A Stroke of Genius

Apr 30th, 2012 | By | Category: Alumni Profile

By Bill Cook

For Lance Balderson ’61 , the unexpected highlight of his career happened about three years ago when he received a letter from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Balderson dismissed it as just another solicitation from another museum seeking membership dues. But there was something different about this letter. Indeed, the world-renowned gallery wanted something, but it wasn’t money. It wanted one of his works.

To Balderson’s astonishment, the museum’s Committee on Modern and Contemporary Art and Board of Trustees had “enthusiastically” approved one of his paintings for its permanent collection. The chosen piece, titled “Tryst,” will forever hang on the museum’s hallowed walls as part of a rotating collection — but not until the painting’s owners, Philadelphia philanthropists Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, relinquish it.

Fearing he would not live long enough to see his work on display at the venerable institution, Balderson asked museum officials if they could make an exception. Once museum officials checked with the owners, his wish was granted, and in the summer of 2009, Balderson’s piece could be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s American Gallery, alongside the works of Thomas Eakins, Andrew Wyeth, Mary Cassatt and other American masters.

Balderson with his painting, "Tryst"

For Balderson and his family it was the thrill of a lifetime. “So my first wife and my two daughters [Jody and Kristy] and all my grandkids went up to the museum,” says Balderson, who lives in Ocean View, N.J. “And that was, without a doubt, the most exciting event in my life. And I didn’t care if I died tomorrow; at least I’d accomplished something that most artists can only dream of.”

Did Balderson ever dream he’d be immortalized in one of the world’s premier art museums with the likes of Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh? “Never,” he says. “You don’t even think of that. It’s just an awesome feeling.”

It’s a feeling Balderson never would have experienced had the museum’s curator not seen “Tryst” hanging in a private residence in Philadelphia and inquired about its artist and availability. It was that same combination of talent and good fortune that got Balderson his first break as an artist more than 50 years ago at Wesley College.

Then a two-year junior college, Wesley didn’t even offer an art class. But at a small school like Wesley, as Balderson can attest, opportunity can arise at any moment. That’s exactly what happened in the spring of 1961 when an English and Dramatic Arts professor by the name of Lewis Wells asked Balderson if he’d like to lend an artistic hand to the Wesley Players, painting scenery for their dramatic presentations.

Balderson, then an engineering major, jumped at the chance. He may not have realized it at the time, but it was the first step in what would eventually become a long and rewarding career as an artist. “Here’s a man [Wells] that saw something in me,” Balderson says. “He saw something in my artistic talents so he asked me to do the artwork for some of the plays.”

And that, Balderson says, is just one example of the beauty of Wesley College — those special relationships forged between faculty and student. “The closeness of the faculty was nice,” he says. “At a big school you don’t have that. At Wesley you knew your teacher on a first-name basis.”

Even today, more than half a century later, Balderson easily recalls some of those names: Engineering Professor Robert Clery, President Robert Parker, and of course, Wells. “’Uncle Lewi’ everybody called him. He was just a unique human being.”

It was in Wells’ honor that Balderson recently returned to Wesley. During the 2011 Homecoming, the college paid tribute to the distinguished life and career of Lewis Wells (1911-1994), and Balderson wanted to show his support. Balderson’s return also coincided with his 50th class reunion, so he joined 12 of his former classmates in what would be his first visit to the campus since he was a student. “The welcome I got when I went back, particularly at the President’s luncheon, was wonderful,” he says. “And the people that showed up from my class were very friendly and sociable.”

Balderson says his old classmates are essentially the same people they were five decades ago, but the college, and the once-rural town in which it sits, are now almost unrecognizable. “It’s different, because it’s built up so much since when I was there,” he says. “The town’s built up too, the roads into Dover are so different that I had a hard time initially finding the college. Back then it was just a small parcel in the downtown area. But the town has expanded so much, it was an entirely different feeling.”

Balderson’s 50-year journey back to Wesley has included many false starts and diversions. After studying engineering at Wesley, Balderson transferred to Penn State University where he received a degree in architecture. That was followed by 12 years as an architect, and then six more as a city planner. Painting for Balderson, while always a passion, was still nothing more than a hobby.

But that all changed when Balderson – then in his late 30s – moved from Pennsylvania to South Jersey to change careers one final time. “So I left my company car, my company job and moved to the Shore and became an artist. And they were the happiest years of my life.”

Since then, Balderson has put together a long and impressive list of accomplishments. In addition to his entry into the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can find Balderson’s paintings hanging at Columbia University in New York City, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pa., and at the Ocean City Art Center in New Jersey.

Also, his abstracts, seascapes and landscapes have won countless awards, earned him exhibitions in numerous regional galleries and merited recognition from the New Jersey State Legislature. Most recently (Jan. 27 – May 13, 2012), the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, N.J., devoted an entire gallery to 13 of Balderson’s pieces.

Not too shabby for a man who got a bit of a late start to his true calling. Balderson is a perfect example that it’s never too late to follow your passion. Without hesitation, his advice to Wesley students, and anyone else for that matter, would be to do just that. “Yes, follow your passion,” he says. “It’s tough to say when you have to put bread on the table. But you’ve got to do what your heart tells you to do.”

Perhaps it was back at Wesley College, all those years ago, that his heart first started to beat for painting. So, to thank his former college and Professor Wells for giving him that chance, Balderson says he will donate one of his paintings to the school’s permanent collection. Although he spent just two years at Wesley, it appears his legacy will live forever. “It’ll be nice to be able to go back there some day and say I have a painting hanging at Wesley College,” he says. “Where it all started.”

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