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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