The subjects in Leonard Wren's paintings-swans at rest, ordered gardens, bright riots of wildflowers-lead you to believe that the Tulsa, Oklahoma painter spends most of his time peacefully surveying idyllic, nonexistent places. But in fact, it's the everyday world that provides Wren with inspiration. "I have nothing in mind when I go out to paint," he says, adding, "it's enjoyable just to load up the van with my artist's box and drive around looking for paintings."
Wren refers to himself as an "American Impressionist" and shrugs off those who criticize the style as trite. "There's a lot of bad impressionism out there, paintings that are too sweet, like greeting-card art. I believe a painting should be beautiful. Not necessarily pretty, but beautiful." He considers the style's accessibility and popularity a plus. "Impressionism is like the blues," Wren says. "It's so basic that it touches you profoundly."
Wren presents a sunny face to the world, with his silvery gray hair, purple sweat shirt and green jeans. Born in 1940, he grew up near Coffeyville, KS, in what he calls a narrow world, populated with less than 200 people. "I was 18 years old before I knew there were such things as artists." Wren left a difficult home life at 18 and lived on his own, working at a greenhouse, where he slept on the floor. He also worked as an itinerant car pin-striper. "I was a free spirit, working in places like drive-ins. People came from miles around to have me pin stripe their cars," he says.
Wren married Roberta in 1962 and moved to Tulsa in 1964, where he started a commercial design business. He eventually closed the shop in 1976 to paint full time-"too many deadlines and too many compromises." A chance visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975 introduced him to impressionsm. "From the very first time I saw Claude Monet's paintings I was overwhelmed and I began to see in a totally new way." Upon his return home, Wren set out to find a teacher to help him develop skills in painting light and color. He settled on Richard and Edith Goetz, who taught in Oklahoma City. For a year, Wren made a weekly round-trip drive of 500 miles to take classes Monday through Wednesday. Since he couldn't afford an apartment or motel room, he slept on the studio floor in a sleeping bag. "Honest ignorance," he says, gave him the confidence to embark on a painting career at the age of 36, now with a daughter to support. "Learning about art was more complex than I had ever imagined. The more I learned the more I realized I still had to learn." Once he became acquainted with impressionism, Wren moved quickly, selling his first painting to another student and securing his first one-man exhibition.