Howard Lapp’s perspective on life once was seen from 35,000 feet. But since retiring as a commercial airline pilot, his perspective is directed on what’s right in front of him—feet on the ground.
Lapp, who’s lived in Oxford with his wife Diane for more than 20 years, has been painting fulltime since he quit flying for US Airways at age 52. He’s now 75. And over those years, Oxford has become his muse.
“I could always draw,” Lapp said, acting as docent leading a tour of his paintings scattered throughout the lovely two-story white-frame home on Morris Street, along with a few quirkier oils—now there’s another market—by Diane. Back in the 1970s, still a quarter -century from retirement, Lapp started taking summer classes at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and followed up with courses here and there along with membership in various art associations. “I was looking to make connections for the day I might start turning to painting full time,” he says.
That day came in the late ‘90s when, by a lucky break, Lapp chose to cash out on his pension at retirement. “Other guys waited for their monthly checks,” he says. One of those former airline pilots is now driving for Uber. US Airways declared Chapter 11, and creditors took much of what was set aside for pensions. “It was just dumb luck. No wisdom on my part,” Lapp recalls. But as a result of his “dumb luck,” Lapp was able to turn to his first love—art—as a full time avocation.
Now that he was grounded, more or less—how much closer to sea-level can you get than Oxford, the Colonial-era seaport and shipbuilding hub of the American Revolution?—Lapp discovered the painterly architecture of his second career. Lacking any of the skills of his artistry, I can still appreciate what drew the pilot-turned-painter to the Eastern Shore, and especially, Oxford. I was born and raised in Easton—just east of U.S. 50 on a Dutchman’s Lane farm. Easton was a sleepy county seat of 6,000 when I graduated Easton Jr.-Sr. High (now Easton Middle) in 1965. St. Michaels was a sleepier hamlet needful of coats of paint and tourist-boutique inspiration. But Oxford was always a Bay-estuary gem. In my memory, stretching back at least 65 years, “downtown” Oxford has changed so minimally as to not be detectable except that some single-family homes are now bed-and-breakfasts and a precious few were granted aluminum-siding exception to original wood-frame encasings.
The Lapps are among those who qualified for siding exception that may have helped them save enough to create a storybook backyard with a babbling fishpond footbridge and a Snow-White-and-Elves studio accommodating a separate oil-painting environment.
Earlier on, Lapp painted land- and seascapes—some in Hawaii, his granddaughter’s home state—as well as portraits that incorporate abstract interpretations of what he saw. But as he became more Oxford-centric, Lapp turned to what he calls a “contemporary” style. As in plein-air, in-the-moment townscapes. He’s also dabbled in landscape woodcut prints.
“I draw it tight,” Lapp says, “and paint it loose. So, it comes out somewhere in between. But the underlying drawing”—erased charcoal—“ensures its accuracy.”
Some paintings require stepping outside the depicted scene. Among the bakers’-dozen oils on sale now in his studio is one of an Oxford Fourth of July parade with Lapp and his dog in the distant foreground.
Other paintings capture the minimally changing architectural landscape of historic Oxford. A pre-cable/dish TV antenna is shadowed on the side of now-vacant Oxford Mews. “It’s been re-stabilized by the town, and they’re looking for some commercial properties,” Lapp says of the Mews. But McDonald’s need not apply. Antiques, an art gallery, maybe a wine shop, bookstore? One can hope.
Almost no one who lives there supports change along main street in Oxford (except maybe the market price of their home or the post office that moved from a brick phone-booth to “Post Office Street.”)
I still see my great-aunt’s home vista embracing the Tred Avon with a tiny beach next to the town park where I once dug—for what, sand crabs?—and picture past generations laid out before me, back to Robert Morris, the shipbuilder who helped finance the Revolutionary War and whose inn yet anchors the corner of Morris and The Strand, where the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry has docked since 1683.
Meanwhile, Howard Lapp concentrates on what he sees—some of which focuses on shipbuilders—like “Capt. Sid’s Bugeye,” named for Sidney Dickson of St. Michaels, once displayed in the yacht showroom of Cutts & Case on Tilghman Street.
Among his large oil paintings, all done within the last two years, are intense studies of infrastructure. A couple of aerial paintings envelop the twisted realities of connections to the world beyond Oxford. Lapp captures a bee’s nest of wirings and plug-ins to the queen—imperial distributor of internet, electricity, and maybe phone—if you’re still landline-based. Other paintings for sale, typically 3-by-4 or so, are of Victorians across Morris Street from the Lapps and the steepled church taken from the perspective of their second-story bedroom. Others were done on commission, which Lapp accepts on individual bases.
Among my favorites are winter scenes, all gray and white, barely delineating land, gray-white with snow, from the Tred Avon, gray with foreboding cloud cover. But there are also bright-sun scenes of shadows cast by connective infrastructure upon white clapboard, pandemic in Oxford. We need those connections, Lapp’s art suggests.
OK. So, he used to connect us, body and soul, through air travel.
Paintings and prints can be seen by appointment only at his home studio on Morris Street in Oxford. Email requests to email@example.com.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts writer and editor now living in Easton.