From Eliza French. Follow her on Twitter @elizaenbref; email her at eliza[AT]borderstan.com.
DC-area native Alden Leonard’s first displayed his art professionally just two and a half years ago. Since then, the young artist, public relations professional, and Borderstan contributor continues to develop a distinctive artistic style while exploring varied themes and subject matter.
His interest in politics and self-professed “strong sense of loyalty” to D.C. have inspired him to portray the city and — its historical political figures — in many of his most memorable works to date.
However, Leonard doesn’t limit his paintings to the Capitol City, or to politics. Some of his recent works will be on display at Tabula Rasa in Capitol Hill, with an open house on June 22 and 23.
Borderstan: When did you first become interested in art, and what prompted you to dedicate more time to painting, in particular, in 2008?
Leonard: Actually I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in art. On road trips as a kid, I would go through a ream of printer paper every few hours, just drawing Ninja Turtles and Batman and that kind of thing.
Leonard: I studied painting and drawing in high school and college, but it was really after graduating that I began to explore artistically. I think the structure of school made it hard for me to create — I was always reacting to an assignment, not really making something new. It also probably didn’t help that I majored in [political science].
Borderstan: How did your first show in 2010 at Philip Morton Gallery in Delaware come to be? What about that experience motivated you to pursue your art further?
Leonard: As my portfolio grew, I began looking for a gallery to hang my work. A lot of my subject matter at the time was from Rehoboth Beach, so I approached a few galleries in town and signed with Philip Morton Gallery in late 2010. Looking back, I feel lucky to have found a gallery that is understanding of my artistic exploration and flexible as my style changes (and my canvasses grow).
Borderstan: Describe how your artistic style has evolved into what you call “energetic impressionism”? How do you blend realist style with more expressive techniques?
Leonard: My technique is always evolving, and I think I like it that way. I am a representative painter at heart — I depict things so they are easily recognizable and “true-to-form” — but I will always be re-evaluating what that means.
A few years ago I was making loose, painterly pieces (I called it “energetic impressionism”) that gave interesting but very literal results. At that time I wanted my art to look just like its source photo, and over the course of a few years I was able achieve that result consistently. I’m proud of this, but I also felt the need to push my boundaries. So, recently I have been painting scenes and subjects less literally, but with more emotion and mood. I am less concerned with action and movement, and more focused on feelings like nostalgia and calmness.
Although these new scenes are quite still, I think the paintings maintain a lot of the energy of my older works because of the experimentation behind them. I still mostly work in oil, but have also delved into mixed media and acrylic. One piece, “Ladies of the Beach,” I re-worked probably 10 times. It took almost a year in total, and I think you can tell by looking at it how much I cared to get it exactly right. So this newer stuff has an excitement that I think may have been lacking in some of the paintings from my last “phase.”
Borderstan: You have some formal training in art, but also describe yourself as self-taught. How have these two different learning experiences influenced your artistic approach?
Leonard:I would be nowhere without the teachings of two professors — Susan Pollard at Saint Stephens and Saint Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia and Nicole McCormick Santiago at The College of William & Mary. Each taught me focus, patience, and a few sleights of hand with the brush and pencil. I think of them often when I paint.
Still, a great deal of my artistic growth has taken place on my own since graduation. Learning this way has its drawbacks – criticism and praise from others give the artistic process a nice safety net — but it also provides me a lot of freedom.
My growth as an artist in recent years has also been helped along by the emergence of self-published artists and their blogs. This resource wasn’t around a decade ago, and provides green artists like me an important new channel of inspiration, reference and guidance, as well as a place to show new work.
Borderstan: Please tell me about any upcoming exhibitions, projects, series, or artistic endeavors. For example, I know you don’t focus on one overarching theme in your work, but have you been exploring most recently with your art?
Leonard: Next month I’m putting on a show with two fellow DC artists at Tabula Rasa on Barracks Row. We each represent different styles of painting, and I think our portfolios are going to work really nicely together. The pieces I will hang are from my work over the last year, all of which deal with this nostalgic summer subject matter. Family vacations, tennis, and the like.
The show has open houses Saturday, June 22, and Sunday, June 23, from 11 am to 3 pm. Please come by!
Borderstan: Despite having lived in many different places, you consider DC to be your hometown. Did you grow up in the city? When did you develop your “artistic fixation” on the city, and do you plan to continue exploring the city and its political figures in your work?
Leonard:I did most of my growing up across the river in Alexandria, so the DC skyline is one I know well. I find it comforting and regal, and I find a lot of people — whether they’re natives like me or just summer transplants — feel the same way. DC, despite its imperfections, inspires a very strong sense of loyalty, and my art often reflects that.
The same goes for the politician portraits. These are flawed individuals with checkered pasts, yet people adore them. Seriously — I’ve had two people commission portraits of Richard Nixon. I’m always pleased with how well that loose painting style conveys these spotty histories, while still being flattering, truthful portraits of noted Americans (and one British).