Shortly after winning the prestigious Absa Atelier Award, Leonie E Brown disappeared from the art world. Now, after many years, she returns with a trademark touch of magic.
I won the National Volkskas Atelier Award for Fine Art in 1985. My university didn’t want me to enter, but John Botha, my Art History lecturer and Natascha Pretorius, a friend, believed in me when no one else did. They submitted two of my pieces. Both were accepted, and the one piece won,” the artist recounts.
But the rosy glow of the young artist’s unexpected victory was not to last. “The year after I won the Atelier Award was terrible,” says Brown. “I was filled with pain, loneliness and sadness. My work then was very harsh, angular and angry. I used a lot of cold colours and hard surfaces. Most of my work was done on hardboard.”
The work Brown produced during this period allows the spectator to share in the emotional turmoil she was experiencing. “I employed texture to shock and repel, and a palette knife to scratch and unsettle the viewer. I recreated my misery in my work. It’s painful looking at yourself in a mirror during cold seasons. So I quit.”
Her sojourn away from canvases lasted 14 years, leading her to many places she might never have visited had she continued as a solo artist. Some of these experiences include teaching art to high school students in Lichtenberg, working as a graphic designer in Cape Town, and living in what was then still known as Czechoslovakia.
“Life was tough, but I was learning what varsity couldn’t teach me; who I am. All those different things I did taught me some invaluable lessons. Working as a graphic designer, for example, taught me how to work with finer details.”
In 2000, the year before Brown got married, she found herself standing in front of a canvas once again. And when the work of art was completed, she stood back, startled by her creation.
“It was as though I’d been reinvented. I realised that somewhere along the line, I had found inner peace. I wanted to share that with the world, but in a way that also allowed the viewer to see his own soul through my work. At first I was cautious, just brushing up on old skills,” she explains. But as her confidence rose, she began experimenting. “I believe good art is produced by artists who continually develop their technique, style and change their subject choice.”
Not one to employ radical new media, Brown refers to herself as a traditionalist. “I won’t cut holes into a canvas, splash blood onto it and then stretch a dog skin over that. I enjoy working on a canvas using oil paints to create the picture I have in mind, and experimenting with different styles, techniques and tools.”
Today, Brown has achieved acclaim for developing a style of painting that is recognisably her own. In one of her latest landscapes, aptly titled Coming Home, a rustic farm house stands in a field of golden grass. A muddy road runs parallel to it and off into the distance where a powerful mountain range guards the horizon. A pale blue sky holds soft white clouds in its expanse. Layers and layers of colour shine through each other to create an out of focus effect similar to pointillism. But unlike pointillism, Brown has managed to create a soft lace-like finish with very few hard edges.
“When I started painting, I used brushes. My paintings had a flat finish. So I began experimenting with impasto. I fell in love with the textures created by applying oodles of paint. People wanted to touch my work because of it, so I started using a palette knife in conjunction with the brushes and an impasto technique to enhance the effect. Later on I only used palette knives.”
But one day she became frustrated with the effects she was achieving. “I grabbed the closest thing to me. Let’s just call it my little secret,” she adds mischievously. “I tried that on the canvas and immediately saw the potential. Now I feel comfortable and confident working with my newfound tool. I only use a palette knife
to create hard edges.”
And while she still employs some of her former techniques, her new methods allow for more fluidity, and can be described as more expressionistic.
Brown is rapidly building up a following in South Africa as well as Germany, and her work can be seen in top galleries in these countries. Her art can also be viewed on her website at www.lifeart.co.za.