Covering the Bases

The “charmed” life of Burlington artist Lance Richbourg

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

lance_richbourg_0716Lance Richbourg, professor emeritus of fine arts at St. Michael’s College, is best known for his paintings of baseball subjects. He is pictured in his Burlington studio.

Lance Richbourg is a heck of a story teller.

“Lance is never at a loss for a story,” says longtime colleague Gregg Blasdel. “He’s quite a raconteur.” Richbourg and Blasdel are professors emeriti of fine arts from St. Michael’s College.

“I always say of Lance that he’s a painter’s painter: a remarkable painter who understands the medium, and an incredible draftsman,” Blasdel continues.

Best known for his paintings of baseball subjects, Richbourg these days works in his studio on the first floor of the Burlington home he shares with his third wife, Elaine Segal. “I probably have lived a charmed life,” he says. “I have had great and uncalled-for luck.”

What follows is a quick (and certainly incomplete) tour of Richbourg’s multifaceted story, in his voice as much as possible, as he told it to us.

From cattle to baseball

Richbourg was born in 1937 in Richmond, Virginia, but raised from age 3 in Crestview, Florida, his family’s home territory for generations. “I’m a junior,” he says, “named for my father, Lance Clayton Richbourg.”

His father was born in the nearby town of DeFuniak Springs at the end of the 19th century, “into a kind of family of cattlemen who ran their cattle wild in the woods.” Three families (a clan of Richbourgs, Harts, and Joneses) had a combined herd.

The cattle foraged in the woods — “a yellow pine forest largely, and deciduous trees on rolling hills and valleys. The clan would go out to get them — they called it a cow hunt — and drive them up to a railroad on the Florida-Alabama line.”

“Early in the 20th century, timber people came in and just clear-cut those pine trees,” says Richbourg, adding that by the late 1920s or ’30s, cattle owners were required to fence them in.”

The most interesting thing in his father’s life, he says, was his baseball career as a right fielder for four Major League teams. “He signed a contract with the New York Giants in 1919, and then I think his last professional stint, he was managing a baseball team in Richmond, Virginia, and that’s why I was born there. But I missed his professional career entirely.”

Through Richbourg’s youth, though, his father continued to play baseball. “He put together a few old pro ballplayers, high school kids, locals, and would play all the little towns in driving distance.” Richbourg is working on a watercolor of that team. “It was 1946, so I was 9 years old. I have an old team picture, and it says the Crestview Packards, Champions, 1946 Interstate League.”

‘This art thing has a kind of romance to it’

Richbourg credits his mother’s side of the family for his artistic talent. “Her mother was a very prolific amateur painter, but she was skilled at it. My mother did a bit of drawing herself and was quite talented. She took art at Montevallo College in Alabama, then her sister taught art at the junior high level.”

He was aware of his own drawing ability early on. His mother would put out pads of paper, pencils, and watercolors for him. He recalls being acknowledged for drawing dinosaurs in a third-grade project. Toward the end of his high school years, his sister, who was in college, introduced him to small art books featuring color reproductions of works by the great impressionists and post impressionists.

He discovered W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. “It starts off with the character going to Paris to be an artist — part of the Bohemian art scene. That kind of got me. Then I would read Ernest Hemingway, about Paris and art.”

The family lived on the old homestead raising cattle. His father, by then the county superintendent of education, wanted him to be a veterinarian, because that had been his own post-graduate study, and for years, he had helped neighbors with sick animals.

Richbourg left for the University of Florida with the idea of studying veterinary medicine, “but by the time I had read some of these Bohemian books, I thought I’d go, then get on a tramp steamer and go around the world.” Instead, he discovered art classes and switched his major.

Halfway through college, one of his professors was offered an appointment at San Fernando Valley State. “I said I’m going to apply out there and get a chance to get out of Florida. My father got this application and said, ‘Well since you’re going out there, you should go to UCLA because one of my friends, Red Sanders, is the head football coach there.”

Richbourg applied to UCLA and his father phoned Sanders. He never heard anything from San Fernando Valley State, “but about a week after I sent in my application, I got a telegram that said, ‘Congratulations. You’ve been accepted at UCLA,’ signed, Red Sanders, head football coach. And that probably was the single most important break to set it up for me to have an art career.”

The story takes an interesting turn

Richbourg headed to UCLA in 1958, but never got to meet Sanders, who died a few weeks before he arrived. Once there, he contacted his former professor at San Fernando Valley State, who invited him to come visit. “All the faculty seemed to be there, and Stewart took me around, very proud to introduce me as ‘my student and he’s going to UCLA.’

“The reason this part of the story’s useful,” he continues, “is because about four years later, I got my BA and then an MA, and that year it seemed San Fernando Valley State was looking for a studio professor. The way I understood an artist, what you would look for was a college teaching job that would give you time to be an artist.

“I had a little exhibition of drawings, of horses, cows, pigs, dogs, pretty dramatic, rambunctious, and they saw the drawings and my name and remembered, ‘Oh! This is Stewart’s student. And look at this! He’s from the country and came to the city, but they didn’t take the country out of him.’ The best part is they just offered me the job.”

“It’s kind of neat, the college situation: You teach three days a week, and not the whole day, either. So that’s what I did.”

Getting the job hardly changed anything he was doing, he says. He lived in Venice, paying $75 a month for a place over a liquor store near the beach, occasionally playing guitar as Lance Clayton at The Unicorn, a folk music coffeehouse owned by Theodore Bikel.

He and a group of close friends from LA worked together in a gallery called CeeJe. Among them was the late artist Charles Garabedian, “one of my best and oldest friends.”

After six years at San Fernando Valley State, Richbourg decided to take some time off and returned to the family farm. “I always had this guilt that I should go back.” He returned to Florida with his two sons, Luke and Eli. He stayed for three years, but realized that farming was not his career path.

The lucky path to Vermont

It was 1975. He and his wife had separated and she had returned to Los Angeles with the boys. It was time to return to teaching, ideally at a college near Los Angeles or New York City so he could market his art. He had a bunch of letters printed up to send to likely colleges listed in Peterson’s Guide to Four Year Colleges. “There were relatively few schools in Vermont so I just sent a letter to all of them.

“If you’re looking for an art studio position,” he says, “you use the College Art Association bulletin. St. Michael’s was just beginning an art program and didn’t know how to advertise it.” He was invited for an interview.

Richbourg had persuaded St. Mike’s to pay for him to drive north so he could bring with him five paintings with the intention of seeking a dealer in New York. “I drove up to Winooski, stayed at the Holiday Inn, and went to St. Mike’s. They offered me the job right off the bat. I was the only one they talked to who had experience.”

He left for New York with his paintings and slides to take around to dealers. One of the dealers was Ivan Clark, who owned OK Harris Gallery.

“I had gone there a few years before when I was doing these sort of stylized portraits in LA. I showed them to Clark. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m doing these portraits; paint them from life. ‘Nobody does anything from life. It’s the neo petit bourgeois.’”

This time was different. “Clark said, ‘Baseball. There’s nobody who paints baseball.’ He needed a show for the Bicentennial Year coming up in ’76. He said, ‘OK, cool.’ So I got accepted with just as few words as I was rejected the first time.”

Richbourg retired from St. Michael’s in 2003, and the last time he showed at OK Harris was 2006. Clark died in 2012, and the gallery closed.

Baseball continues to be the center of Richbourg’s work, but not his only subject. Oil was his medium for most of his career, but these days, watercolor is his medium of choice. All the work starts from a photograph.

His father’s legacy is still a big part of Richbourg’s life. His current work, for example, is a 105-inch-across watercolor of the Crestview Packards. And one of his paintings, a portrait of his father sliding into home for the Braves, will soon be hung in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“So I’m getting my father into the Hall of Fame.” He laughs. •