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.
Leonie E Brown Re-invented
“I won the National Volkskas Atelier Award for fine art in 1983. The university I was studying at didn't want to write me in. John Botha, my art history lecturer and Natascha Pretorius, a friend of mine, believed in me when no-one else did. They submitted two of my pieces, both were accepted and the one piece won.”
But the rosy glow of the young artist's unexpected victory did not last.
“The year after I won the Atelier Award was terrible. I was filled with pain, loneliness and sadness. In some ways, artists are prophetic people. We reflect our personal or socio-economic present or future situations through our work. 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.”
“I employed texture to shock and repel, a palette knife to scratch and unsettle the viewer. I re-created my misery in my work. It's painful looking at yourself in a mirror during cold seasons. So I quit.”
Her sojourn away from canvasses lasted 14 years, taking her to many places she might never have been had she continued as a solo artist. Teaching high school students art in Lichtenburg, working as a graphic designer in Cape Town, living in Czechoslovakia, designing labels for wine bottles are some of the things Brown did.
“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 lesson. 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 canvass once again. And when the canvass had been worked, she stood back, startled by her creation.
“It was as if though I'd been re-invented. I realised that somewhere along the line, I had found an inner peace. I wanted to share that with the world but in a way that allowed the viewer to see his own soul, not mine, through my work. At first I was cautious, just brushing up on old skills. As my confidence rose, I began experimenting. I believe good art is produced by artists who continually develop their technique, style and change their subject choice.” Brown says.
“I've always been a traditionalist. I wont cut holes into a canvass, splash blood onto it and then stretch a dog skin over that. I enjoy working on a canvass using oil paints to create the picture I have in mind and experimenting with different styles, techniques and tools.”
Many South African artists around today became well known because of experiments that turned out well. For instance, Derric Van Rensburg. He uses pieces of cardboard to create beautiful landscapes. Or how about Paul Du Toit? He uses his left hand, his non-dominant hand, to great effect in creating his child-like impressions.
Now Brown has joined that impressive list with a quirk of her own. In one of her latest landscapes, aptly titled “Coming home,” a rustic farm house stands in a field of golden grass. A mud red 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 very 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.”
“One day I got frustrated with the effects I was achieving. I grabbed the closest thing to me, let's call it my little secret. I tried that on the canvass and immediately saw the potential. Now I feel comfortable and confident working with my new found tool. I only use a palette knife to create hard edges.”
Her work encompasses a wide range of subject matter and styles. From figures to landscapes and abstract to realism.
Brown has always used wet on wet, scraffito and vibrant colours to create the effects that she wanted. She still employs these techniques but in conjunction with her new technique she obtains a much more fluid and expressionistic feel than before.
Her works can be seen in top galleries around South Africa and Germany, where she is quickly building up a big following, or on her website at www.lifeart.co.za