Leo Dee (1931 - 2004 )

Leo Joseph Dee was born in 1931 in Newark, New Jersey, a city with which he maintained a life-long affiliation. His family was well educated and his father was in the import business, which allowed the family to travel abroad often. Travel was a great help to Dee with his artwork. Much of Dee's motivation to become an artist came from his grandmother, Elenita Roloff, who had studied art in New York City and continued her education at the Fawcett School of Industrial Art in Newark.

Dee's family moved several times during his childhood. They lived in Caldwell and Newark, New Jersey, Flushing and Hampton Bay, Long Island, and New York City. Dee attended Arts High School in Newark, where he met his friend and first mentor, Seymour Landsman, who became an important influence on him. In 1950 Dee attended his grandmother's alma mater, the Fawcett School of Industrial Art  by then renamed the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art. Dee was on a three year scholarship because of his outstanding designs.

Although he came to the institute as an illustration major, Dee took a variety of courses. "He took classes in portrait painting with Leopold Matzel, graphic arts with Hans Mueller, illustration with Gould Hulse and Avery Johnson, lettering with Samuel Millet, sculpture with James Rosati and Reuben Nakian, color theory with Ben Cunningham, and realistic drawing with Charles Goeller. Many of these instructors were widely recognized artists in their own right, some on an international level. Rosati and Nakian, for example, were well-known sculptors; Cunningham was a leading painter in the Optical Art movement; Goeller was an established Precisionist artist."(1)


Winterpret, 1955, pencil on paper. Photo source: / Harley's Collectibles.

After graduation Dee was drafted into the army right away. He took his basic training courses at Camp Gordon, Georgia, and finished his two years in Maryland. Even in the army, Dee did not give up on his true love, designing and executing signs and posters at the base. He was also interested in drawing and painting his officers. In 1956 he completed his time in the army and decided to return to school, using the G.I. Bill to return to the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art for an additional two years.

After recognizing that his skills lay in fine, precise drawing techniques, Dee realized that illustration was his best area. In 1958 he started teaching at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art. He taught realistic drawing techniques and became a popular and respected professor. His colleagues on the faculty of the Newark School included "Hannes Beckman (who taught design and color), Hillaire Hiler (color), Joseph Konzal (sculpture), Gerson Leiber (print making), and Reuben Nakian (sculpture). Dee also taught as a visiting instructor at the Summit (New Jersey) Art Center and at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey."

In 1963 Dee married Elaine Evans, an art historian who had worked in the drawing collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library and would for many years serve as Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. With their son Jeffrey, the Dees moved first to Nutley, New Jersey, and then to Maplewood. They began spending summers near Truro on Cape Cod, a place that would figure largely in Dee's life and work.

1963 was also significant as the year Dee's collage/drawing Self-Portrait and his painting Reflections in White received critical acclaim and public attention when they were exhibited at The Newark Museum. New Jersey writers as well as New York critics commented positively on his work. The artist/writer Michael Lenson (indexed on this website under Painting) wrote about Dee's work for Newark's Sunday News, comparing the self-portrait to works by Mondrian and calling Reflections in White a "prodigious feat of superrealism." In Newark's Star-Ledger, Donald Malafronte proclaimed the latter "a tour-de-force" and praised Dee for his "intense concern for truth and purity."

"During the 1970s and 1980s, Dee's work appeared in almost every major group or annual exhibition organized by or held in New Jersey's several art institutions and organizations, as well as in other important exhibitions in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Among these were the triennial exhibitions of New Jersey Artists, held at the Newark Museum (where he won a Purchase Award in 1981), and the annual exhibitions of the Audubon Artists, the National Academy of Design in New York (where he won the Cannon Prize in 1987), the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton (where he won a Purchase Award in 1970), and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1965-66, Dee took part in the art section of the New Jersey Pavilion at the New York World's Fair and the traveling exhibition of drawings circulated by the American Federation of Arts..."

In 1996, after his retirement, Dee and his family moved to Truro, Cape Cod. The artist explored his love for the outdoors by painting and drawing the landscape more and more. As he grew older, his interest in gardens and the beauty of plants increased. Dee continued working nearly until his death in 2004.

(Kfir Cohen, Spring 2009)


Quotations and other information above taken from David B. Dearinger, "Leo Dee (1931-2004), biography online. Accessed April 2009. See "tfaoi" link below.

The most important published source on Leo Dee is William H. Gerdts, "The Art of Leo Dee, essay in exhibition catalogue, The Art of Leo Dee (New York: Coe Kerr Gallery, Inc., 1975), n.p.


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