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Featured Artist

Quick Sketch

By Steve Horvath

Donald Vander Leest

Donald Vander Leest

Racine, Wisconsin, September 13, 2016 – It seems that every retired person I have talked to is busier as a retired person than when they were working full time. Don Vander Leest may have been just as busy before he retired.


Born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, Don became interested in art at an early age starting in the third grade. The Wustum Museum in Racine had a children’s program at that time, encouraging drawing and painting by offering art lessons in a program that Don would attend regularly. He also took private lessons from Harold Smithers all the way through junior high and high school. (Don attended Horlick High School in Racine).

High school at the time had programs that students were enrolled in that leaned toward technical programs that would give the young student the opportunity for a career in ‘the trades.’ Don specialized in woodworking, drafting and art. This had a positive effect on Don right out of high school. He garnered a construction job working on building new homes. This apprenticeship opportunity was short lived as the Korean War was looming. So after only 18 months Don was drafted into the Army. His carpentry skills followed him into the service. He was sent to Germany first, and then to France to build Army camps.


I haven’t even mentioned water coloring yet but please be aware that Don, since high school, kept his interest in painting with watercolors throughout all of his activity here and in Europe. Don said that creating watercolor paintings kept him busy in his down time. When everyone went to town to raise heck he was creating new artwork. His responsibility to the Army reached an end after two years in the service.

Prior to going into the service, Don had met his future wife, Inge, at his brother’s confirmation class. He and Inge wrote to each other every day while he was in the service and Don sent all of his paintings back to her for safekeeping. They got married soon after he got out of the service. They have been married for 62 years. (Don says that in all those years they have never had an argument). Congrats, not too many of us can say that, me included.


Once out of the service, Don finished his carpentry apprenticeship and started working for John Thorp, a large new homebuilder in Racine at that time. He really enjoyed this work and he continued with Thorp for a couple of years, as well as some other good construction companies for the next few years, before accepting a position with the Racine Unified School System as one of their carpenters. He did whatever carpentry work needed to be done in their elementary, junior high and high schools. Don retired from this last full time job after 27 years of enjoyable work.

Don has been water coloring all of this time but because he was so busy in his life he wanted to get more time to paint so he committed to taking art lessons at the Wustum Museum knowing that this regularly scheduled program would get him painting on a disciplined schedule. He has worked with Robert Johansen, his first teacher, followed by Lyle Peters who Don said was instrumental in getting him interested in art shows.


Since then he has done four or five art shows per year not to mention all of the other things that retirees get involved in, such as golfing, bowling, hunting and fishing. Don and Inge have a cabin up north by Big Green Lake near Ripon, Wisconsin.

For the past 23 years he has been doing pencil sketches of houses for Preservation Racine. This year is their 41st annual Tour of Historic Places. (Don will be showing much of his work in Memorial Hall as part of this event.) His early high school lessons in drafting and his abiding interest in construction have really played a major role in Don’s knowledge of his subject matter. If you go onto our website and in this article, you will see that his work consists of beautifully rendered and flawless perspective of architectural subject matter, including marine images of boats, etc. Don said that he likes to paint skies and water, and this is evident in his work as he creates a perfect marriage of architecture and the surrounding landscape.


Don has sold his artwork all over the world. He said he has sold 33 works in Japan, 30 in the UK and many other countries as well. Much of this work has been sold to visitors who come to Racine visiting from other places, attend the art fairs and purchase a painting from Don. With Inge’s help they build the frames and cut the mattes for all of their work.


I didn’t mention that Don just finished the last 55 years with the 4H group in Racine teaching classes in general woodworking and use of tools for this young group of future farmers.

Don is having a wonderful experience making art and staying involved and living life to the fullest.