Gwyneth Leech
BY FRANCIS CARR Jr.
Thursday, April 23

NORWALK -- Gwyneth Leech represents the third generation in a family of artists.

"I knew from the time that I was knee-high to a grasshopper that I was going to be an artist," Leech told The Hour.

Leech's grandfather, Michael J. Gallagher, was a printmaker who documented the anthracite coal mining industry in his home state of Pennsylvania.

Now, in a surprise twist, both Leech and Gallagher are exhibiting their art in separate Norwalk exhibitions -- Leech in a solo show at Gallery on the Green, and Gallagher as part of the Center for Contemporary Printmaking's current exhibition of Works Projects Administration art, titled "WPA: Jobs."

"It was a complete coincidence," Leech exclaimed. "These two [exhibitions] are on not just in the same town, but at the same time!"

A Philadelphia native, Leech first exhibited in Norwalk ten years ago, when Vince Edwards, music director at St. Paul's-on-the-Green Episcopal Church, recommended Leech to church administrators who were looking to commission a new stations of the cross with a "contemporary flavor."

(Leech, a professional choral singer, met Edwards when he ran the chorister program at St. Bart's in New York City.)

After a year of research and work, Leech's "Stations of the Cross" went on permanent display at St. Paul's. The 14 panels of the series mix traditional Christian iconography depicting Jesus' execution with images of violent turmoil in the contemporary Middle East -- the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib prison, Darfur refugees; soldiers, barbed wire, smoke, fire.

"The paintings were installed in the church in early 2005 at a time when it was not widely accepted to [criticize] the Iraq war," Leech wrote in an artist statement. "There was initial controversy that blew up in the print press and the blogosphere. However, the congregation of St. Paul's embraced the series from the start."

Leech's current exhibition at Gallery on the Green (adjacent to St. Paul's) includes 11 oil-on-paper studies for the "Stations" series, and traces her output over the intervening decade.

"Perfect Families," a series of portraits that depict "unconventional" families Leech knows personally, was undertaken while Leech was "looking for a way back" from the darkness of the "Stations of the Cross" commission, which took a year to research and complete. "Perfect Families" was inspired by the birth of Leech's second daughter, who has Down syndrome.

"We didn't expect to have a child with special needs," Leech said. "We found that we were building a different kind of community of families, and they tended to be people who were open to -- not the traditional way, shall we say?"

Leech's neighborhood influenced the series as well.

"I live in Hell's Kitchen in New York City, so a lot of families are same-sex couples, or they've adopted children from other countries, or they're mixed-race families," Leech said of the subjects of the "Perfect Families" series.

"Hypergraphia" ("a behavioral condition characterized by the intense desire to write") consists of paper coffee cups, decorated by Leech, suspended from threads.

This ongoing series began while Leech sat, bored, in PTA meetings.

"I started doodling, and found that a used paper coffee cup was a really great surface for making artwork, and I could do it on the go," Leech said. "It was all about using what's to hand, what's really familiar. A lot of my work is about the familiar, hence the portraits of people I know, and then working on this humble coffee cup in the palm of my hand ... turning something that would be otherwise thrown out into an art object."

The designs on the cups range across the spectrum of representation: some depict bustling street scenes; others flowers or floral patterns; some are completely abstract. They have been installed in shop windows from Texas to London; the largest showing was in the Flatiron building in New York, for which Leech sat in a window five days a week for as many months, drawing on cups. In the end, there were about 850 paper coffee cups included in the piece.

Her most recent work, a series called "Reflected City," consists of paintings the New York skyline viewed from Leech's studio on the 13th floor of a building in the Garment District.

"I call it 'Reflected City' because there's a lot of glass buildings and glass surfaces that reflect other buildings, so I got really intrigued by that abstracted effect of the light and reflections," Leech said. "I have been fueled to do that by the fact that they are building a building directly behind the studio. It's currently a hole in the ground, but it will, in due course, be 40 stories, and it will completely block the view."