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All in the Family

Is artistic talent genetic or a matter of upbringing? Father-daughter painters Peter and Lisa Egeli say “Yes”

You probably know families with a run of talent. History is full of them, in both pure brainery and in hands-on and physical achievements, from sports to art, music to politics.
    It makes you wonder. Does talent follow bloodlines?
    Father Peter Egeli and daughter Lisa Egeil, a pair of Southern Maryland painters, are just two in a family deeply rooted in the arts.
    Peter’s parents, Bjorn Egeli and Lois Baldwin Egeli, were both painters. All of their five children were artists.
    A 1985 Egeli family exhibition included 11 artists from three generations. Then 19, third-generation painter Lisa was the youngest. Now some of a fourth generation are thinking they’ll grow up to be artists.

In the Genes?
    Are there genes that bestow manual dexterity, hand-eye empathy and vision, just as other families pass along red hair, height or color blindness? Do artistic genes double when both parents are artists?
    In 1985, the Egeli family show program voted for nature: “Artistic talent — painting, music, writing and some of the other gentle endeavors — are often passed down from father and mother to sons and daughters.”
    Scientists wonder, too, and their curiosity has thickened the plot.
    Athletes clearly inherit some of the right stuff for sporting success. So, one and another scientist has found, do creative writers, musicians, math wizzes and artists.
    Genes seem to be part of the mix, but they don’t do it alone.
    What you’re born with, what you grow up with and what you do with what you’ve got: All have roles to play.

Or in the Air?
    “I think it’s really your vision or passion for something, and who knows where that comes from? Yet it can appear at a very young age,” says Jean Brinton Jaecks.
    Like the Egelis, painter Brinton Jaecks is part of a multigenerational arts clan. Seven members of her Chesapeake Country family joined in a three-generation show at Maryland Hall in 2002.
    For both families, creativity was part of daily life as well as part of the gene pool.
    “Art was so much the fiber of life growing up that it was infused into your being,” Lisa Egeli explained.
    Nature/Nurture the father and daughter Egeli call their show, balancing on the point of neutrality. Which is Lisa’s take on the issue.
    “It’s almost impossible to separate the two,” she says.
    “It’s not that we were born ready to paint, but that generation after generation grew up in an environment where the purpose was to create art,” says the daughter.
    That’s what Peter Egeli thought, too.
    “When you grow up in the middle of stuff like that, some of it’s likely to rub off on you,” he explained.
    In his family, things were always being made, from paintings to muskrat traps to sailboats. At the same time, his parents guided his endeavors, letting his interests lead the way. So he figured the long lineage of artists learned the same way he did, by example, experience and instruction. Then a reunion with Norwegian cousins introduced him to people like him even to interests: sports, building boats, antique autos.
    “I thought then,” he said, “there is some sort of influence other than environment.”
    Unless, he concluded, they were picking up what they’d learned at home, just as he had.

The Overlap
    Canvases small, medium and huge lined the walls of the Maryland Hall gallery as Lisa Egeli and I talked. Which were hers and which her father’s? At first only signatures gave the artist away. Landscapes and seascapes suffused with atmosphere; boats but few buildings or people were the subjects of both.
    “At first glance our work looks very similar,” Peter agrees. “Sometimes now I’m wondering if I’m not influenced by her.”
    Father and daughter sprung from the similar experiences as well as bloodlines. Both grew up on the Chesapeake, in Shady Side and in St. Mary’s County.
    “It was like living in wonderland,” says Peter, who envisioned a career as a wildlife artist.
    As in the estuary itself, earth and water mingled in their experience. In St. Mary’s their homes were farms, with the water never far away. All three generations as comfortable building boats as mixing paints.
    Both studied at art schools, and both saw the world beyond the Chesapeake.
    Peter’s purpose came to him in a moment of vision as he was finishing his art studies after service in the Marines.
    “I saw all at once what I wanted my painting to be, and I eventually got it,” he said.
    As Lisa made her way, she saved enough money for nine months of ­travel as far as to China.
    “I blamed it on growing up reading National Geographic,” she says. Her father credited the wanderlust to his Norwegian seafaring father. “Maybe,” she allows, “it was genes coming back to bite me — or drive me.”
    Whichever, her travels showed her the way.
    “It clarified my focus,” she says. “When I left, I needed to figure out if I was painting just because Dad does or because I love it. I came back sure I wanted to see the world and paint it, as kind of an exploration.”
    Both father and daughter grew up in families like that, where “being an artist was the most normal thing in my world. The advice we got was Just make sure you do well!”
    Both grew up under the rule of discipline.
    “Dad got up every day and worked a full day in the studio,” Egeli says, “and I do as well.”
    Living up to her father’s definition of doing well did not come so easily.
    “It was a long time before I [could comfortably] go to my father for critique,” Lisa remembers. “I’d cry through it all, and he’d feel bad. His critique was helpful, but so hard for me. I had no confidence in my work.
    “That’s changing. I grew to appreciate what he has to offer, and my desire to learn from him overwhelmed my fear that I would not be good enough.”    
    Finally, both found their vision in their family tradition, dividing their work between painting high-end commissioned portraits and painting the natural world around them.
    “I love unique light and changing weather,” Lisa says. “There are endless possibilities of paintings I am eager to create.”
    “Creation is always happening,” says her father.

See Nature/Nurture thru April 11 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Annapolis: 410-263-5544.