KENT — Little did Robert Lenz know that his interest in drawing as a child of five would lead him to have one of the most prestigious jobs in the world of New York advertising.
“I was born in Chicago and we lived in a northwest suburb,” Lenz recalls. “I started to draw but had no idea what I would do with that. In high school, I had a really good art professor who nurtured me and I went on to study fine arts at the University of Illinois. Coincidentally through the professor’s assistant I got to meet the artist Robert Parker. He went on to become a mentor and a good friend. That friendship has continued since we both live in Connecticut.”
At college Lenz found himself in the midst of abstract expressionism and encountered visiting artists like Franz Klein. It was not a form of art he could embrace but he continued to follow his own lead. During his final year at university, Lenz decided there was only one place to go to pursue his dream — New York City.
“I sold my drums, and drove to New York. I had two friends and we were together all the time and encouraged each other,” explains Lenz. “I landed a job as an assistant art director at McCann Erickson, one of the largest ad agencies at the time.”
His career was launched and his love of drawing and painting took a back seat. Lenz climbed the proverbial ladder of success and became Creative Director of the New York office.
“It was the’60s, long before computers,” Lenz says. “We are all doing watercolor layouts and the fact that I could draw was a great asset. Then we went from print ads into television — the cusp of new revolution and that was exciting.”
While at McCann Lenz worked on many prestigious accounts and created one of the most famous and successful ad campaigns of all times: “Miller Time” for Miller High Life Beer. That was followed by the “Tastes Great — Less Filling” campaign for Miller Lite. That ran for twenty years and established the category of light beer in the United States. Lenz’s campaign was voted the eighth best campaign in advertising history.
It was the height of creativity in the ad world and Lenz was an integral part of it. He worked with some of the most talented people in the business, like photographer Art Kane who set the bar high for others to follow. But Lenz’s personal creativity took a back seat while he brought the world of advertising to new heights.
“In 1977, after our success at McCann, a group of us left to start our own agency and the Miller account came with us,” Lenz says. “Ten years later Saatchi & Saatchi came along with a big check and we sold out to them, based on their promise that we would be the flagship division. Well, the first thing they did was merge us with Ted Bates and that was the beginning of the end.”
In 1993, having put aside his stellar career in advertising, Lenz decided to return to doing his own art.
“I started taking classes at the Silvermine Art Center in Norwalk to see what would happen. I realized that I had a lot of catching up to do. I also took classes at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Art. I was determined to get back to my first love.”
At the time, Lenz and his family had a home in Ridgefield prior to discovering Litchfield County.
“That was in the early ’80s and it was still a writer’s town and there were a lot of people in the music business,” says Lenz. “ But it had become crowded and overbuilt, so when a friend told me about Litchfield County, we decided to check it out.
“I wanted to build a house and so we started looking for land and saw this spectacular piece of property in Kent. It was totally wooded and we had no idea of the view that was hidden away.”
Lenz bought the 50 acres, built his dream house and discovered amazing vistas once many of the trees were cut away. Settled in, he then discovered the Washington Art Association, where he now teaches a class in landscape painting.
“I had to relearn some things as I went along and I’ve been doing landscapes and still lifes which I set up in my studio,” explains Lenz. “I have set up a press and do some monotypes as well. I’ve now become very interested in portraiture, which I had not done before. I watch a lot of videos for instruction when I’m not able to attend a class.”
Lenz alternates between landscapes and portraits. On days he is teaching, if weather permits, he will take his class and paint outside. Walking around to find the perfect subject adds to the creative process.
“Landscapes may seem boring,” Lenz admits. “But finding the spot that speaks to you and immersing yourself in trying to recreate it on canvas is the most gratifying reward.”
Lenz is now totally immersed in this phase of his life and has become recognized as a representational artist. He has had several shows in New York galleries. In Connecticut he has been showing his work at the Morrison Gallery in Kent. Invariably his work sells out, leaving him with low inventory and a need to get back to the easel and create more.
“I just want to get better and better,” says Lenz. “I never feel I’ve become as good as I want to be. It’s exciting for me to wake up every morning and go down to my studio and start painting. I study other artists and learn as much as I can. I count Jacob Collins at the Grand Central Academy in New York as an important influence on my work. He has created this resurgence of the classic style of art, which I greatly relate to. Along with Bert Silverman at the Art Students League they have both had a strong influence on my work. And, of course, I can’t forget Sargent, to my mind the most extraordinary painter who has always been my favorite.”
It’s a great group to admire and to emulate. As a painter and a teacher, Lenz has the best of both worlds, passing on his knowledge to others as he continues to hone his own talent. It is his endless curiosity and excitement about what he does that makes him the fine artist that he is.