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Q&A with Painter Leigh Culver

Champagne Autumn, watercolor by Leigh Culver, winner of the Shayna Heisman Simkin Award for Best in Show. Click to view a larger image.
Champagne Autumn, watercolor by Leigh Culver, winner of the Shayna Heisman Simkin Award for Best in Show. Click to view a larger image.

’Scapes is one of the year’s most popular shows at The Art League because of the ability landscapes have to transport us — to different spaces, times, and states of mind. The exhibit is all about exploring the spaces around us, and what they mean to us.

Leigh Culver’s Champagne Autumn, the exhibit’s best in show piece, is a perfect example. The limited point of view — just a plant against a cloudy sky — means it could be almost anywhere, so each viewer can draw on their own experiences to find the meaning. (It’s actually from River Farm, a spot just down the road from the Torpedo Factory where plein air classes have been known to visit.)

Each person who looks at it will be reminded of a different autumn, or a different time they’ve seen these colors. For the artist, it holds a great deal of meaning, as you’ll see below. For more about Leigh Culver’s art and career, read our first Q&A with her (after you finish this one).

What caught your eye about this particular spot that made you want to paint it?
Leigh Culver: I painted this from a photograph I took at River Farm, the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society. It was very late in the day and overcast. This was a crepe myrtle tree in full autumn bloom—I took pictures, underneath, looking up, from all sorts of angles to try and capture the celebratory joy of that color and those shapes against the blank sky.

What’s interesting to me is how the painting has accrued meaning over time. My mom became ill and started hospice care as I was painting it. She lamented that she wouldn’t be seeing fall foliage and wanted a painting to look at. As I was painting this and visiting her, it started to take on and embody, for me, her physical and spiritual state of mind during that time, which was a deep and moving privilege to witness. In art, red autumnal leaves have always, perhaps rather tritely, symbolized the passing of time, death, beauty, fragility, etc. But when you are in the midst of experiencing it on a personal level, it resonates.

Champagne Autumn, detail
Champagne Autumn, detail

The vantage point I chose suggested a window view she might have, lying down, looking out from the second floor, and seeing only the treetop–a limited view that concentrates vision. I wanted her to be able to lose herself in the details and for it to resonate with her thoughts and feelings during that time. She was a medical doctor and an Episcopal priest who had spent her life focused on physical and spiritual healing—she saw death as the “final healing.” So meditations on ephemeral life and beauty, decay, fragility, disappearing, community, resurrection, transformation and the mystery beyond life informed aesthetic choices I made as I painted. (But I realize for many, it just looks like a pretty tree, perhaps tossing in the wind—and that is just fine!) The title refers to the fact that my mom insisted on cocktail hour every evening right up until the end, definitely not my mode, but there was bubbling laughter and community in the midst of everything, too.

In the end, I can only see her and that time when I look at the painting. It hung at the foot of her bed when I finished it. Its place in this show feels like a tribute to her. When the juror wrote that it was “attention-grabbing,” I laughed—that was decidedly an aspect of her personality as well (and I mean that in the most loving way). One of my favorite books she read to me as a child, was about a girl named Anne, which was her name. “Anne likes red. Red, red, red. Would you like a blue dress Anne? NO. Anne likes red. Red, red, red.” And she did. Her oldest brother Brock died just a few months later. He was a writer and poet, and his last email to me was about this painting, giving it his generous avuncular support. As he, too, was in hospice, his words—“feverish leafage…its plumage, like a halcyon lush afloat among the berries”—only added to its meaning, and his understanding is now part of this painting for me too.

“In art, red autumnal leaves have always, perhaps rather tritely, symbolized the passing of time, death, beauty, fragility, etc. But when you are in the midst of experiencing it on a personal level, it resonates.”

I’m a big believer in the notion that a painting is not just the work of the person who laid down the paint. Rather, it represents a matrix of ideas, values, thoughts, and influences from many different sources. The lessons of Art League teachers Jacqueline Saunders and Deborah Ellis were also constantly in my head when I was painting this. When I paint, I always remember Jackie’s insistence on pure, unmuddied colors mixing on the page, and Deborah’s example of waiting, watching, and influencing the organic alchemy of pigment and water as it interacts on the paper over time. Both teachers have created wonderful art communities that continually enlighten, support and influence.

Since this month is all about landscapes, what do you think a successful landscape has? What goes into capturing a space?
Leigh Culver: I was glad to see that the juror interpreted “landscape” in the broadest possible sense, as one could argue that “Champagne Autumn” is more a portrait or botanical still life than a strict landscape. Certainly space is far more contained than in many of the show’s images. Successful landscapes embody a sense of place or atmosphere, and they address issues about our world, society, or the individual’s place in it. In my watercolor, I was interested in the subject’s metaphorical resonance. Any work of art is successful, to some level, if it stirs the viewer emotionally or cognitively. The greater the stir, the better! To capture a space, one has to focus on technical issues of scale, atmosphere, light, perspective, and vantage point. And one has to hone in on the details that encapsulate the essence of place, thought, or mood, and to identify what can best highlight or support those details.

What was your favorite part of working on this painting?
I loved doing the berries, or perhaps they were just empty shells by that point in the tree’s life cycle. I delighted in their varied relationships to each other. They started accruing these anthropomorphic qualities for me.

What are you working on now?
I’ve done more paintings of the same tree, but they don’t work in the same way. I turned fifty this year, and, unsurprisingly, I am still interested in exploring life’s fragility and resilience. I’ve been particularly taken by spherical pods of all types and wild, colorful fields of dried weeds—we’ll see where that leads. I exhibit at the River Farm each year with Salon Eight, a wonderful group of watercolorists, and we’ve been asked to paint images of cherry blossoms in celebration of the festival’s anniversary next spring. My first reaction was, “Ugh, that might just be the last subject I would ever choose to paint.” Too ubiquitous and sweet for me. But David Hockney, Van Gogh, and Joseph Rafael all managed to find quite wonderful ways to paint such blossoms. It’s been a surprising delight exploring how I might possibly capture that subject in ways that speak to me. I’m taken aback by how much I’m enjoying the process. There’s a lesson in that.

’Scapes is open through Monday, September 8.

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