For the last 50 years, teaching art — and her students — has sustained Karen Leigh, so it’s only fitting that the Flathead Valley Community College faculty member’s latest exhibition, “After Class,” is focused on their creations just as much as hers.
Only one of Leigh’s watercolors hangs in the Wanda Hollensteiner Art Gallery at the new Wachholz College Center; however, surrounding that single work are dozens of creations her students have produced.
Leigh’s painting “After Class” shows a woman in a studio art classroom, working on a sketchbook resting in her lap, as a couple other artists work in the background. A replica skeleton is on display on one side of the room, and human figures in various poses can be seen sketched out and mounted on easels in the room.
Leigh addressed a crowd of dozens during brief remarks she gave at the exhibition’s opening on Feb. 9. When someone asked her how many more years she’s going to teach, Leigh said that her students would probably have to tell her, but she hopes to keep it going “for a couple more years, anyway.”
“I’m gonna do my best to keep going, because they have kept me going all these years. I can’t imagine sitting in my studio all by myself every day,” she said.
Leigh said that one of the important things she tells her students is not to get discouraged right off the bat. She makes students save all their work throughout the semester so that they can see their progression from beginning to end.
“Sometimes you get really disappointed. If you keep at it, it’s like a rollercoaster it goes down and then it goes up, and dips, and it keeps getting higher,” Leigh said.
She also encourages her students to do quick sketches, and to regularly use their sketchbooks. The incorporation of sketchbooks is something that she started emphasizing within the last five years.
Leigh has continued to refine her teaching methods and approaches over the years by attending workshops, including with world class artists hosted by the Montana Watercolor Society. She then does her best to bring back what she’s learned to share with her own students. Leigh’s students described her as someone capable of stirring their creativity, while also still caring about them as a person. Some of her students have been studying with her for 20 years, and Leigh said they’ve created a community built around shared interests and a common joy.
In an FVCC press release about the exhibition, Leigh said, “Art ties us all together. Art heals and gives you a place where you can just focus on art and tune out everything else.”
She first started teaching at FVCC in 1973 and has family ties in the Kalispell area that stretch back to her great grandfather Cornelius Hedges. She began painting at a young age and continued to take classes throughout her education. Before she started teaching, Leigh had a degree in graphic design. She was living in Seattle and quickly realized just how hard it would be to make it.
“I came back to Montana to teach so I could have summers to travel,” Leigh said.
Her students, easily in excess of a thousand total over the years, have ranged from teenagers to at least one adult in their 90s.
Among the pieces featured at the exhibition is one by Susie Brown, a longtime student of Leigh’s. Brown’s painting, called “Dordogne, France,” is a tryptich watercolor, meaning the painting is in three parts broken up by the frame. It has the effect of looking through a window at the scene, a French town with a history on display in its old structures and cobblestone streets that date back to medieval history.
Brown’s inspiration for the painting was an overseas trip that Leigh did with her students, where, in addition to exploring, wine-tasting and sketching, they took photographs of potential sources of inspiration. The translator was Leigh’s daughter, a fluent French speaker and an artist in her own right.
Brown described how having a front row seat to Leigh’s own creative process helped her succeed with the painting, which she said was “luck of the draw.”
“Watching her paint over the years, watching her colors flow on the paper every technique she’s ever done, sometimes something works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Brown said.
The exhibition is available for public viewing from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and during show times to those with tickets to performances at the center.
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