What does it mean to age well? There are as many theories as there are anti-wrinkle serums at the pharmacy. For some people it is all about preserving how they look; others are more into checking items off their bucket list. Jack Schuler was in his early 60s when he realized the best way to live out the golden years was to exercise the creative side of his brain. He became a plein air painter.
This is what most people who know Schuler know about him: He is a healthcare leader who since the 1990s has made a fortune investing in biotech startups that span everything from managing medical waste to providing rare disease therapies to testing humans for COVID-19 and creating a device that detects the virus’s particles in the air. Forbes in 2021 estimated Schuler’s net worth to be $1.1 billion. He is intensely competitive in business, some would say ruthless, but he’s also a philanthropist who has helped thousands of under-represented and underserved teens get a quality liberal arts college education through the Schuler Scholar Program and Schuler Education Foundation. And last year he and his wife, Renate, signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate all their considerable fortune to charity, in their case the Schuler Education Foundation.
“My philosophy was always to crush the competition and put them out of business,” Schuler says from his foundation office in Lake Forest, a place where he finds himself a bit of a fish out of water since the mission there is to help people rather beat them to market.
There is another angle to this billionaire that most people don’t know about: Schuler the artist. When he was 62, Schuler started creating landscape oil paintings.
“Painting takes me into another world,” he says. “When I am in front of my easel in the woods or the prairie looking at the shapes and colors in front of me, hours fly by. It’s very meditative.”
Schuler had never picked up a paintbrush when he decided in 2002 that it was time for self-renewal. He could have gone in any number of creative directions — music lessons would have been an obvious choice given that he loves opera. A history buff, he had always been impressed that Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill turned to painting as a refuge from managing world events. His own friend, Chicago executive search consultant Fred Wackerle, is a plein air painter. On a visit to Wackerle’s Tucson home in the early 2000s, Schuler saw him in action at the easel.
“Fred is a serious oil painter. I saw what he was doing and was fascinated. He suggested that I meet his teacher, Diane Rath.”
It was a fortuitous connection. Rath was an internationally known artist who taught workshops at the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago and Sterling Hall in Lake Forest, among other places in the Midwest and Southwest. She was based in Lake Bluff, where Schuler himself lives in a beautiful lakefront home on the grounds of Crab Tree Farm.
Rath helped him purchase oil paint, brushes and easels, and for a decade she visited his home studio regularly to critique his work and prompt him to rethink his color selections and brush strokes. Her suggestions often resulted in major reworks. Rath created the oil painting shown here of Schuler at his easel in front of the prairie at Crab Tree Farm. (Sadly, she died from cancer in 2011 at age 58.)
Crab Tree Farm is a 200-acre property just north of downtown Lake Bluff that includes a working farm, pastures, stables, woods, gardens, ravines, and bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan. Most of the property is under a conservation easement that Schuler and his neighbors, the late John Bryan and the late Edward McCormick Blair, initiated in the 1980s. It is a perfect setting for plein air painting.
Architect Larry Booth designed Schuler’s lakefront home in 1986 with windows in every room and no corridors, so you can see outside in all directions from wherever you are in the house. Those views include a pine grove, prairies that Schuler planted himself, a horse stable, art sculptures, and a wide, unobstructed panorama of Lake Michigan.
“Larry felt that the most attractive part of the house is not what is inside, it is what is outside,” Schuler says. “He told me not to hang anything on the walls to not distract from the views.”
Schuler abided by Booth’s suggestion for many years as he focused on biotech investments and philanthropy – until he started painting the very scenes beyond his windows. Today, original art by Schuler lines the walls of his home, as well as the homes of his grown children.
Now that he’s 81, Schuler talks about oil painting more than he does it. It’s easier for him to take meditative walks at Crab Tree than to maneuver the easel from spot to spot, and he’s OK with that. He created a photo book of his paintings with advice about self-renewal, which he gives to fellow business executives and acquaintances who may need a lesson in how to exercise the part of their brain that’s been asleep for decades.
The human brain is a complex organ, of course. Research indicates the left hemisphere is the more rational half, while the right side tends to control artistic expression and creativity.
On the pages of his photo book, he writes: “Switch out the lights of the old fields of interest and illuminate new ones, which require new thought, create new brain cells, and exhilarate as you feel your tired old mind start to learn new things. … Finding a hobby that can take the mind to a new and different world can help keep weighty matters in perspective.”
Some people say 60 is the new 40. Schuler says that painting returned a sense of wonder he had not felt since he was a little boy gazing at the stars. And if he can return to that state, it’s not too late for others.
“What is it like to pick up the paint brush for the first time when you are past 60?” he writes. “As the shadows lengthen during the brief period we are on this planet, is there still time to discover something about yourself? I encourage you to try it. Take the plunge in this exciting world of self-discovery and renewal. Painting came to my rescue and became my friend.”
Might it become yours, too?
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Adrienne Fawcett is a freelance writer with a pen in many pots. She is communications manager of Lake Bluff History Museum, for which she writes the monthly Lake Bluff Stories feature about the quirky side of village life on the North Shore of Chicago. For Lake Forest Preservation Foundation she is managing editor of “Lake Forest: The Guide to National Historic Districts,” a book to be published fall 2022. And since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 Adrienne has been swimming in Lake Michigan every day, all the year-round. Follow her outdoor swimming adventures on Instagram at #fourseasonswimmer and on the web at www.fourseasonswimmer.com