"Out of the blue."

Art and friendship: Leslie Dyer, a mini-retrospective.

MARCH 31—It is only now, thinking about how we met, that I fully appreciate Leslie’s open-hearted generosity. A dedicated artist, she found time in a busy life to befriend a stranger.

I contacted Leslie at the encouragement of a mutual friend who suggested we might enjoy corresponding. I think now she understood how lonely I was at the time. My email, when I finally sent it, landed from out of the blue. Luckily it didn’t go into Leslie’s spam box. So began a long and lively transcontinental correspondence: Leslie lives in Pennsylvania, I was on the west coast at the time. This was in spring 2016. Five years later, she is among my dearest friends.

Our friendship blossomed around a shared passion for art. Leslie had been painting for some years and was doing lovely still lifes when our email exchange began. I was a beginner, producing unpromising results while struggling with the debilitating chronic fatigue I’ve mentioned elsewhere.

Leslie came into my life when I was at my lowest and loneliest point. Every email from her was like a sip of refreshing water for one long parched—warm, friendly, and humorous human contact. Attached to most of the emails were JPG files of her recent work. Hearing from Leslie was the highlight of any day—a joy and delight. A gift of inspiration.

In hindsight, I shared far too many photos of uninspired paintings in my earliest emails to Leslie. Still, she always found something nice to say. Her kindness—and that of others as well—was the sunshine that enabled me to grow, to experiment, to stumble and fall even as I gradually found my own artistic path.

I offer the following, very personal and fleeting contemplation, as a celebration of friendship and art—an expression of appreciation and gratitude.

The ordinary.

Leslie’s still lifes, many of them painted with walnut-based oils, captivate me with their loose brush strokes, wide range of pastel grays, and a compelling abstraction throughout. They are spare compositions, typically featuring floral arrangements along with mundane household items: A coffee mug, a spoon, a bowl, or a small piece of pottery purchased at a flea market.

There is in these pieces an attentive, almost reverential rendering of ordinary objects. It is a quality that reflects her education and training in archeology. Leslie spent many years working as an archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico, California, and Pennsylvania, producing detailed drawings of archeological sites and artifacts during each tour. The work trained her hand and eye. Leslie became skilled at documenting what was before her—what she actually observed rather than what she expected to see. This is very great distinction—and one immensely important in art.

Looking at the painting above, I can almost feel the weight of the mug in my hand. Its ghostly mirror image—painted in warm grays—pulls me into the surface of the painting and further isolates the object, as if to emphasize its significance. It is—like the placid yellow of the lily—a calm presence in a painting of bold shadows and fragmented reflections. But it is in the beautifully and subtly rendered structure of the Gerbera daisy that a certain mastery is most apparent.

As I learned to paint I frequently found myself studying Leslie’s work. The longer I spent with a piece the more I found to appreciate. I studied her brush strokes, deconstructing each object with my eye to see how she used hue and value to assemble a recognizable form. There is pleasure to be had in lingering with a painting. It’s like being with a good friend—at once familiar and yet always capable of surprise.

Curious developments.

A year into our friendship, I watched as Leslie began working with different media, including gouache, pastels, and watercolors—an experimental phase that coincided with a transition to landscape. She continues to paint in oil, but less frequently and only outside. Sadly, the solvents now trigger migraines.

Among the first landscapes I recall was a series inspired by photos of Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Many of these depict the vivid yellow fall foliage of cottonwoods growing along the river bank. Abstraction is even more apparent in this work, as seen in the planes of light and shadow defining the mesa. The bold brush strokes are full of energy and movement, in lively contrast to a tranquil sky.

There are qualities in the land itself—in our intimate, visceral relationship with the earth and elements—that are inherently inspiring. Certainly Leslie has found her artistic home in landscapes, and she has pursued that inspiration with success in multiple media.

Leslie picked up pastels in the fall of 2018 after seeing a demonstration by artist Lisa Mitchell, hosted by the Central Pennsylvania Pastel Society.

I learned more about values and hues by sorting and using the pastels. Each pastel is always a distinct color. To “mix” colors, you pick a different pastel that is the actual hue you want to use. The secret is to use a light touch until the very end when you may wish to add some distinct marks or more intense color or deep value. I love their brilliance and immediacy.

As it was for the Impressionist painters, light has become an increasingly important subject for Leslie. This is most apparent in her winter scenes. Leslie produced a beautiful series of cornstalk paintings reminiscent of Monet’s famous haystacks. She captures the variable moods of a winter’s day, the warm light and cool shadows that play across the snow.

If there is one quality common to all artists, it may be curiosity. Leslie has an abundance. She brings a playful and open mind to new materials and her creative process. If there is a goal, it is summed up in one word: Fun. That attitude, which is so freeing, may explain why she seems unusually adept at moving from one medium to another. Even so, Leslie paints in every spare moment. Painting may be pleasurable, but it is also a necessity—the mark of a true artist.

Forced to move away from oils—and frustrated with the expense and limitations of pastels—Leslie is now working in the much more difficult medium of watercolor. The new challenge is proving productive as she learns to master unfamiliar techniques.

I probably switched my focus to watercolors when I started to paint more outside. Although I did plein air paintings with pastels, I needed a minimum of 50 to 60 pastel sticks. With watercolors I can mix all my colors with just a handful of tubes.

Leslie has been in several shows at the Bellefonte Art Museum, in central Pennsylvania, including a 2017 exhibition that featured her oil paintings, and a 2018 exhibition of self-portraits by local artists. This fall she will have a solo show at the museum. Leslie has twice participated in the museum’s annual, invitation only, en plein air spring fundraiser, “Monet’s Picnic.” The event is a day-long painting demonstration featuring local artists and is followed by a dinner of French cuisine and a raffle of the pieces produced during the day.

When Leslie is challenged with a new art show or event (or an unfamiliar medium) I have seen her make rapid and significant strides in her work. The tension of a deadline or performance seems to inspire a breakthrough. When I asked what she likes about working in watercolor, she replied,

I like that it challenges me to draw a lot more than I have to with oils or acrylics.  I love the transparency of them and also the fun effects that the water creates that I can only barely control.  Each watercolor I paint is a total surprise.

Sadly, the pandemic forced Leslie inside, where she spent the past year painting in her studio. As she discovered, when people see someone painting outside, the temptation to approach and ask questions overrides the caution required of social distancing. With a new, more hopeful spring upon us, I anticipate Leslie will once again paint en plein air.

What comes of it will surely surprise and inspire me—as Leslie’s friendship has.


Note: State College Magazine published an article about Leslie in July, 2020. “Introspective Impressionism,” written in her own words, is a brief and lovely snapshot of Leslie’s creative journey. If you would like to see more of Leslie’s work, you can follow her on Instagram.