One thing I love about my job is that sometimes I have no idea where my day will lead. In early 2014 an editor emailed me on a chilly morning and that afternoon I was surrounded by the spirit-lifting art-filled warehouse of collector Jack Leissring. Here’s my story for Sonoma magazine. I only had a day and a half to write it, but sometimes I feel I work best when I work quickly. Click here to read story on Sonoma magazine site and see the photos by John Burgess:
Sonoma magazine, March-April 2014
By Michael Shapiro
Just north of Railroad Square in Santa Rosa at Eighth and Davis streets is an elementary school on one corner and a chiropractor’s office on another. Across the street, adjacent to the humming freeway, is a nondescript sand-colored building, a converted warehouse whose outer appearance offers no hint about what lies hidden inside.
Jack Leissring, an artist and the former owner of the McDonald Mansion in Santa Rosa, has converted the warehouse into a luminous gallery for housing his wide-ranging, museum-quality collection. It’s a high-ceilinged, two-story space with a startling variety of paintings, drawings and photographs covering every wall, yet somehow it doesn’t feel cluttered.
“Almost every extra penny I have I spend on art, the other pennies I spent on women,” he says, pauses, then adds: “I still have the art.”
Throughout the space are tables with sculptures and busts, many made by artists who have become his friends. Most pieces are by creators who work under the radar, not those celebrated by museums and top galleries.
“Every piece I’ve ever purchased is because of an emotional response,” Leissring says, tapping a fist to his heart. “I have some big names, but that’s immaterial to me. This tendency we have to adulate some and ignore others is a tragic flaw.”
When a guest asks for a tour to “make sense of the collection,” Leissring shoots back: “That’s impossible – there’s no sense to it. This is the complete manifestation of my madness, and I can’t hide it.” On a more serious note, he adds: “There’s a lot of love here; I’m emotionally involved with probably every piece.”
He calls the warehouse the “emergency landing field” for his art, “in case I lose my house.” He lives next door to the McDonald mansion in its former carriage house surrounded by his own sculptures and other artwork he created.
Leissring, 78, bought the McDonald Mansion in the mid-1970s and sold it in 2005, which he said was a relief. “It was too expensive – I was doing it for the city,” he said. The historic, 19th-century home burned in the late ’70s. Leissring, who’s also a designer, restored it, saying it was “the best toy a boy could ever have.”
He started collecting art when he was a 12-year-old living in Milwaukee, when the only collections his peers were interested in were boxes of baseball cards. A year later he commissioned a painting for the first time.
His fascination with art deepened when he studied the work and writing of English sculptor, painter and author Michael Ayrton. Leissring calls Ayrton “the most intelligent, loquacious, talented polymath I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve been drawn along a pathway largely due to his influence.”
Winding through the warehouse are rows and rows of shelves containing thousands of art books. They’re organized alphabetically by subject – a random glance takes in large-format tomes about Kahlo, Kandinsky, Klee, Magritte and Miró.
Walking through the building, which Leissring completely remodeled and designed about eight years ago, feels like traversing a maze. The room dividers and shelves are made of bamboo flooring slats; square skylights large and small evoke a painting by Mondrian.
Etchings are displayed so they can be seen up close. But Leissring says only 2 to 3 percent of the 6,000 to 7,000 items in his collection is visible. Thousands of drawings are housed in wide drawers in the warehouse, which Leissring will gladly open upon request.
Though his art is lovingly displayed, Leissring’s warehouse is not a museum – it’s not open to the public – and it’s not a gallery. But every couple of months he welcomes visitors for an afternoon viewing because he believes “eyes need to see this stuff.”
Some visitors ask him to put up stickers describing the artworks, “but I say no,” Leissring says. “That would miss the point of it – either you’re moved by the image or you aren’t.”
Among his most treasured works are paintings and etchings by French cubist Jacques Villon, but Leissring says he’s considering selling his entire collection of Villon’s work, 358 pieces, which he believes is the largest in the world. “I’d love to sell it all because I think it belongs together.” He believes the Villon collection is worth $1.2 million.
The retired physician, who worked for three decades at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital as laboratory director, reiterates that he doesn’t buy art to deal it.
“I’ve never bought anything for re-sale. … It puts art in the position of being commoditized. But I have two pieces of real estate, both with mortgages,” which can’t be covered by his Social Security check.
As the impromptu tour continues and mid-century jazz pours through small speakers in every room, Leissring describes a table of heads by the sculptor Jerrold Ballaine. He shows a visitor his second-floor desk, which overlooks his collection like the captain’s wheelhouse on a ship.
A mezzotint (a print created with gradations of black ink pressed into paper) by Leissring’s grandfather, John Cother Webb, is so precise and realistic the quality is almost photographic. Near that classic work is a more modern piece, a luridly colored painting called “Wild Dog” by Mexican artist Rafino Tamayo.
“They don’t have to be of a type to hang together,” Leissring says. “They just have to be good.”
Today, Leissring spends most of his days ensconced in his collection. A genuine Renaissance man, he arrives at the warehouse early in the morning, draws for an hour or more, then plays piano.
He has published dozens of books about artists he admires through his J.C. Leissring Fine Arts Press. When asked where they’re sold, Leissring exclaims: “Nobody buys them!” then concedes some can be purchased online as print-on-demand.
The warehouse is equipped with a kitchen and washer/dryer, making it move-in ready if Leissring needs to – or chooses to – give up the McDonald carriage house.
Asked if he’s been approached by museums or galleries about his collection, Leissring laughs and says: “Nobody knows about me. I’m not waving my flag. This is just something I had to do, and I did it.”
To get on the list of people that Leissring invites to see his collection, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about his collection, see jclfa.com or jclfineart.com.
Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place” and an entertainment writer for The Press Democrat. Contact him at email@example.com.