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Chaparral 2018-2019: 27.1 Leonard DeGrassi

Leonard DeGrassi: The Legacy of Art in Glendale College Instruction

 by Roger Bowerman
Professor of History

Leonard DeGrassiI am writing this short piece in memory of one of the most gifted and memorable faculty members in the history of our college, Sir Leonard DeGrassi. Educated in Art History at USC, he spent a year of his graduate studies restoring pre-Renaissance paintings in Rome, studied Egyptology and hieroglyphics at UCLA, was knighted by Pope Paul VI for the Italian State, and was a member of the French Academy of the Arts. His ability to engage students in the classroom was legendary and his knowledge of art history encyclopedic. Our Distinguished Faculty Award was created in 1971 because members of the college felt it necessary to recognize his unique and profound contribution to Glendale College. The last point in this brief overview of Leonard is that, above all else, he loved our college.

To help you understand a little more about this amazing instructor, artist and friend, I would like to recount some of my personal experiences one spring semester. These stories can help you really understand and appreciate Sir Leonard DeGrassi.

I first met Leonard when I was recruited to co-lead a Study Abroad trip to Florence, Italy for the spring semester of 1998. This was a semester-long program, with the students living in apartments all over the city of Florence. I was going to teach History, while Leonard would teach Art History and Drawing. As we spent time together that summer, I began to learn so much about this amazing GCC asset. Virtually every day revealed new facets of his knowledge and his commitment to students and student learning. He was kind and gentle, but most of all unassuming. Despite his vast knowledge, he never made people around him feel inferior or inadequate, when virtually anyone he interacted with was actually both. Those three months living in Florence transformed my view of the college, of teaching, and most of all my dedication to our students.

He held the drawing classes in a rooftop apartment where three of our students were staying. There was one afternoon in particular, about 2/3 of the way through the semester, where I visited his class. Leonard seemed to be everywhere all at once. The artistic training and ability of these students varied dramatically, and yet each of them felt that they were his only focus. He scurried from table to table, providing just the right combination of support and critique, with each observation identifying the essential improvement that would bring that student to their next level. The joyful energy of this group of students was an incomparable learning event, with Leonard orchestrating a symphony of charcoal, pencil and pen. The clear attentiveness and care exhibited that afternoon has served as a model for my interaction with students ever sense.

Then there was the trip to the Archeological Museum. On the bottom floor of this museum located just inside the roadway that rings central Florence – a mere 10-minute walk from where David is exhibited – our students were introduced to the world of ancient Egypt. Many of these students had never been to a museum of this kind and seemed intellectually adrift in the world of pharaohs and mummies. That is when Leonard gathered these students around an Egyptian coffin, and began reading the hieroglyphics. The mood was immediately transformed as students came to see that these images that appeared to have no meaning were actually a language. Not only that, this professor could read it. Amazement turned to awe and ultimately evolved into genuine interest as he recounted the life of this ancient noble.

Another afternoon memory revolved around viewing an early Renaissance tryptic painted by the master Giotto. The students and I stood before this alter piece, appreciating the image and design. But Leonard had more to show us. He walked to the left side of the canvas and began pointing out the layers of pigment used in this masterpiece. You could see gesso, underpainting, glazes, core pigment, highlights, the entire gamete of techniques used in this era of painting. And why was he able to identify all of this? Because he not only had restored pre-and early Renaissance paintings while a graduate student, he was also – at that time – painting similar works back in his home town of Minnesota. This revelation transformed how I examine art, and to this day when in a museum I look for so much more than the front-facing image of a canvas. The “how” of painting has become just as important as the “what” of painting.

Finally, there is what Sir DeGrassi did for the two advanced art students that came on this trip. One of them was already a muralist commissioned to paint the ceiling of a local Glendale church. The other was a technically expert photo-realistic sketch artist. For these two, Leonard use his understanding of Italian bureaucracy to provide a once-in-a lifetime experience: Leonard, using his name and credentials, wrote a letter of introduction to the archival space of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This archive, known as the Cabineto, housed the works of masters such as Di Vinci and Michelangelo. Master sketches were brought out by white-gloved museum staff and placed before these GCC students. They then had the opportunity to sketch from the works of original masters. I met with one of these students years later, and he still reveled in the experience of working in that sacred space to perfect his art.

I hope that these few words help you to understand a little bit more about Sir Leonard DeGrassi. But more than that, I hope it helps you appreciate the roots of our current art program here at Glendale College. It is just another way that our institution excels, and another reason to feel pride in our history and people.

I hope that these few words help you to understand a little bit more about Sir Leonard DeGrassi. But more than that, I hope it helps you appreciate the roots of our current art program here at Glendale College. It is just another way that our institution excels, and another reason to feel pride in our history and people.

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