To see what animates Richard Lebenson, you need to see him get ready to paint.
He maneuvers around the end of a desk in the living room of his home on Clermont Avenue, and sits down in a slat back wooden chair with a pillow scrunched against the seat.
Moving with the quickness of an offensive lineman after the snap, he reaches for a small table with a colorful, bespattered palate on top. The room, a cluttered space with three tall windows facing the street, whirs to life.
A painter, illustrator, printmaker and former publisher born in 1946 in Hollis Hills, Queens, Lebenson has lived with his wife, Peggy, on the bottom three floors of the cremestone co-op since 1989. The couple has two adult daughters, Danielle and Nicole.
Lebenson came to the area in 1962 to study at the Pratt Institute, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in book arts in 1966 and a master’s degree in printmaking with a minor in painting in 1968. The artist’s postgraduate career reads like an organic outgrowth of his academic choices.
Working primarily as a freelance illustrator for book and magazine publishers, Lebenson created RSVP, a directory of professional and student illustrators, in 1975, and published it for 30 years. The first volume came out in black and white, and the last volume had about 280 pages of colorful, fantastic work.
“As this one art director said, ‘It was a pocket full of visual miracles,’ which I really milked over the years,” Lebenson said.
And 45 years in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene has made Lebenson, along with his Pratt friends who have stayed in the area, a repository of narrative ones.
Art and life came together in “Brooklyn Landscapes,” a show of 52 of Lebenson’s oil paintings at Hadas Gallery on Myrtle Avenue earlier this summer. The majority of the works depict residential buildings, storefronts and streets that the artist photographed while walking around the nabe.
In “Bay Window on Clinton,” a luminous blue colors the interior of an apartment, contrasting with the duller tan, red, and gray-blue of the surrounding façade. In “Late Afternoon Light on Cellars,” the welcoming sign of a former bar serves as a focal point in a blurry but balanced composition.
“It’s about how the light hits the architecture, and what you’re seeing in terms of the color or the light or the shadow it creates,” Lebenson said.
Former Hadas Gallery manager Joshua Stulman, who curated “Brooklyn Landscapes,” praised the artist’s work for conveying the lives of people via objects, reflections and details.
“He gives you the narrative of the people that live there without actually showing the people,” Stulman said. “He shows the wear of the buildings, the grit.”
And by leaving out parts of buildings, and showing the ends of adjacent structures, Lebenson makes his images appear more natural, Stulman said.
“It makes you feel like you’re not just looking at something that’s polished and finished and centered; you’re looking at something that’s living,” he said.
Smaller canvases depicting objects such as leaves, an apple, a door lock, as well as urban landscapes and buildings hung on the back wall during the show. Seeing leaves on the street, Lebenson said, can stop him in his tracks and inspire him to take a photo.
“When it rains, after it dries, there’s a wet spot on the slate,” he explained. “People walking behind me must think, ‘What’s up with this guy?”
Two people who know better visited Lebenson at the gallery on a late June afternoon. Kevin Gatta and Larry Heintjes also graduated from Pratt and settled in the area to raise families. Artists and neighborhood guys all, their conversation ranged from Lebenson’s compositional choices to depressed and drunken characters from a bygone Pratt bar scene, from local sidewalks once littered with empty crack vials to the arrival of condos and chain stores in the nabe.
They also talked about basketball. Lebenson is an assistant coach on the Pratt men’s varsity team, a position he first held in the mid-1970s. The artist tries to visit the courts at P.S. 20 on Adelphi Street every day, where he says that kids ask him for lessons on how to shoot.
Gatta, who teaches graphic design at Pratt, examined one of the smaller paintings in his friend’s show, a depiction of the light-bathed façade of a neighborhood bakery. He eventually bought the piece, one of three that sold.
For Stulman, the hazy, illegible lettering in the bakery’s window contains an essential quality of Lebenson’s work, which he described as having “the right amount of realism, the right amount of focus on emotion.”
“It’s just a couple of brushstrokes, but it’s enough to … say something if you got out of the shade,” he said, imagining the perspective of a passerby.
“I was very tempted to put the lettering in, and I just held back, ‘cause it would have made it more of a portrait of a specific place,” Lebenson explained.
“Brooklyn Landscapes” was one of two summer shows of the artist’s work. Lebenson also exhibited 14 black-and-white prints of etchings at the Fort Greene restaurant and café Baguetteaboudit! that he made in the 1960s. He called the show “Oldies but Goodies.”
In smoky tones, the prints depict more varied subjects than the works that were at Hadas. They include a portrait of a thin-faced elderly man and a heavy rendering of a wood-frame house and its mirror image.
Lebenson used the term “realistic expressionism” to describe the style of the pieces.
They complement the oil paintings Stulman hung at Hadas because both bodies of work traffic in “shadows and reflection,” Lebenson said.
Bagetteaboudit! is less than two blocks away from Lebenson’s home on Clermont. You can often find the artist in the restaurant in the mornings and early afternoons, sometimes chatting with friends, sometimes sitting by himself.
“Most of the time I [work], most people would think I’m not doing anything most of the time, ’cause I’m basically hanging out, reading papers, reading books, taking photos,” he said. “Occasionally I’ll bring a sketchbook and sketch, but basically hanging out every place I can hang out.”
Just like a neighborhood guy.