By Devon Jackson
Georges Braque, co-founder of Cubism, once said that he didn’t paint things but their relations (echoing the words of his fellow Frenchman Henri Poincaré, who wrote that mathematicians study not objects but the relations among objects). Similarly, plein-air painter Leigh Gusterson focuses not simply on what she sees—a house, a horse, the sky, the mountains—but on the spaces in between them. And not just on the spaces and their relations: Gusterson sees purpler purples and bluer blues, brighter light, more movement, and sharper angles, too.
“I see shapes,” she says, kneeling on the green-carpeted floor of her living room-cum-studio in Taos, NM, while working on the frames for some of her latest expressionist landscapes. “Not just the shape of a horse or tree but space, too—negative space—in between, and the relations between shapes and the harmony they give. And even though people say I exaggerate my colors, I don’t, really, because I’ve trained myself to see them, and they are there. So I find myself integrating all that as I’m painting—colors, shapes, everything.”
A 41-year-old single mom of two girls, one in grade school, the other a teenager away at a Montana boarding school, Gusterson has the energy, wiry physique, close-cropped hair, and a certain je ne sais quois reminiscent of the late actress Jean Seberg. “There’s something about the act of painting that’s very therapeutic,” proposes Gusterson, an Ashtanga yoga enthusiast and self-confessed free spirit. “It allows me to see relations between things and who I am.
Somehow it does carry through with the rest of my life—to my kids, my community, my mate.”
Born and raised in Oakland, NJ, by a tool-and-die-man dad and a homemaker mom (and with a younger brother, who still lives and works there as a police officer), Gusterson found New Jersey, and her very structured home life, overly restrictive. Shy as a child (though always into nature and art—she won an award in kindergarten for her drawing called “What Dad Likes To Do”), she rebelled in high school. Luckily, she hooked up with a sympathetic art instructor, J.P. Osborne, who encouraged her to do big projects—in clay, in pen and ink, in oil. A Hudson River School devotee and full-time painter himself, Osborne half-convinced Gusterson’s doubting parents that art was indeed a viable career, especially for someone as talented as their oddball daughter. Scrimping and saving, Gusterson left home for Philadelphia’s all-girl school, the Moore College of Art.
Put off and confused by the school’s emphasis on abstract art (not to mention hurt at having her Osborne-influenced pieces dubbed “staunchy” before she even matriculated), so desperate for a bit of outdoor quietude that she often hung out in cemeteries, and finally denied the chance to double-major in commercial art and fine art, Gusterson quit after her first year. She spent that summer sleeping in her parents’ back yard, then moved up to Franconia, NH. For about two years she worked painting billboards, at the ski valley, and in a gas station, before deciding in 1985 she wanted to move to Mexico. “I wanted to travel, to ride my bicycle there,” Gusterson recounts with a smile. “So I left.”
When she got to Abilene, TX, she had to stop for a few days to adjust to all the open space. After her bike was stolen in Kingsville, she pawned everything she had—her panniers, her sleeping bag, her tent—everything except her watercolors, which she’d been using the whole trip. She then hitchhiked to Texas’ South Padre Island. “That’s where I met [my daughter] Azalea’s dad, who’d been doing the hippie thing, living there on the beach for about 10 years,” laughs Gusterson. “And I did the hippie thing with him, running around naked, doing drugs, partying. But when I got pregnant I went back to New Hampshire.” Then back to South Padre, then back—again, and for the final time—to her parents’ house. With her 1-year-old daughter.
Ever industrious, Gusterson took on framing jobs in New Jersey, then, while sitting in her parents’ back yard one day, she did a watercolor of their house. A neighbor saw it, liked it, asked her if she’d do one of their house. She did. Another neighbor saw that drawing, liked it, asked for the same, and before she knew it, Gusterson had her own house-portrait business in full swing, doing pen-and-inks and watercolors of the local Tudors and Victorians. After about a year, she’d saved up enough money to buy herself a VW Vanagon and leave home for good. For Taos, NM, on the advice of a hippie chum she’d met at a South Padre Rainbow Gathering. Come out to Taos, she’d raved. There are lots of artists and the dumpster-diving’s great.
Gusterson arrived in Taos in 1990, soon got herself her first apartment, and started painting again—this time in oil. At first, during her obligatory O’Keeffe phase, she painted lots of poppies and lilies. Then she befriended painters June Jordan and Walt Gonske, who favored impressionist-style work. But it was her exposure to tag-team artists Alyce Frank and Barbara Zaring that really opened her up. Plein-air painters who’d been working as a duo for nearly two decades (owing to Frank having had polio as a child and to Zaring’s collaborative nature), the Taos pair first met Gusterson in a figure-drawing class. “I’d been modeling,” recalls Gusterson, “and when I went over to see how I’d turned out, Lyce had painted one of my breasts blue and the other one purple! I couldn’t believe it! But from then on, I gave myself permission to be loose and be colorful. All because Lyce gave me permission to paint purple breasts.”
And purple mountains. “My earlier paintings tended to be gaudy,” cops Gusterson. “I was practically rejoicing in bold colors. Wow! What fun! But there’s been a progression. The really bold colors aren’t all over the canvas, they’re more of a trail through the canvas. Now there’s a more subtle use of them, which makes them more powerful. The shapes too. In the beginning, they were all sharply defined and contrasting. Now they’re looser. I’m getting more confidence now with what I’ve discovered.”
She started showing her work in banks and in local restaurants such as Michael’s Kitchen, and for six years she worked the booth shows in Albuquerque and in Beaver Creek, CO. In 1996, she landed her first gallery. At around this same time, she met local sculptor Terry McCaulley. They lived together, showed their work in their apartment together, and had a daughter before splitting up.
A prolific painter who averages about 120 paintings a year, Gusterson prefers to work alone and on location. “That’s where it’s at for me,” she confesses. “I’ve always wanted to be free and explore. Sometimes I know specifically where I’m going and sometimes I don’t know at all.” Her biggest challenges are time, given that she has to be back in town to pick up her daughter from school, and the weather, which can limit her hours outdoors during the winter.
“When I get to a place I just sit for a minute, to decide what the background or base should be,” Gusterson explains, adding that she usually opts for red or orange for spring, purple for summer, red for fall. She then surveys what’s before her, based on how she’s trained herself to see. “When I look at a flat field, I can see all kinds of different angles in it, and shadows and light going in and out and this way and that,” she says. “I’m painting what I’m noticing, and the lines that are going diagonally from the light and going into the shadows. I’m also always looking for diversions to exaggerate. That’s what’s so fun about adobes—they’re prone to exaggeration without looking like they’ve been exaggerated.” For Gusterson, then, nature and her landscapes are all about freedom and spontaneity.
Once she’s finished outside, she brings the paintings home and sits with them. “I’ve learned not to criticize any of my paintings right away,” she says. “I bring them home and leave them out for a couple weeks. I’ll just have them around, like these are now,” she adds, pointing at the unframed paintings around her studio room, leaning against her desk, her couch, her bookshelf, her recliner. “I leave them out so I can look at them.
“I always say I’m going to do as little to a painting as possible, to come at it with the same energy,” she continues. “Because to go back over it would kill that yellow brush stroke. You could say they aren’t so refined or professional. But to me that’s the moment. It’s me and the moment and that time and place.”
She remembers each painting: the hawks coming over a ridge for one, meeting some old-time locals for another, or someone telling her, That adobe you’re painting, my cousin grew up in there. For PONDEROSA, which she painted along the Rio Grande Gorge, where the highway and the Rio Grande come together, she remembers ants and poison oak being everywhere, her dog running around, and how still and beautiful it was that day. “I have great admiration for that tree,” she says of the ponderosa, “and the best time to paint was in the early morning. I take note of the time of day when I see things I want to paint.”
Likewise, for a painting she recently did along Ranchitos Road, “I saw a painting there in the cottonwood trees, in their shadows,” remembers Gusterson, an avid gardener who planted trees in her own back yard. “I’d always wanted to paint there, but fall is such a quick time, if you miss it, you just have to wait till next year.”
Although there are no people in her paintings, Gusterson visualizes herself in every one. She yearns for the simplicity she depicts (and toward that lifestyle goal, has her eye on a secluded three-acre spot outside town). In lieu of humans, she favors horses, cows, birds, and movement—lots of movement. After viewing one of her works, someone once asked her if she had an inner-ear problem, so dynamic was the painting. “I wanted to show how things change, how things move—I wanted to give the painting life,” enthuses Gusterson. “If the lines just went up and down, it would’ve seemed stagnant.” So she puts into her canvases as much life as she sees out there.
Somewhat paradoxically, the skills she picked up from the Hudson River School and from her house portraits have helped her capture these fleeting movements and convey such intense motion. From the former, she learned perspective and depth and how to put things back and bring them forward; from the latter, she found a good part of the appeal of her home drawings came from the fact that she never used a ruler (unlike most straight-edge-based architectural renderings, which often come off stiff and lifeless).
“It’s my job to notice things other people might not notice,” concludes Gusterson. “To take something that others see as unremarkable and make it remarkable.”
Gusterson is represented by Terrie Bennett Gallerie, Taos, NM; Manitou Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Shadid Fine Art, Edmond, OK; Jane Hamilton Fine Art, Tucson, AZ; and Fairmount Gallery, Dallas, TX.
Featured in February 2005