching, and he continued work with students out of his home up until a few months before his death.

“Leiserowitz not only taught his students to be art ists but also how to conduct themselves professionally as artists,” said Powers. “He modeled the business side of art for his students, and that’s really powerful.”

Leiserowitz would often approach his art with the motto, “What if I did something different?” He might be pleased to know that his art continues to transform even after his passing. Powers cited a moving instance where she was giving a tour to some visually impaired visitors and Leisowitz’s work did just that — something different.

“So much of Mel’s show is touchable, and one of the visually impaired visitors was actually hugging one of the sculptures. She said it felt that for once she was actually able to truly ‘see’ art,” said Powers. “I’ve seen a lot of art, but I’ve never seen anyone physically experience art the way the blind woman experienced this sculpture. Mel’s art continues to affect people today in ways he cant imagine.”

Mel Leiserowitz retrospective exhibit

On display until Feb. 1 Mon-Fri 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. FREE Greater Lansing Housing Coalition 600 W. Maple St., Lansing (517) 372-5980,