He scours basements for items such as beat-up old doors and cabinets that were intended for the dump, and paws through half-empty paint cans with paint that is hard as a rock.
“Every day I go into work, it’s like Christmas,” says Belfast artist, Eric Leppanen. “People throw things away that I find tons of value in. I’m always trying to find a way to make discarded stuff into something that someone else finds value in, as well.”
Leppanen’s journey as an artist has a familiar ring to it, particularly in this recession-weary state. He was laid off from his corporate job more than three years ago. Governor Angus King, who recently spoke at the Juice Conference 3.0, also found himself downsized at one point in his career before running for governor. For both King and Leppanen, facing a lay-off became the catalyst for finding their true calling.
Growing up in Owls Head and Rockland, Leppanen moved to Boston to attend college at Suffolk University. He worked on getting his degree in business and marketing, taking all of his electives in the art fields. During this time, he experimented with creating oil paintings. He’d clean the house of his art professor, who’d then give him discarded canvases to work on.
“I loved the cultural mix of the city, the excitement of it, but ultimately, I wanted to move back to the Midcoast to be near friends and family,” says Leppanen, sitting casually on his back deck. He is soft-spoken, laid back. With his beard and dark cap, he looks as though he fits easily in the world of fishermen.
In the past couple of years, his work has been featured in Rockland’s Asymmetrick Arts gallery, which he’ll return to in December for a group artist show. At the time of this interview, Leppanen’s artwork is on display at Belfast Co-op throughout November. One wall features a grid of mini pint-sized paint cans. The variegated colors that have slopped down each paint can are messy, vibrant and strangely harmonious. His other pieces feature found or reclaimed materials, such as a piece of driftwood his grandfather kept for a number of years, which Leppanen lacquered in shiny black.
Perhaps it’s no mistake that the logical grid-like formation of the mini paint can piece reflects Leppanen’s analytical side. Coming back to Maine in 1993, the first job he took out of college was with MBNA and he stayed there 10 years before moving on to Bank of America.
“The corporate world is very analytical, black and white, 1s and 0s,” recalls Leppanen. During this entire time, he didn’t make much artwork. “I was tired at the end of the day. I didn’t have the time, the space for it or the energy.”
Then in 2009, he found himself, along with others, laid off from Bank of America.
“It was a little shocking,” he says, “but I came home to my wife with a big smile and said, ‘hey I’m laid off. Let’s just start something new.’ She was a little worried, but I said, ‘it’s all going to be good. I feel really happy.’ Right now I’m so thankful. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The Leppanens took a drive across the county and talked about what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives and by the time they returned to Maine, they’d hatched a plan. They took the entrepreneurial tack, creating a house-cleaning and property care business called aNeatNook. They’ve been doing this business together for three years.
“We often get discards, which I try to re-appropriate into art,” he says. “If I don’t use it in art, I sort through it, give it away to people who might need it, or take it to Goodwill. I try to bring as little as possible to the dump.”
As the writer Pearl Buck once said, “To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.” This is Leppanen’s mantra.
“I really enjoy what I do now, since I really feel cleaning is an art form in itself,” he says in his quiet, deliberate manner. “Each day I can see tangible results, accomplishments and the thrill of making our environment a better place. It's my small part to improve the world and/or the houses of folks I come in contact with. In the corporate world, it was the exact opposite. I’d crank it out for ten hours and at the end of the day, feel as though I accomplished nothing. The end product of my efforts was not a valuable contribution to society. I was a cog in the debt machine.”
As he stands in his disheveled, paint-splattered basement, he presents multiple pieces in various stages of creation. He usually works on two three pieces at a time. Though he works 40 hours a week in his cleaning business, he spends at least three hours each night on his art in some form, whether creating it or marketing it, sleeping from 2 to 6 a.m., then getting up and doing it all over again.
“I love it. I thrive on it,” he says. “It took 40 years, but I found my passion.”
For more information about Leppanen’s artwork visit http://eleppanen.com.
The Killer Convo
This blog is a is a killer roundup of all arts, entertainment, brewery & distillery, food trucks, happy hour happenings in the Midcoast Maine. Feel free to email me anything about Midcoast arts, entertainment & the creative economy.