Stark, golden-hewed images of barns, clapboarded a century ago; simple, framed, handmade, shingled, empty houses; grass, dry, waiting for rain; crescent moon keeping the old buildings company – Elizabeth W. Leary’s paintings have been compared to Andrew Wyeth’s. She has shown her work at the Willoughby Gallery in Edgartown for almost 20 years.
There is a similarity in style and often in the choice of colors, but where Wyeth would often build his landscapes, however subtly, around people, Ms. Leary paints buildings, architectural details, landscapes, and still lifes that are intricate reproductions devoid of an active human presence.
Mr. Wyeth once said, “If I were a really good painter, I could have painted ‘Christina’s World’ without Christina.” Ms. Leary said, “I’m trying to do that.” Her paintings can stoke the imagination. The viewer is drawn in, and the passivity of the paintings encourages active participation. What happened here? Who lived here? Who worked here? Who made this? What skilled craftsman put this together? What are their stories?
Ms. Leary is an honors graduate in art from Skidmore College and was a model maker for Walter Gropius at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, and a graphic designer for NASA at the Harvard College Observatory. Ms. Leary lives and works on a farm in Byfield that she and her husband bought when she rode horses. Her daughter, Elizabeth Strazzulla, who Ms. Leary says “is more traditionally trained,” is also a painter.
In person Ms. Leary embodies the refined nature of New England gentility as she does in her paintings, her measured speech, and her delicate motion. The MV Times talked to Ms. Leary about her art.
“I always drew, always painted. It was just there,” she said. “My basis is architecture. I always wanted to be an architect. I worked for architects, studied it, and learned how to do all the technical things. I had a job with The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge, Walter Gropius’s company. I wanted to go to the Harvard School of Design, but about that same time I was doing more and more painting, and I took the painting turn, and I’ve been very happy about it since.”
She has designed buildings, additions, and changes to her and her husband’s old farmhouse bought north of Boston. She added, “Of course I am willing to offer suggestions to anybody who needs them.”
Ms. Leary has painted with acrylics for 40 years, and she has painted with oil and watercolors, “Just about everything but pastels,” which she does not like. Next to acrylics her favorite medium is tempera. “It dries quickly, you can draw right on the painting, if you need too,” she said. “The first reason I got into acrylic is that it doesn’t smell.” She and her husband were living in a small, two-room apartment in New York at the time. “The key is how fast it dries,” she said. “I paint lots of washes, thin layers of color, and I do draw on the painting as I go, add details to get it right. ”
She explained her fondness for architecture. “Architecture is so important to everybody. We all spend time in buildings, looking at them, enjoying them, or being miserable looking at them. The details of historic architecture are so rich. There is so much in it, and it is all related to human beings – the proportions of doors and windows, the relationships of all the shapes and sizes, the geometric shapes, everything is there for a purpose, and yet it is put together in a beautiful fashion.”
Ms. Leary was asked about the absence of people in her work. “What I paint wouldn’t be there without people. I put what I feel into a painting, but I don’t want to put what I feel into the viewer’s mind. I want to create, in essence, a stage setting for them. I’ll have a reason for loving a particular barn, old house, or carriage house, whatever strikes me as intriguing, mysterious, historic, or even nostalgic, but I want you to look at the painting and say, ‘Oh, this says something to me.’ A lot of times paintings speak to you after you have had them around for awhile. They grow, they steep like a cup of tea.”
There are several places she has painted over and over again. She said she has been painting Milestone Farm, a large farm near her own in Byfield, for decades. In addition to classic farm buildings, the farm has the town’s old town hall and carriage house that were moved there years ago. “It is such a rich farm. There is always something new and different to see.”
She said her work has progressed over the years. “I started out being more precise. I’m still precise, but precision was what I wanted.” Now I find I’m getting more and more in my paintings. I’m getting the feeling of the building, the feeling of the air, the light, the feeling of the history of the building.”
Ms. Leary had praise for the Willoughby Gallery, located in Edgartown. “This gallery has been fantastic.” She said that because of the gallery’s support her work now hangs in collections around the world. “One collection I am in has Andrew Wyeth paintings, and one collector has some of my work and Salvador Dali, which has always intrigued me.”
Ms. Leary said she does paint an occasional portrait, but she said, “like my piano playing, I only do it for my own pleasure.”
She seemed a little flustered when asked if she ever gets tired of painting, as though it was an idea that had never entered her mind. She said she gets up around six and paints most of the day. “Painting is essentially a full-time job. I am almost always painting, thinking about it, looking for something to paint. Other than cooking dinner, it is about the only thing that is primarily on my mind. Painting is me.”
Elizabeth W. Leary paintings, Willoughby Gallery, 12 North Water Street, Edgartown. For information call 508-627-3369 or go to willoughbyfineartgallery.com.