In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.
— Aaron Rose, artist and curator
Rappahannock artist Davette Leonard proves that contention true, capturing the right light in the perfect setting to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. The still lifes exhibited in the show that started this week at the Gay Street Gallery in Washington glow with a subtle illumination, a light from within that evokes the techniques and dense, rich color of the Old Masters. The subject matter is ordinary – fruit, vegetables, seashells. The results are anything but. Leonard works a transformation with her brush, creating illusions far more interesting and absorbing than the reality they represent.
“I need to be grounded in reality,” Leonard explained. “This is how I stay there.”
Leonard is a lifelong artist who kept a sketch pad as close as today’s kids keep their cell phones. From the beginning, she drew from life. “I was always drawing, drawing, drawing because I’ve always been in love with the sensual as represented by form, shade, light and texture.”
Growing up on Long Island, she haunted the museums of New York City. Inspiration came from Mark Rothko: “The only Abstract Expressionist that pulled me in. My favorite artist since I was 15. Still is.” She was struck by Fauvism, the first modern art of the 20th century, and by German expressionism “where color is huge.”
Her father lived in D.C., and visiting there during vacations, she spent summers wandering the galleries of the nation’s capital. She took classical drawing classes at the Corcoran and majored in painting at the School of Visual Arts in New York where she studied under Brice Marden. But the museums might have been her most influential teachers. “I’d stand in front of a single painting for hours, deconstructing, analyzing to death and imagining the steps. That’s where I learned technique — going to the best.”
She experimented with surrealism and non-objective painting, creating works reminiscent of aerial photography on outsized canvases eight feet by five feet. “I was young!” she added, laughing. And typical of young artists, she worked 60 to 80 hours a week at whatever to support herself while she chased her muse. She was in her mid-20s, living in Northern Virginia when a house painting job brought her to Rappahannock County.
“I fell in love,” Leonard recalled. “I’d never been in the country, I’d never experienced the country. Up to then, it was always the city or the ’burbs for me.” By 1980, she worked her way out to the Blue Ridge foothills. “It was like stepping back in time, like stepping into one of my paintings. I was drawn by the beauty and drawn to the community. I knew Rappahannock was where I was supposed to land.”
For an artist, it was a nurturing environment, but also challenging. “I had to pursue my art career differently than the city,” Leonard said. She returned to drawing, an art form that better lent itself to fitting in with work, marriage and raising three daughters. At the turn of the century, she returned to painting and to school, graduating from Mary Washington with a bachelor of arts degree and mastery of egg tempera. She left the county, living in Fredericksburg and Charlottesville for urban advantages to the pursuit of art. But the magnets of Old Rag and old friends pulled her back to Sperryville, where she now has a studio.
She paints in an airy front room full of light . . . and life, in the shape of cats who climb, glide and pounce from shelves and window ledges and add a lightness of spirit to the atmosphere with their distracting shenanigans. She paints vegetables and fruit that are timeless in themselves in that they don’t represent any particular period. But they are vulnerable to time, as are their classical settings on carefully draped fabric sumptuous in texture and color.
She paints daily and she must work fast enough to capture the changeable elements — the surface of the turnip before its purple luster fades and its skin shrivels, the heart of a cherry before the red wetness of its missing bite dries. “Shells don’t go anywhere,” Leonard noted, explaining the attraction of those unchangeable objects. But those, too, are displayed on the fabric folds that are flattened by lamp light. And while lamp light is constant, the illumination from the big windows shifts the shadows so even with seashells for subjects, the image has to be captured before time flies. “I have a little window of opportunity every day,” she noted.
At this stage in her art, Leonard is working larger, becoming more simplified, focusing more on negative space, elements of line, and elements of solidity.
“For me, art is like being in love. It always has been,” Leonard said. “I’ve been in love with creativity my entire life. I can’t walk away from it.” There are periods of time during which she shifts from making art to sharing the art through teaching at Hearthstone and Belle Meade schools or giving private lessons. But the loving never stops. “It’s like being in a long distance relationship,” she concluded.
The opening reception for Davette Leonard’s exhibition is 4 to 7 p.m. this Saturday (June 11) at the Gay Street Gallery in Washington. Her still life oil paintings will be displayed there through Aug. 15.