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Celebrating an American artist

Published Oct. 1, 2005

From the blue-black swirl emerges a disturbing image: A man with splashes of blood on his body, glaring out with one eye. His hands are clasped above his head.

He is Prisoner: Personage 351, American artist Abraham Rattner's oil representation of Holocaust victims.

The painting is among at least 1,000 pieces of art that St. Petersburg Junior College has received since Rattner's estate was donated by his stepson, artist Allen Leepa of Tarpon Springs.

At the September announcement of the donation, college officials said they expected to receive some 150 works by Rattner, Leepa and sculptor Esther Gentle Rattner, Leepa's mother.

But there is much more than finished work in the boxes arriving at SPJC. The collection also includes sketches, letters and diaries. More personal items from Rattner's estate are expected from the Smithsonian Institution.

The number of pieces poses a challenge to the college as it develops plans for a museum to house the collection on the Tarpon Springs campus. Originally, SPJC had planned a 5,000-square-foot facility, but now it will have to be much bigger. Leepa and his wife, Isabelle, donated $2.15-million to help build the museum and to provide an endowment to sustain it. The school anticipates having to raise additional money for the museum.

For Pinellas County, the museum will be a place to learn about American art. Rattner's works range from realistic representations to abstract expressionism. Leepa is an abstract artist.

For the college, the gift has immeasurable worth. Rattner's sketches, lithographs, woven tapestries, sculptures, paintings and stained glass, until now scattered in museums and universities all over the world, will find a permanent home at the SPJC museum.

"Most colleges don't expect this," said Janice Buchanan, SPJC's director of advancement and a professor of humanities. "We've been entrusted with these great works that we must care for in the right way and do everything like the world's best museums do."

The artwork arrives in huge boxes every day, some boxes containing up to 20 paintings. Two battered cabinets from Rattner's New York estate have 16 drawers crammed full of unmounted sketches and paintings. Seventy-five portfolios each hold more than 20 smaller works.

Seven bundles of unstretched canvas lie on the floor. Inside are Leepa paintings, some as tall as 6 feet.

The art already has filled one storage room and a second is nearing capacity. The number and worth of the art won't be known until it is appraised and cataloged.

Wearing white gloves, Buchanan and art instructor Peggy Harvey endeavor every day to record the discoveries in each box.

"Every day is so exciting, you open a new treasure," said Harvey, who has a master's degree in museum sciences.

Like Personage 351, each painting gives new glimpses into the life and mind of the mid-century artist whose name is not well-known to the public but is renowned in art circles.

Prisoner: Personage 351 was Rattner's protest of the genocide of European Jews, Buchanan said .

"It's not any particular prisoner," she said. "It's Auschwitz and the idea that we should never number people . . . It was his way of showing the agony of when one person is numbered, the rest of us are diminished."

Not all of Rattner's work is so dark. The 1924 watercolor series Seaside shows some playfulness, with colorful figures lounging on the beach.

"While he despairs at some things man did to man, he also rejoices greatly," Buchanan said. "I think he saw his art as a way of moving people to the best of behavior."

A spiritual man who was a Russian Jew, Buchanan said, Rattner includes a number of biblical images in his work.

One series of 1974 lithographs resembles giant greeting cards. The covers are decorated with verses from scripture written in Rattner's elegant calligraphy. Inside are lithographs with epic images from the Bible. Moses stands atop Mount Sinai in a swirl of orange and yellow, clinging to the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

"He has a wonderful mixture of Hebraic and Jewish and Christian belief," Buchanan said. "Many of his works enlighten the passages from the Torah and Talmud. But he also has chosen, as has Leepa, the figure of Christ on the cross."

Rattner was clearly influenced by the events of his lifetime: World War I, living as an expatriate artist in Paris, the Great Gatsby days, World War II, the Holocaust and, at the end of his life, atrocities in Baghdad and the wars of the Middle East.

Because the Leepas never sold any of the art in Rattner's collection, the museum will reflect the artist's life. In one portfolio there is a landscape painted by Rattner when he was a teenager, and there are paintings from his final years in the 1970s. The museum also will show Leepa's work from early years _ he was born in 1919 _ to the present.

"The finest characteristic of what this collection will be is it is retrospective," Buchanan said. "There are not big gaps in either of the artists' artwork."

The collection also has some work by other artists, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault and Henry Moore. As Buchanan explains, many artists struggled financially, so they gave each other art as gifts.

Rattner lived near Picasso in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. At the dawn of World War II, Rattner fled Europe, leaving behind much of his work. The college is trying to track down some of those lost pieces, Buchanan said.

One of the college's greatest challenges will be to design a building for the Rattner/Leepa collection. That job has been given to architect Ed Hoffman of Tarpon Springs.

"It's what all architects would dream of doing," Hoffman said. "As an architect, so much of our background is in art. It becomes three-dimensional, functional art that we do."

Hoffman said ultimately the art will determine what the building will look like.

"The work is so strong, I can say I don't want the building to compete with the work," Hoffman said.

The college is committed to the idea that the museum will be a place of education. Art students will do research in the large workshop area planned for the back of the museum.

The art lends itself to teaching, Buchanan said. Rattner's portfolios are filled with early "studies" or sketched drafts of some of his best-known paintings. She said they are trying to match the studies to the final products.

"People from all over the world will have an opportunity to do research in this area of modern art," Buchanan said.

Harvey, who is helping catalog the pieces, is creating a videotape of Leepa at work that will be used for art classes and the museum. In a segment on abstract art, Leepa talked about expressing boldness and aggression.

"It's such a treasure to have someone who can interpret," Buchanan said. "In my opinion, Rattner and Leepa are kind of soulmates. Had they never met as family they would have bonded in another way."

The Rattner and Leepa pieces should help people see the art in a new way, Buchanan hopes.

"Sometimes when I look at these I have to run out and tell somebody," she said, looking around the crowded warehouse. "Once they start seeing the art, the art becomes its own reward."