Local Artist Leon Makielski Remembered in Exhibit at Saline District Library

 09/29/2017 - 23:03
Self Portrait of Leon Makielski, well-known painter
Self Portrait of Leon Makielski, on display at Saline District Library through the end of October, 2017

To most residents of Washtenaw County, the name Makielski is synonymous with raspberries and blackberries. To many, however, Makielski is instead synonymous with fine art - beautiful landscapes reminiscent of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas-like pastel sketches of dancers, and beautiful portraits painted so skillfully that their subjects are nearly brought to life.  This amazing body of work was created by Leon Makielski in the early twentieth century, and has been brought to the Saline District Library for an exhibit that feels like it was taken straight from the walls of the Louvre.  

Born May 17, 1885 in Morris Run, Pennsylvania, Leon took to art at a very young age.  When he was still in his early teens, he left his family’s home in South Bend, Indiana, and headed to Illinois.  There he attended The Art Institute of Chicago, advancing so quickly that at the young age of 23 he became an instructor there.  He was also awarded the John Quincy Adams Traveling Scholarship, the Institute’s top prize.  

The young artist was interested in learning more about European Impressionism, so after graduating from The Art Institute, he traveled to Paris, where he spent four years studying at the Académie Julian and Académie de la Grande Chaumière.  From 1909-1913, he was based in the artists’ colony at Giverny, studying, painting in the parks, and traveling to many other European countries, including England, Italy, Germany, and Poland.  While he traveled, he painted, capturing many of the beautiful landscapes throughout Europe.  Makielski is included in a book by William H. Gerdts called “Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony” (which can be seen in a display case of the Saline Library show) as an artist who contributed to the arts scene at the time Monet was painting there.  

Makielski’s immense talent did not go unnoticed in France, and in 1910 and 1911, he exhibited paintings at Paris’ famed Salons.  In 1912, Leon booked passage on the Titanic, but decided at the last minute to stay in France, a decision that saved his life, but not two of his paintings, which he had sent on the ship to be brought to America.

Leon returned to America in 1913, and in 1915, settled in Ann Arbor.  Here he continued his career as a successful artist, painting portraits and landscapes, and teaching fine art at the University of Michigan and at the Meinsinger Art School in Detroit.  He painted around 50 portraits of fellow professors at the University of Michigan (which still hang at the school), local business leaders and government figures, as well members his own family, several of which portraits can be seen in the Saline Library Exhibit. His portraits are listed in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, making our opportunity to see them in our own library even more of a unique event!

Leon married Anna Schmidt on July 13, 1921, and they went on to have five children: Elizabeth, Marjorie, Edward & Donald (identical twins), and Joan.  As Leon’s family grew, his house, a converted barn, also grew.  He built on porches and bedrooms, creating a living work of art in his family home, with help from his children and friends.  

Leon’s home also featured a large studio, where he spent countless hours creating some of the over 3,000 works his portfolio would contain over his lifetime.  His work earned him many awards, as well as honors from the Detroit Art Institute, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the St. Louis Museum of Art.  He was active in the Southeast Michigan and national art scenes, as a member of the Scarab Club in Detroit, and the American Federation of Artists.  

The Saline District Library’s Exhibit came about due to the tireless efforts of Linda Klenczar, Jean Canavan, and Cathy Harmon, members of the Saline Library’s Art Exhibit Committee. 

“The art of Leon Makielski is a major gift for the Saline area to view,” Linda Klenczar stated.  “As an impressionist and a fine portrait artist, the works are a wonderful educational opportunity for any artist.  The generosity of Ed and Diane Makielski, in allowing us to come into their home and catalog the art and move it to the library for so many people to enjoy, is so appreciated.”

Many will recognize the name of Leon’s son, Ed Makielski, as Ed and his wife Diane’s Makielski Berry Farm offered You-Pick berries - strawberries at first, and then raspberries and blackberries - for 65 years.  Many family memories were created there on the farm, and others recognize Ed from local farmers markets, where he sold his honey, making him a fixture in the community.

Sadly, not long after the display at the Saline Library went up, Ed Makielski passed away. “It was a great sadness that one week after we installed the art at the library, Ed, one of Leon’s sons, died,” said Klenczar.  “Ed was most proud of his father’s art.  He was so pleased to have his father’s work shown to a wider audience.”  

The exhibit of Leon’s fabulous works of art will be on display at the Saline District Library (555 N. Maple Rd., Saline, 48176) through the month of October.  Cathy Harmon has organized a reception, generously sponsored by the Friends of the Saline District Library, to celebrate Leon’s work on Sunday October 1st, from 2-4pm in the library’s Brecon Room.  Light refreshments will be provided, and there will be members of the Art Exhibit Committee there to discuss Leon’s work and answer questions.

This exhibit is a unique opportunity to see work by a local legend who has gone largely unknown to many who live in the area.  The artist, who rubbed elbows with French Impressionists and painted the portraits of Robert Frost and hundreds of others, left a lasting legacy through his prolific body of work.  Be sure to stop by the library before the end of October to see a beautiful sample of his paintings and sketches.

Katherine H. Downie
Katherine Downie is a local artist and art educator. She serves on the executive committee of the Saline Celtic Festival, on the board of the Saline Area Players, and on the Saline Library Art Exhibit Committee.

Follow the author on         or visit   Personal Blog