by Yolanda Wysocki
Oriana Lewton-Leopold is an artist included in the summer 2014 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions. After completing an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Oriana took painting and drawing classes at the New York Studio School and was an exchange student in Germany that same year. She then moved back home to Portland where she married, had a baby in July of 2014, and also completed her Master of Fine Arts in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA).
Oriana’s art school background weaves its way throughout our conversation and is apparent in the language she uses as well as how she approaches her work. Although she still considers it valuable to think about what and why artists make the choices they do – and she does think there are reasons behind all creative choice – she is finding herself moving away from the rigorous explaining and defending of her work as required in school. “I think the studio practice is far more important than all the thinking and writing and talking we did,” Oriana says. “It influenced our work but now that I think about it, I don’t remember some of what I said about my paintings, so it wasn’t as important as it seemed at the time. But I do think the work is more interesting when artists think and can talk about what they are doing.”
Oriana explains it further for me. “In school we start out with theories and meanings and fit our work into them, but in my last bodies of work – like the Manet and Rihanna paintings – I began by saying, ‘I love looking at these Manet paintings and love the tradition of artists copying other artists’ work and I love this pop star. What would happen if I juxtapose these images?’ It was only after the work was completed that I saw different meanings, made new connections and saw it differently.”
It seems this process is typical for Oriana. She often begins by perusing different mediums, looking for images that strike an emotional chord with her, and then copies them into her sketchbook. Sometimes she uses a repetitive image in her paintings. Oriana compares it to a musician liking a particular chord and wanting to hear it again in different contexts, maybe next to a saxophone or put in different combinations. She will recreate the image in different sizes; explore how it changes meaning if put next to this image as opposed to a different one, or she will put another image over it. Can she evoke the same emotion in the painting when it is buried? She would like her audience to ponder similar questions, but likes when others create their own stories. “Putting my paintings out there is about placing my work in the context of a larger conversation about art and life. And I think it’s an important conversation.”
Her current work combines the idea of performance (What is real? What is performance and when does one become the other?) with interests in hysteria (her MFA thesis topic), dramatic moments and similarity of gestures in completely different situations. Talking about her Blackfish Gallery show in December 2014, Oriana says, “I want people to find my work challenging, both the content and formal aspects – composition, painterly choices, powerful gestures that evoke emotion, and to make different connections. I like to create questions and a little discomfort in the viewer. But I don’t think my work excludes people without an art school background. Everyone may not have the same ideas about the work that I did but I hope it is visually compelling to draw people in, whether it’s a powerful figure or colors that work well together or something that draws viewers in.”
Dilemmas: Our conversation took us to subjects all artists have to address at some time in their creative lives … how to combine what the market wants with their own interests and the ideas they want to explore.
“When I was at Hampshire they encouraged us to do exactly what we were interested in and not pay attention to what consumers want. I found that very valuable but it didn’t leave any room for how to earn money from my work. I look at beautiful, well-executed work – and there is great value in that and that seems to be what most people want to buy. I tried working on realistic portraits for a while thinking they might sell but I had no interest in them so I stopped. It’s a challenge. Eventually I would like to sell my paintings, teach, and have shows in different parts of the world. I would like not to be working in restaurants for the rest of my life, especially now that we have a baby, I think about all of this but I also have a broader perspective. I don’t feel I have to do my best work now; I will improve tremendously over the years and I will be so much better in 20 years than I am now. Looking at life in a larger context takes off some of the pressure.”
Family: Being surrounded by a supportive family allows her time to work, as well as care for infant daughter Anouk, as she prepares for her show. Our conversation was occasionally interspersed with baby Anouk making her own needs known.
“I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without my family’s support. My mom and sister help take care of the baby when my husband and I are working, or dad will pick up our dog, Hux, for some exercise and love. They’re really supportive. My husband is also a really talented artist, and chef too. Nathaniel got his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting.”
When asked about possible collaboration: “We have really different styles; I’m very stream of consciousness and very gestural and he is very detail-oriented. We haven’t collaborated yet, but we’re are intrigued by each other’s way of working so we may collaborate some time in the future.” She then points to their baby and laughs, “We did collaborate and we created a masterpiece.”
See Oriana Lewton-Leopold’s exhibition, Hushing the Crowd, December 2-27, 2014
at the Blackfish Gallery, 420 W 9th Ave., Portland, OR 97209 | 503-224-2634
Gallery Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m
Oriana Lewton-Leopold is a painter based in Portland, Oregon. She received her MFA in Visual Studies from PNCA in 2012. Her work has been exhibited in New York and Portland, most recently at Blackfish Gallery, where she is represented. More of her work can be viewed on her website.
Yolanda Wysocki works as a life/transformation coach. Her background has been in counseling and social services for more than 25 years. She went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree when she was 51 years old. Seven years and three schools later, she completed her art degree, a lifelong dream.