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Litz demonstrates artistry on and off the ice

August 5, 2015
By CHRISTIE SAUSA - Correspondent , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - For Lake Placid resident and 1963 national figure skating champion Tommy Litz, skating and art go together quite nicely.

He is combining these two passions by teaching and judging at the World Figure Championship and Figure Festival from Aug. 25 to Aug. 29 at the Olympic Center, in addition to hosting an art exhibition Aug. 28.

Figure skaters know Litz as the coach who presided over "The Litz Team," which was a group of coaches who worked together to develop skaters to their best level athletically and artistically. He is known throughout the skating world as an excellent coach and a technically superb skater.

Article Photos

Tommy Litz displays a butterfly during his younger days.
Photo courtesy of Tommy Litz

Litz personally worked with several elite skaters, including two-time national medalist Priscilla Hill, Olympic competitor Charlene Wong (a competitor at the World Figure Championship) and Olympic bronze medalist Jill Watson.

Litz is looking forward to participating in the World Figure event.

"I think what we're doing for this competition is a whole different thing," he said. "We're able to create a whole new paradigm for figures."

The World Figure Championship and Figure Festival will be a celebration of school figures, the foundation of skating. All events will be skated on black ice, which allows the skaters and the public to see the tracings on the ice surface.

The World Figure Championships takes place Aug. 28 and 29, with Olympians like Kurt Browning, Sandy Lenz and Charlene Wong cometing against a diverse field for a new world championship title.

Judging the championship are figure skating icons like 1972 Olympic champion Trixi Schuba, 1972 Olympic bronze medalist Janet Lynn, three-time national champion Jo Jo Starbuck and others.

The Figure Festival allows skaters of all ages and levels to hone their skills, with opportunities for testing, competition and instruction from the best in the sport.

In addition, the public is welcome to participate in special events, including an opening night party, the screening of rare films of Olympic legends Oleg and Ludmila Protopopov competing, an evening of "Memorable Moments of Greatness" presented by well-known ABC Sports producer Doug Wilson, a social skate in the 1932 rink and Tommy Litz's Art Show.

Litz's grandfather skated figures and became quite a local legend carving creative patterns in the ice.

"For our figure competition, he would do these pictures on the ice - they called them grapevines," Litz said of his grandfather. "Sometimes, it looked like a star or there would be an image of a bunny rabbit or something like that. And even up until the age of over 80 years old he was doing this, and he was kind of a local star in the newspaper."

Although his decision to figure skate might have been influenced by his grandfather's skating, Litz attributes his inspiration to be a great skater to both his dad - Floyd Grover Litz, whom Litz describes as a "tough guy" - and his father's decision to take him and his mother to see the 1956 National Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia.

Inspired by skaters like the Jenkins brothers (Hayes and David - both with several national, world and Olympic medals between them), Ronnie Robertson and Carol Heiss, Litz remembers being most impressed by Tenley Albright. Interestingly, Hayes Allen Jenkins and Tenley Albright both went on to win the Olympic Games that year.

Skating in Reading, Allentown and Hershey, Pennsylvania, Litz learned from various coaches, including Leila McKellen (mother to three-time national champion Gordie McKellen, who also trained in Lake Placid), a Canadian coach named Gerard Blair, and eventually his primary coach Felix Kaspar.

Litz remembers McKellen as being influential in his skating, and Kaspar as being "a driving person, not so much a technical coach, but someone who was really invested in me becoming a champion and invested in me having whatever tools there were in those days."

Litz also remembers that he had a talent for "mimicking," a habit that was useful in his figure skating and his artistic career.

"I have always been able to watch somebody do something, in particular skating and athletics, anything that my body would allow me to do, I would always be able to watch it and almost instantaneously pick it up," Litz said. "Every six months, I had someone else that I looked up to that was in a higher skill level of mine. Let's say Don Jackson and David Jenkins, and then there was Ronnie Robertson. Ronnie was my favorite. So these people, I would actually attempt to mimic them, even their style of skating."

While Tommy Litz was training primarily in Hershey, Floyd Litz worked in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, first as a steelworker and eventually as manager of a steel working shop. It was Floyd's belief in his son that kept him skating.

"In those days, inspiration came sort of on a daily basis and a lot of the inspiration was muddled with reasons to quit," Litz said. "And my father, I think he always believed in me so much that he - and he wouldn't admit this - but he wouldn't allow me to quit.

"He would always say to me, 'you know you have this ability,' and he would call it a sin not to embellish or make use of that ability. It was a struggle with me and my dad for a while because I was headstrong and he was certainly that way, but I guess we did the right thing."

It was also Floyd who helped his son find sponsorship for his skating career, telling the manager of Hershey Estates (the non-chocolate division of the Hershey company) that his son was worth the company's sponsorship.

"I had just won a Philadelphia area juvenile championship with an axel, and of course that was in the Allentown paper," Litz said. "My father took that to the president of the Hershey Estates, walked into the office and said, 'Look, my son is going to be a champion, he just won the Philadelphia area championships, what can you do for him?' I'm sure those weren't the words. From that day on, most of my skating was taken care of."

Their investment in Litz paid off because about eight years after he started skating, Litz won the 1963 US National Figure Skating Championships and was the first skater to land a tripletoe loop jump in competition.

After these triumphs, Litz skated professionally before becoming a coach, and then an artist.

Litz became interested in art after seeing various artworks, including a Salvador Dali show in Florida and Toller Cranston's works of art at an exhibition at a Canadian National Championship, which he was attending as a coach.

His interest was really sparked when he moved to Lake Placid in 1972. In his younger years, he had skated in Lake Placid in the summer season for several weeks when the Hershey rink was closed.

Litz returned after Olympic Center manager Bob Allen, traveling to Montreal to see him perform in ice shows, repeatedly asked him to coach. When Litz retired from show skating, he took Allen up on the offer and came to Lake Placid to teach.

Shortly after moving to Lake Placid, Litz started taking art classes at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts from Harry Bartnick, who practiced the kind of art Litz felt drawn to the most.

"Harry was a photo-realist. And I can remember walking into the class, and seeing one of his art pieces," Litz said. "It was a piece that looked like an old-fashioned drug store, where you used to sit at the counter on the round chair and order a milkshake or an ice cream cone. And it was just sitting there, and it looked like a photograph. But I knew it was an oil painting. So I thought, 'well, guess what, this is what I'm going to do.'"

Under Bartnick's tutelage, Litz went from being the self-described "worst artist in the class" to earning Bartnick's praise.

"At the end of that class, I had completed a painting which Harry saw - and I was definitely again mimicking him - and looked at it and said, 'wow, I think I'm looking at a fellow artist's work.'"

From there, Litz started producing pieces. At first he focused on figure skating artwork, then gradually started to focus on photo-realism like the work he admired from his teacher. At first, he produced approximately 10 to 12 skating pieces, selling approximately the same amount, and after that worked for about 10 years to produce the 16 new pieces that will be in the upcoming Lake Placid art show. A lot of those pieces have been in art shows in New York and Montreal.

Litz draws inspiration for his artwork from human forms in dance or skating poses combined with colors, textures and other imagery.

"I can see a dance form in anything I look at, particularly anything that is romantic and pretty - flowers, sounds, colors," Litz said. "Probably what really inspires me the most is color. So I can look at a color and I can look at a dance form and a movement, and I can put those things together, and make something that I think is interesting."

While Litz used to use oil painting as his medium, he now uses computer software to create his art work.

"I don't consider myself a technical artist. Everything I've learned, everything that I've learned about technical art has been from HarryI was able to do some things, and at least Harry thought, (that) really looked like a photorealist painter in oils. But getting to the computer, all of that is really self-taught. (The artwork) is generated by a software program but it is indeed like painting on the computer; many times when I'm doing something I become very frustrated because I think it would be easier to do it with oils. There is so much detail that I use to produce what I'm doing."

Litz has sold a few of the new pieces, but stresses that the art is all about his passion for art and less about selling the pieces.

"I've gained so much more of a internal enjoyment out of it than having to sell it," he said. "It's not a commercial entity to me."

The Aug. 28 show in the Hall of Fame room of the Olympic Center will be a combination of Litz's photo-realism, surrealism, abstraction and transparencies.

Having lived in Lake Placid for more than 40 years, Litz considers the town to be an excellent haven for an artist.

"I like the feeling of the community and the small-town atmosphere that still has a lot of activity," he said. "Lake Placid inspires me because I can be a bit of a recluse, but not a total recluse, so I believe the solitude and general scenery is conducive (to art) in general."

Although he considers himself "semi-retired" now, Litz helps other coaches occasionally. But he is mostly focused on his art.

"I am as passionate about doing the art as I was in skating," Litz said. "(Art) has given me something that is another identity, which skating did give me."

To RSVP for Tommy Litz's Art Show, email the organizing committee at For more information on the World Figure Championship & Figure Festival, and to buy tickets for the Championship and special events, visit their website at



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