Burn/Lush: Clark Fire Edge, oil on wood panel, 30 x 45 in., Leah Wilson

I receive many questions during presentations and artist talks. I can’t address in the event’s timeframe. This is a good place to reflect on them.

Q: What motivates your choice in topics?

Bolts in Granite, Leah Wilson

Bolts in Granite, Leah Wilson

I gravitate toward a specific range of focus. Everyone has a natural inclination for looking at the world: up close, stepping back and taking in as much as possible, or somewhere in between. It’s like choosing to use a macro lens versus a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens. A wide angle lens opens the space. It captures vastness and breadth. A telephoto lens can capture distance and length. Both of these lenses have the ability to show a large amount of visual information about space. What they give up is an intimate view of details.

I want to move in close to see things intimately. I prefer a macro lens that gets as close as possible and reveals details that I can’t see with my eye. This scale has always intrigued me. As a kid I had a subscription to World magazine by National Geographic. At the end of each addition there was always an image with the caption: What in the World? These were typically macro images of something in nature like a multifaceted spider’s eye or microscopic images of pollen. I loved them. They took the world that I knew and transformed it into something wondrous and strange. I still love to see the world up close from a macro lens view.

Recompose, gouache on hand-cut watercolor paper, 16 in. x 69 in., Leah Wilson
ReCompose, gouache on hand-cut watercolor paper (wall installation), 16 in. x 69 in., Leah Wilson

Focal length may be the first way that I sort through possible project topics. Sometimes that is literally the case like with Recompose, Stories Told by Water, or Beautiful Trash. The compositions for each of those projects started with a macro lens on my camera. If the lens reveals a pattern that captures my attention, I will likely develop it into a project.

Solstices and Equinoxes, Joan Truckenbrod Gallery
Solstices & Equinoxes, oil on wood panels, Leah Wilson

For projects that involve changes in the environment over time like Listening to the Forest, Solstices & Equinoxes, and Becoming One: Finley, I do not necessarily pull out the macro lens. Instead I ask a question about change that I can answer visually by moving in close to look at one point in a creek, or one tree in a forest, instead of using a wide angle view to step back and see what is happening to the entire watershed, or the entire forest. I pull in close. I want to get personal with a very specific location to know what it endures and the conditions of change.

Finley at the Arts Center - Leah Wilson

Becoming One: Finley (Late Fall – Late Winter , oil on 30 x 30 in. wood panels, Leah Wilson

Making art is a series of making edits. Because of the nature of looking at one specific point there is so much of a place edited out. There is a lot of the story of the place that is missed. As I work on a project I make notes about parts of the story that should be included but needed to be left out of the current work. One image, or even a series can’t hold all of the complexity and nuance of the original topic or concept. If it tried to include it all, the art would be an incoherent mess. If there is more to the story that still needs to be told, I can roll that into the next project. An example of this is Ambient. The light and color changes in Ambient occurred within one afternoon. It left questions open about the how light and color unfolds over one year. Those questions became the backbone of Solstices and Equinoxes.

Ambient at HJ Andrews, oil on 6 wood panels, 25 1/2 in. x 36 in. each, Leah Wilson

Ambient at HJ Andrews, oil on 6 wood panels, Leah Wilson

The chosen topic also needs to hold my curiosity. I want my art to reveal something that I haven’t known or seen. The process of making it is like removing layers of veils. If I already know what will be revealed, it is not intriguing enough to spend the considerable amount of time needed to make a project.

There needs to be an intellectual component to the topic. An interesting visual pattern alone will not sustain my interest. My questions may be simple on the surface, but if there is a possibility that they can be tied to larger environmental issues, then I am more inclined to commit to a topic or concept.

Hear the Waters - Prototype

Hear the Waters – Prototype, acrylic, bio-based resin and mica on wood, Leah Wilson

Often there are many intriguing questions that fit all or at least most of my categories, but I don’t choose them. There are many reasons why I may not pick up an idea. It can be as simple as time. If I am in the middle of another intensive project, I most likely can’t start another. If the topic keeps buzzing in my head, then it may have the potential to be the next project. But more often than not, the idea that cannot be made because of time moves on or evolves into something else. Other times I don’t know how to make something yet; I may not know how; I may not have the proper tools or space, or money; or I may be missing crucial information. Often these ideas follow the same trajectory as the ideas that are lost to time. But if the concept is compelling enough and I can learn or acquire what I need, these are usually great concepts to follow because I am learning new things from so many angles. These are dynamic ideas.

Other times after finishing one type of project, I need a break. The long projects, or big projects deplete my energy and I need to do something to counterbalance the creative process. After making Listening to the Forest, a large-scale project where, for much of it, I acted as a director rather than a hand-on artist, I needed to work with simple materials on a small scale. Following Listening to the Forest I began making charcoal and pastel drawings on paper. The cycle continues. As I make those drawings, my mind is seeking and probing for the next big project idea.

Work in Progress Detail, January 31, 2021, Stories Told by Water - McKenzie, Leah Wilson

Work in Progress Detail, January 31, 2021, Stories Told by Water – McKenzie, charcoal, pastel & mica on paper, 30 x 22 1/2 in., Leah Wilson

Sometimes choosing a topic can feel arbitrary. But the choices follow patterns. Mostly, I know that I have made a good choice if I can build off of a project with a remaining loose end, and add an aspect of uncertainty to the process by working on something that I previously couldn’t because I didn’t know how. But, if it is easy or if I am repeating myself to closely, it is a lazy choice and the process will either lead to a dead end, or produce something that is ultimately uninspiring. There is no good in that. Good concepts have a fire of curiosity and investigation.

Listening to the Forest, Detail, Western Hemlock Butt Flare, Leah Wilson 16 of 27

Listening to the Forest, Detail, Western Hemlock Butt Flare, acrylic & bio-based resin on wood, Leah Wilson


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