I knew Leo Welmer Zimmerman as an artist first and foremost. Second as a friend, and mentor. Third as a community leader.
Leo was a friend these last 10 or so years of his life. We met somewhere around 1995-96 while he still lived in his Ormsby studio across from the main house where his wife Marie resided. In the late nineties, he was still vibrant and intense. The old race car driver switched from one of his souped-up Ford Lotus cars and was consigned to driving his old black caddy "around the neighborhood", he met me trying to print his massive memoir and inadvertently found a like mind. He graciously invited me to see what he was up to. His studio was filled with tinkers from his years as not only an artist, but an inventor. I, along with others over the years, tried to help Leo collect and distribute his mass prolific amount of work. In the nineties, I helped him print his 3,100 page memoir that he designed and layed out after teaching himself Freehand 3.1 on a Mac that his tenant and friend the graphic designer John Paul recommended. A few years after we met, I moved off to Prague, Czech Republic and various things happened to "Leo Wrye" (his moniker, named after the rye whiskey he so enjoyed. I moved back in 2003, to The Mayflower, and again found Leo across from my apartment - in his and Marie's home of 50 years - this time I was just back from working in the film industry and starting a school in Prague, and I had a new family. An auspicious re-meeting of friends and fellow artists.
From there, we picked up where we left off. At this point, he had finished the memoir and was essentially done with it - it gave him no more joy. His new focus was these abstract vector illustrations he had created, "paintings" "murals", wild abstract creations - to the tune of thousands of these scalable resources and pieces. He enjoyed the way the program and lack of memory redrew the art - animating it into vibrant colors - and amazing points of digital, generative work. I knew it was his master work. So did he. Now how to give this to the world. I set out to help him, I was technically savvy in the programs - having worked as a graphic designer for years pervious - and I also understood his vision, and attention to the process of the creation. I became his assistant in collecting these "paintings" and the intention was to make them available on the web.
The work was laborious for two people. We would spend out long days sorting, developing ideas for distribution, and talking. Stories. Leo had them. Stories of WWII and the time thereafter - he had been left over seas because there wasn't enough boats to take the GIs back, according to Leo, the GI Bill left him and others in Paris. Not a bad deal. Leo was proficient in French. Leo went to art school, but wasn't hip to the figure drawing classes and underdeveloped sense of contemporary style that the official art school offered. He proposed an art academy to the then head of the Parisian Marshal Plan, notable Louisvillian newspaper mogul Barry Bingham, and he got what he wanted. Leo had inadvertently started the first abstract art school in English. Leo also recounted how walking across the Pier Lachasse (sp) he found an American screen printing kit, and got the idea that this was a way for his french and American compatriots to reproduce their work. Even the entrepenuer in the young Zimmerman came out during this time, he tried to create a market for popcorn as a gourmet dish, but Bingham shot this down - saying that, "Popcorn was not needed for the reformation of France." He may have been right, but Jean Paul Sarte and others Parisians were some of his customers and loved it all the same.
Leo also recalled his accidental trip to the Lascaux caves before the French government closed down the original location. This is where he decided that an artist isn't so bad of a profession after all - these utiliitarian artists had lasted thousands of years, not bad. He and his new wife Marie would be a few of the last people to see the caves unencumbered by the pomp and circumstance of gallery artisans. Something else Leo would express a particular loathing for. He didn't want his work shown in a gallery to people with bad wine and blue haired "art enthusiasts," something he would carry with him. When the Speed Museum wanted to do a retrospective, he quietly avoided it, not returning calls or convienently forgetting that someone wanted his work shown. If it was something he had already done, he was finished with it, and he assumed anyone else would be too. Always looking for the next epiphamy. Leo was not a gallery artist. His one man show at his alma mater UK was a particular anommoly. The only other shows he had were in France with some of his Parisian contemporaries and early in his career as an artist. Although, he had run a gallery in both his carriage house and the Zane Street Arts in Louisville location. His art was, in his opinion, not to be consumed by only gallery goers but by everyone everywhere. He wanted to somehow raise the consciousness of art. Even his social and business endeavors reflected this perspective.
Leo's most widespread artistic and inventive contribution to date is the Silicoil Brush Cleaning System, distributed by his Lion Company across America and Canada. The Lion Company logo was designed after German humanist, printmaker, engraver and theorist Albrecht Durer. The 16th century artist also created the very popular praying hands image that proliferates Christian culture. Odd assimilation for Leo Zimmerman, who was as "devout" an atheist as anyone I have ever met. In fact, the image of "Leo Wrye Hisself" that would adorn many pages of Leo's massive memoir - which includes schematics for multiple inventions as well as art and layout plans of the many residences and studios he had over his lifetime - was also after a Durer illustration. The only thing I can think is the erudite thinker in Leo found solace in the mind of another multi-talented artist, and as a painter, I am sure he studied the perspective literature that was contributed to his later Sluballs and other optical illusions. Leo was an artist-inventor. The Silicoil was a simple achievement, one that paid his bills for years and turned the artist into a businessman. One that could spend the majority of his days exploring art instead of commerce. Leo would rarely spend a penny, saving it for his retiring years, that of course never truly happened.
In these last few years, Leo would work late into the night on the second floor of his Ormsby house. The grand studio was now in disrepair, the roof had expensive repairs that were ignored mostly, he didn't need it anymore. Our relationship became almost symbiotic. He would call me sometimes every hour. Fascinated by his own work, telling me of new discoveries, new epiphamies, new confusions. His work had become overwhelming to catalog, I tried to guide and soothe him through his own process. He was determined, but some things I could not do - and it was becoming difficult for him to do it himself. This was his work, not my own. We had never really settled on what it was that he was going to distribute, and he would change his mind constantly. He wanted me to be a partner and made me promise that his work would be available for all if anything happened to him. He wanted to sell it, 99¢ a version - a number he had gotten from Apple and iTunes maybe, read in his daily NY Times. No one else seemed interested in helping and for the most part left us alone, maybe simply because he pushed them hard away. His hermitage was of his own creation. I felt privileged to have been let in. Leo would help me now and again with money for helping him, but mostly, it was a labor of love and a shared vision. Art, his art, should be seen by all. Not everyone would love it, like it, or even care to understand the time and energy it took to create it - but it should be seen and Leo wanted this to be his legacy.
It is not hard to imagine what happened to make Leo practically a hermit. The same Leo Zimmerman that founded The Society for the Arts in Louisville with a magazine he hand typeset himself with typeboxes from a middle school's old letterpress. The vibrant artist that wanted the city to not be bound into an arts program funded by the elite Binghams and Browns. The jazz club in the basement of the Zane Street Arts in Louisville facility was the first place in Louisville that co-mingled black and white patrons - much to the chagrin of the Restaurant Association and other not-so-like-minded city dwellers. Leo would recant that his patrons would be ticketed by the police for being three inches from the curb, and that he himself was threatened many times for catering to those "darkies." He would retort that The Society for the Arts in Louisville was a "private club", that anyone could attend with subscription to the magazine and later newsletter and did not hold the same rules as other local establishments. This worked to the advantage of the community. A young Cassius Clay would have his first taste of Jazz at AIL. Leo didn't intend to be a source of controversy, he just knew that art in any form should be shared by all - no matter your color, creed or social status. At one point, he and his editors even wanted to take the publication to the rest of the country, "Arts in America" - a name which was later taken by another fine publication. One of his many stories included recanting a plan he unveiled at an "arts meeting" at The Filson Club where when it was his turn to speak he suggested that Louisville adopt a system much like Lenin's USSR, where there would be pockets of artist education in every neighborhood throughout Louisville. In Cold War 50's America, Leo's seemingly communist comment caused and audible hush in the audience. He was never asked back. He for the most part never looked back. It was during this period that Leo found a crutch in rye whiskey, a silent battle that he would fight until his final years. Although, frankly, he didn't fight that hard. The Society for The Arts in Louisville disbanded in 1963 because of "cultural exhastion." Leo picked up street racing in it's stead.
Designing his own car. The Chimera, and later souping up two Ford Lotus coups, he was out to beat the muscle cars. With the Mustang engine in the light body of the Lotus, he often did. It was as if he were racing away from anything having to do with the arts. During this time, Marie and the Zimmerman's only daughter, Zaurie, were doing the domestic thing. Leo admitted he was never really involved so much. However, his daughter
Leo would say, “Art isn’t a commodity. It’s non-utilitarian, but it’s useful because it makes everybody grow. … Art should be seen and known and talked about. I’m operating on that basis.” Many times we spoke of commercial applications of art, sculptures as doorways as in his and Barney Bright's collaboration for the Louisville Public Library - a massive sculpture now in the basement of the facility, murals in odd places - he and Marie in fact returned from France to do a series of his murals on the side of barns across American roadways for a particular pouch tobacco. Of course, when they returned, they were met with an initiative set forth by one particular first lady that made those roadside "advertisements" illegal. Leo was an entrepenuer after all, he saw opportunity. However, he did not feel that an artist should be confined in commercial endeavors. That wasn't art, that had no value to Leo whatsoever. He of course felt that it shouldn't have value to anyone else. Commercial artists and artisans were quaint, but lesser than what it was he and other artistes were doing. Of course, he also had his opinions about his contemporaries as well. He thought Jackson Pollack was a "hack."
Leo came from elite stock himself. His father was a known local gynecologist and obsetrican. Leo, born in Pensylvania, grew up understanding social responsability from a gentleman doctors perspective. Privilege had it's perks, when his father was in school in Europe Leo's kindergarten in Vienna, was the original kindergarten. He said it was here he first came to understand art. When the Zimmermans moved to Louisville, they settled on Napoleon Blvd in the Deer Park neighborhood of the Highlands. He was a graduate of Male High School. With a brief stint at Centre College and then UK, he was an intelligent pupil and student. His brother was similarly an overachiever , and went on to work for Westinghouse as and executive officer. There was nothing in his family that would prepare him to be an artist. Leo's father, from his Mayflower penthouse apartment, imparted this advice to his wife Marie, Leo was stubborn, and would never do anything he didn't want to do.
Privilege didn't mean Leo wasn't street smart, literally. After high school he worked as a delivery boy and raced his car around the Highlands. It was only when he came into a bit of trouble with the number of speeding tickets he had acquired that he decided to follow his doctor father into the military. The recruiter said the young Zimmerman should be put in the medical corps. Leo didn't care to be a doctor like his father. Leo also didn't want to fight or be fought, shot at or anything close to it. He took the job in the Army Medical Corps and was dropped off at Normandy after everyone else had fallen. He would never forget that day. The only television channel worth watching would be the History Channel, especially during heavy rotation on the European campaign. Private Zimmerman was eventually shot at. He and a few buddies volunteered to stay behind at Normandy while the rest of the troops made their way through the French countryside to Paris. They got drunk. A gun went off and lodged in Leo's helmet.
Leo was quick to realize his own work was overwhelming to most - even himself. Embarassment du choix he would say, too many choices. At the end of his life his reckless drinking and carefree attitude toward his body left him with little left but his sharp wit and heightened visual intellegence. He had had a colonectomy in his 70s that would keep him unable to leave his home, if nothing else, out of pride. Leo wouldn't change his adult jumper, a painters smock and railroad train hat that was left over from a stint working on the L&N line. Leo would sit in front of his dual CRT monitors and wonder at his own genius, while Marie and housekeepers would try to keep the old Ormbsy residence in as best shape as it could be. He didn't care. Prosterity was at stake.
I was unable to visit Leo the last year of his life. My own life took priority. I ran into Marie at a coffeehouse during a particularly sticky period of my life, and she said I should call Leo. I did. He sounded the same, except he couldn't place who I was. His mind had dropped the ball. There wasn't much I could have done to help him anymore. I guess it was just waiting this one out.
Leo Wrye left us on April Fool's day. It still seems like a joke. I wasn't in the loop. I found out late. I didn't get to say my goodbyes in person. He may not have recognized me, and it may have been for the best. As it was with us, I visited his Cave Hill grave site alone. Just me and the old man, standing together one last time. No grave marker or headstone yet, just a map and a number and a new grave to let me know where he was. I sat with it, speaking to him audibly, to where the groundskeepers who passed by would have thought I was with someone. I promised him that I would do what I could to keep what he started alive. That his art would be seen, known and talked about. I am driven under the assumption that if the tome Lives of the Artists were written today, Leo Welmer Zimmerman would be a chapter all to himself.