Doris Leeper was a visionary artist and environmentalist. She was instrumental in the creation of the Canaveral National Seashore, established the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, and was a celebrated sculptor and painter.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Leeper was born in 1929. She graduated from Duke University in 1951 with a degree in art history. After a decade working as a commercial artist, Leeper focused on her own original pieces.
Best known for her large-scale, site specific modern sculpture, Leeper quickly gained international recognition. More than 100 of her pieces are displayed by museums, corporations, and private collectors.
The Doris Leeper sculpture that has probably been seen by the most people is “Steel Quilt,” permanently on display at the Orlando International Airport.
Her paintings and sculptures have been displayed at the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Tennessee’s Hunter Museum, and the Wadsworth Anthenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Doris Leeper’s great success as an artist was sometimes overshadowed by the role she played in the creation of the Canaveral National Seashore, and her establishment of the Atlantic Center for the Arts. In a 1995 interview, Leeper said, “If I had my druthers, I’d rather be thought of as an artist than someone who came up with a grand idea.”
Leeper’s ideas were very grand.
In 1961, Doris Leeper moved to Eldora on the Indian River Lagoon. She became very active in Florida’s environmental movement, fighting to preserve our natural resources. Leeper’s efforts helped lead to Congress declaring the 58,000-acre Canaveral National Seashore an environmentally protected area in 1975.
Tucked away on 67 acres of pine and palmetto forest just outside of New Smyrna, is the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Since 1982, the center has brought together diverse groups of composers, writers, playwrights, choreographers, and visual artists to work among the trees overlooking the tidal estuary Turnbull Bay.
When Doris Leeper founded the Atlantic Center for the Arts, she made sure that the buildings would not disrupt the natural setting of the site. She confined the facility to 10 acres, and approved a design that blended in with the environment. The wooden studios, galleries, workspace, performance areas, and artist residences are connected with boardwalks winding through the forest.
“The model for the Atlantic Center in spirit was my place down at Canaveral National Seashore,” Leeper explained. “We said if we could arrange to get some waterfront somewhere, and keep the natural environment, and do everything we could not to disturb the environment, the wonderful sense that I had at my place there could be transferred to the Center, and in fact, that’s what happened.”
The Master Artist-in-Residence Program at the Atlantic Center for the Arts brings in groups of accomplished artists to mentor and work with selected mid-career artists in their field. The multi-week residency program often results in fascinating collaborations. For example, poets may write verses to accompany an original musical composition that dancers perform to.
Encouraging multi-disciplinary collaborations was of particular interest to Doris Leeper when she founded the Atlantic Center for the Arts. She was in North Carolina participating in a sculpture residency when inspiration struck.
“I noticed that around the city some wonderful things were going on in dance, in theater, in visual arts, and so forth,” Leeper said, “but generally speaking they weren’t collaborating certainly, and they hardly knew of each other’s existence. It seemed to me that if all those things could happen in one place, everybody’s creative energy could be shared.”
For more than three decades, the Atlantic Center for the Arts has hosted a distinguished list of master artists who have worked and collaborated there. They include playwright Edward Albee, composer John Corigliano, United States poet laureate Howard Nemerov, choreographer Trisha Brown, photographer William Wegman, sculptor Duane Hanson, novelist Bebe Moore Campbell, and poet Sonia Sanchez, to name a few.
Doris Leeper died in 2000, one year after being inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Leeper’s creative vision and passion for protecting Florida’s natural environment live on today in her art, the Canaveral National Seashore, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.