David Lusk Gallery | April 18–May 27
by Sara Lee Burd
Emily Leonard began her latest series with a watercolor she made while pregnant with her daughter. Although she did not know it at the time, she reminisces, “It brought me a lot of joy to make this picture during my residency in France, and I really wanted to make it into a painting.” While she normally does not prepare studies for her larger works, this special portrait of a foxglove was the origin of all the work that will hang at David Lusk Gallery (DLG) this April and May.
Known for her extraordinary depictions of landscapes and wildlife, Leonard advances her fascination with nature in her upcoming solo exhibition Unfold. For this show, she has created paintings that transform ordinary garden flowers into meditative aesthetic experiences that are guided by the artist’s vision and hand. “Nature is such a point of wonder for me. It gives me a first step toward a painting.”
Motherhood impacted Leonard’s artistic practice in many ways. With limited time to dedicate to her studio work and the enormous challenges of learning to be a new parent, she realized she needed a new approach to finding inspiration and challenging herself artistically. She recalls, “I wasn’t getting where I wanted to go with landscape work as a mom.” She moved away from expansive scenes of foliage, which she painted in darker muted tones, to creating expressive portraits of flowers in white and light hues. She explains what making this new work has done for her: “I think focusing on florals and also letting myself have more freedom with color was something that expanded my reach and helped me find more freedom in my life in general. It’s about letting go.”
She acknowledges that she has always been attracted to working within the art historical canon of classic subjects. “I like the challenge of making something that has been painted a million times but making it my own. I like the tradition, and I like having those parameters,” she explains. The impending exhibition deadline at DLG motivated her to, as she says, “sink into the subject matter.”
Working within the rich trajectory of floral paintings, Leonard is in good and plentiful company. A few examples to consider: the sacred symbolism of the lotus flowers in ancient Egyptian art, the representation of floral combinations essential for Chinese feng shui practices, the luxurious arrangements of exotic flowers fashioned by 15th-century Dutch painters to exude wealth and power, Van Gogh’s explorations of life, light, and color through his ubiquitous sunflower series, and many more. Still she worried that “if I told my 23-year- old self that I was painting flowers, I’d be embarrassed.”
Leonard’s contemplation of the shape, structure, and biology of flowers, however, has yielded a series of paintings that highlight the underlying strength and intricate beauty of these blooms. The process of making these works added the necessary interest for her to continue the work. She explains, “When you are looking at it at this level, you see the paper-thin petals that seem delicate, but when you think about what it does in the world, it stays dormant for most of the year. Then it comes through the darkness of underground, sprouts, and blooms again. It is not fragile at all; it’s actually strong.”
“Leonard’s contemplation of the shape, structure, and biology of flowers, however, has yielded a series of paintings that highlight the underlying strength and intricate beauty of these blooms.”
Honoring efflorescence, she stages each flower to photograph as if it were a portrait. Set against the white backdrop of her home’s stucco walls, white peonies, geometric cleome wildflowers, and expansive Japanese magnolias appear elevated and bare, ready for her to interpret in paint. Her renderings relate their graceful forms, but the style comes directly from her intuition and imagination.
Works such as Three Peonies communicate the tension between fragility and strength visually with quickly applied broad strokes of acrylic house paint combined with exacting details made with layers of oil pigments. The resulting combination of looseness, precision, color, and geometry makes her work feel fresh, active, and appealing. To these ends she admits, “That is what intoxicates me about nature in general. The sort of big picture of sweeping movements and also the tiny little intricacies of the little leaves and sprouts and things.”
Leonard works on each painting for months or even years. She likes to have several going at once, and for her the worst thing that could happen is to have a studio filled with artworks all at the same stage. Hers is a slow process of creating, remaining present, and staying committed until the work is complete. Finishing is an intuitive action, she jokes: “It isn’t like you finish one stroke and then ta-da! it’s done.”
Creating this new body of work affected Leonard’s relationship with her own artmaking and her own tenacity. “Painting flowers for the better part of a year brought me face to face with my own ugly parts. I look at them as lovely, graceful, and purposeful. I’d like to learn more about how to walk through the world like they do.”
Speaking with Zen-like awareness, she concludes, “The dormant flower is so patient and reminds me to be the same way in my art. It will come just as it does, like the flowers bloom in spring.”