Gwyneth Leech

By Cindy Votruba

The Marshall Independent
Weekender Section
Issue Date 1/27-28/07

New York City-based artist Gwyneth Leech said the inspiration for one of her exhibits of oil paintings came from her youngest daughter, Grace, who has a knack for charming people.

Leech’s exhibit “Perfect Families” is on display until Feb. 25 at the Southwest Minnesota State University Art Museum. The museum is located in the second floor of Bellows Academic.

The exhibit of oil paintings is of real families in Leech’s New York City neighborhood. It includes works of different kinds of families: mixed race marriages, transracial adoption, same sex parenting and children with special needs.

“They are simple compositions focusing on the character of the sitters and the relationships between them,” Leech said. “I especially admire portraits of the early Italian Renaissance and 16th century painters, such as Hans Holbein, direct paintings in clean colors.”

Leech said the inspiration for the exhibit stemmed from the birth of her daughter Grace, who was born in 2003 with Down’s Syndrome.

“One strong initial emotion was fear, fear of rejection by friends, family and the world at large, who we believed were generally hostile to children with genetic variations,” Leech said. “Perhaps in the abstract this is so, but Grace seems to have an unusual ability to attract and charm. She has opened our eyes to what it means to be a perfect family, and was the inspiration for this portrait project celebrating the great variety and richness of families that came into our lives because her her, at school, at church, on the playground, in the park.”

Leech comes from a line of artists. Her grandparents met at art school in Philadelphia in the 1920s and her grandfather was a well-known printmaker with the WPA art project in the city. Her grandmother was a puppet-maker, poet and painter. Her mother was also a dedicated painter and Leech began painting as soon as she was able to hold a brush, age 2.

“Making art was the most natural thing to do in our family,” Leech said. “So was not having a lot of money, so initially my mother discouraged me from a career in fine arts. However, I was determined to proceed and I had the good fortune to get an exchange fellowship from the University of Pennsylvania which allowed me to study art in Scotland.

Leech received her bachelor of fine arts and graduate degree in drawing and painting at the University of Pennsylvania and Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. She lived in Scotland from 1981 until 1999.

After completing art college with a degree in painting, Leech said she explored a wide range of media, spending many years printmaking and working with still photography and video.

“In recent years I have alternated between moving images and painting again, drawn back repeatedly to the permanence of a painting as opposed to the fleeting nature of the video image and the constantly changing media technology,” Leech said. “Over the years, I have come to appreciate the unique effect of making art with my hand, the way it alters my eye for the world I am living in, heightening my appreciation of the ordinary things that surround me, making them extraordinary.”

Leech said she has ranged over a broad variety of subjects with her work, many of a rather anthropological nature.

“At one period I was very interested in county fairs and prize poultry, which led to paintings, prints, three-dimensional pieces and videos,” Leech said. “Then for several years I made artwork about the relationship between coastal communities in Scotland and the sea, expressed in collages, sculpture and installations made from seaborne plastic detritus.”

Leech’s two daughters do play a part in her artistic progress, she said.

“Much of my artwork has an autobiographical aspect, and I have portfolios of drawings and paintings of both girls,” Leech said. “Over the last 10 years, I have made a lot of artwork about the places and ways we play and spend time together.”

It was a commission Leech did for the St. Paul’s on the Green Church in Norwalk, Conn., that caused a bit of a stir.

The church wanted to replace its Stations of the Cross and wanted an approach that spoke to a contemporary congregation conservative in its taste for traditional worship forms, but politically and culturally liberal. Leech said her interest in northern European painters of the 16th century supplied the answer and that artists of that period, set the biblical story in their own geographical location and time period, to make it more real to their worshippers.

“I saw the visual parallel between the traditional images of women weeping at the foot of the cross and daily photos in my newspaper in 2004 of Iraqi women grieving car bomb victims,” Leech said. “This led me to set the whole cycle of 14 paintings in the contemporary Middle East, but painted in a traditional style which matches the Gothic interior of St. Paul’s.”

The “Stations” did provoke an entire year of newspaper articles, letters and online debate, Leech said, some of it quite unpleasant. But it became a valued part of the building fabric, she added.