A Life in Watercolor

Longtime FVCC art professor Karen Leigh featured in retrospective exhibition at the Hockaday Museum of Art

By Molly Priddy
Karen Leigh, pictured at her exhibit at the Hockaday Museum of Art on Nov. 23, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Karen Leigh’s life lives on the walls of the Hockaday Museum of Art.

There, watercolor paint transforms paper into intimate portraits of strangers and friends, into love letters to the places she’s visited, into an ode to the industrial grace of buildings and infrastructure.

Looking at the exhibition of her work at the Hockaday is to see the secret beauty in the world surrounding us, with layers and layers of transparent watercolors providing both sharp edges and blurred boundaries. The resulting paintings are delicate and detailed, with a sense of home familiar to anyone who’s lived in Western Montana.

Leigh’s work has been compiled into a retrospective at the Hockaday titled “Journey: A Painter’s Life,” and will be on display until Jan. 21.

This is Leigh’s first individual retrospective show, though she’s been part of other art exhibits before. This one is different, she said, because two rooms are just her work.

“It’s amazing,” Leigh said. “The Hockaday did a wonderful job of hanging (the paintings).”

As an art professor at Flathead Valley Community College for the last 42 years, Leigh has been teaching the area’s artists how to harness their creativity for decades, a process that has, in turn, given her impetus to explore her own artistic boundaries.

“My students push me,” she said. “About 10 years ago, they said, ‘We want to do portraits.’ I didn’t know how to do portraits. So I took a class.”

Her portrait paintings at the Hockaday are mostly of people in their natural settings, not posed for the artist. She tries to capture the reality of life, and in doing so, continually seems to capture the fleeting beauty in the mundane.

Watercolor paint is an intentional choice, she said, because it allows both freedom and control in her work.

“I like the immediacy of watercolors. There’s a fresh quality, a transparency,” Leigh said. “You put things down (on paper) and if you’re brave, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Leigh said she’s been an artist as long as she can remember, ever since her parents gave her crayons. As a fourth-generation Montanan, Leigh grew up in Great Falls, and moved to Kalispell in the 1970s. She started teaching at FVCC not long after.

Along with the paintings on the Hockaday’s walls, visitors are also treated to Leigh’s decorative sketchbooks. They’re diaries of her journeys, she said, with paintings of scenery and people in places she’s been, including Venice, Italy, where she taught for six weeks as part of an abroad program with the college.

These are her true prized possessions, she said. The paintings are created in her Eastside Brick studio in Kalispell, but the sketchbooks are painted and penned in the moment. Such exercises keep her observational skills sharp, she said, because she has to take time to see, to notice, and to translate that to paper.

“If someone took my sketchbooks I’d be devastated,” Leigh said, peering into one of the glass cases exhibiting the books. “It’s my memories.”

On one wall, a large map of Montana is decorated with photos and squiggly lines, following the trips Leigh and two artist friends took across the state. The goal was to paint scenes all over Montana, to have the freedom to stop for a couple hours and paint a random field or mountain range.

Leigh was especially taken with the old bar signs across Montana, but bemoaned the arrival of the new, generic signs sponsored by beverage companies. Only one painting from that trip made it to the exhibit – a profile of the Polar Bar in Polaris – because the rest were sold to private collectors.

Some of the other paintings in the exhibit are also part of private collections, on loan until January, but many are available for purchase. Three have already sold.

When she’s not in the studio, Leigh is likely teaching. Some of her students have been in her classes for 10 years, which forces her to keep her material fresh and to explore new exercises. She likes to take her students out into the valley to paint plein air.

“It gives me a big reason to get up in the morning,” she said of teaching. “I’ll keep teaching as long as I can get out the door and as long as the students keep showing up.”

Art has taken her far and wide – she’s taken students to several countries, including France and Romania. In 2007, she was asked to design an ornament for the White House Christmas tree, and was flown to Washington, D.C. to see it in person.

But regardless of the setting, be it Paris, France or Polaris, Montana, the attention to detail and the delicate, almost-evanescent nature of her paintings stays the same.

The retrospective gives viewers a look into Leigh’s life, and it gave her a chance to make those little changes that had been bothering her about some of her work, including cutting one painting in half before reframing it.

“It’s been really fun to put it together,” Leigh said.

For more information, visit www.hockadaymuseum.org or call 406-755-5268.

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