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Mysterious, But Acclaimed South Coast Painter From 1940's, 50's Focus Of Exhibition

This is a story which may leave you with more questions than answers. It’s the story of a both obscure, yet acclaimed artist who pushed the boundaries of abstract watercolor paintings. Harvey Leepa did what some critics call his best work during a quarter of a century of seclusion in Montecito.

Nathan Vonk is owner of Santa Barbara’s Sullvan Goss Gallery. The downtown Santa Barbara gallery currently features 18 of Leepa’s works.

Vonk says the artist’s life is as fascinating as his abstracts, but there are big gaps in what’s known about him. He studied with some of the world’s leading painters in Europe, and then lived in Los Angeles in the 1920’s and 30’s. Then, Leepa moved to Montecito in 1942. That’s where the mystery began.

He lived in a small house in the community for 25 years, apparently painting much of the time, but virtually nothing else is known about what he did during the period. It’s unclear as to how he supported himself. He might have had some family money. But, Vonk says it’s believed that Leepa did some of his most acclaimed work while in Montecito during the 1940’s and 50’s. Then, in the 1960’s, he splashed into the art world with museum exhibitions in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and other places, even getting a writeup in the Los Angeles Times which called him an unknown artist from Montecito.

The mystery surrounding him remained. He died in 1977, at the age of 90.

You can see some of his works in the exhibition, called “The Incredible True Story of Harvey Leepa.”  As you walk into a larger room at the downtown Santa Barbara gallery, you are surrounded by his colorful works. One of the striking things is the fact they don’t look like watercolors. 

Vonk says a Denver dealer had the unframed paintings as a group. He admits he was bowled over when he saw them, and bought the entire collection, even though he didn’t know much about the artist.

The Harvey Leepa exhibition runs through December 30th at the Sullivan Goss gallery in downtown Santa Barbara. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.