When real life and real art collide
January 15, 2009 · Updated 6:13 PM
As a mom, Terry Leness was always working. So when it came to her painting, it took a long time to get real.
“I’m always like a yo-yo,” she said. “I struggled with this idea – which other women would say to me – that you can do it all. And I don’t believe you can.”
Thus, Leness’ trajectory from stay-at-home mother to working superrealist painter has been filled with experiments, workarounds and creative attempts by her and her family to compromise. Which makes her inclusion in February’s juried CVG Show at Bremerton’s Collective Visions Gallery all the sweeter.
“I have done nothing but be a housewife,” she said.
It’s a term Leness uses reflectively, not pejoratively, as she describes her development as a wife, mother, person and artist.
Leness spent a childhood in Florida and then went up north for boarding school, where she took art classes but never seriously considered an artistic career. In college, she took only enough studio art classes to satisfy the requirements for her art history degree.
Choosing that major was quasi-random, she said; she’d put herself on an academic track because she thought it was the appropriate thing to do. Plus, when it was time to declare a major, art history was where she had the most credits.
She married her high-school sweetheart and had two kids, a boy and a girl, now 17 and 21.
Through their young lives, she transferred her energy into domestic life. Family, decorating, cleaning – she unabashedly refers to herself as “really rather anal,” and said that a housekeeper had actually refused to sign on because her house was already immaculate. Clearly there were prospective clients who needed her services more.
“Once the children arrived, that was what I did,” she said. “And anything artistic was channeled into, you know, making the house pretty.”
When the kids were older, roughly a dozen years ago, she took an extended faux finish course in Snohomish. Developing expertise in this gorgeous, careful, exacting decorative area – crackle glazes, marbled walls, painted furniture – didn’t feel like an end in itself. But the very fact of being away was revelatory.
“It was marvelous – I was suddenly free. I was in my mid-30s, and I remembered, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like.’”
None of this is to imply that Leness didn’t appreciate life as a mother and keeper of the hearth.
With legitimate reason, “balance” has become the buzzword of Leness’ generation of mothers, and she serves as an example one with aspirations of her own who nonetheless, early on, willingly and lovingly made certain choices on behalf of her family.
It was more that she needed to nurture that kernel of creativity that didn’t exist to be applied to others.
Making art required a degree of distance, and it wasn’t a process that could be scheduled to fit in to other pursuits.
She experimented. When the family moved to Bainbridge in 1999, they undertook a remodel that included re-constructing a garage to include an upper-level studio. The hope was that through this dedicated away space, Leness could have the best of both worlds: enough physical and mental distance to explore art with the convenience of being right there when it was time to be needed again.
But once she got inside, the generous space proved not just too dim, but literally too close to home. (Ironically, her kids now use it as a hangout.)
Even the next attempt, renting a little space in Port Gamble, made it too easy to get pulled back into family matters. She had to go further afield.
With the complete support of her children and her husband – taking the kids, acting as the first line of family defense, pushing her when she was reluctant to push herself – Leness commenced an annual trek to Northern California, staying in a cottage in Inverness and doing studies of Point Reyes.
She first drew, then began painting tiny watercolors, every step tentative but sure enough to make her realize that her medium had to evolve.
Yet so many aspects of oil painting made her nervous. The color mixing, selecting the right medium for the paint, the sense of vast commitment. She stuck to small canvases, and went slowly.
“Bit by bit, I broke out of the shell,” she said.
She also found a new studio, a rental cottage in Port Townsend. Finally, the elements had converged: a locale the perfect distance away; kids who were old enough to weather their mom being gone for a week at a time; and a space with the right light. 2008 was a prolific year.
The paintings she produced, including “Lytle’s Garage,” the one selected for the CVG show, are grounded in superrealism, also known as hyper-realism or photorealism. There, the interpretation and revelation in a painting lie in how startlingly like its subject it looks. “Is that a photograph, or a painting?” is the first question it asks a viewer.
As an artist who values theory, Leness did the requisite reading about movements like Abstract Expressionism. Intellectually, she got it. But she didn’t really like it. She preferred the work of Edward Hopper, Robert Bechtle, John Register and Rackstraw Downes, all of whom depicted ordinary scenes, objects and structures as snapshots of a larger world, sometimes to startling and even oddly unreal effect.
Leness herself loves the way the light hits a building; many of her recent paintings concern themselves with structures situated against natural or constructed landscapes.
“I’m a realist. Everything I do is really grounded in that,” she said.
Now that she’s gotten some exposure, including recent showings in Georgia, California and Port Townsend as well as the CVG show, she’s learning all about the logistics of getting her work out there. Nuts-and-bolts, but an empowering part of the process nonetheless.
Part of the self-discovery has been how very much herself she still is, despite the revelatory nature of becoming a painter. She still likes to keep her space immaculate. She still works small, favoring 10-by-10-inch or 11-by-14-inch canvases.
And the work itself, she said, can be “excruciatingly hard,” both technically and for the unending opportunities it affords to psych herself out. When she steps back to analyze, she always worries that she’s not getting it right. But then she escapes, back in.
“When I’m painting, when I can really focus in, it’s magic,” she said.