Work in Progress (Detail): Stories Told by Water, charcoal, ink & gouache on paper, Leah Wilson

The creative process spirals.

It is not a neat, straight trajectory that marches forward into the future. 

Listening to the Forest, Detail, Alder Root, 12, Leah Wilson 6 of 27

Listening to the Forest: Red Alder Root (Detail), Leah Wilson

Closing and Picking up Threads

Public art is an entirely different mode of being an artist. I had the big picture in mind and much like a conductor of a symphony, I stood at the front, tapping out the tempo and making sure that all of the parts were timed correctly and were integrated into the whole. It is not the image of the solo artists toiling away in the studio. Many hands and minds are involved to realize a public art project like Listening to the Forest, least of all mine.

Listening to the Forest was a massive project in scale and scope. I didn’t have a studio space that was big enough to see how all of the pieces were going to fit together: it was a site specific project for the atrium of Oregon State University’s Forest Science Complex – a very large space. The composition needed to be mapped out on my computer. Not until I installed it was I actually able to see what I had made.

Much of Listening to the Forest was also a hands-off experience. I spent hours clicking away on the computer creating digital files of the panels and sent those to a laser cutter in Colorado. I did not see the physical panels until after they were fabricated by other hands.

Work in Progress 1 Stories Told by Water, Graphite on Paper - Leah Wilson

Work in Progress 1: Stories Told by Water, graphite on paper, Leah Wilson


Often, after the last project is completed, the muse wants a rest, not from making art, but a rest from a particular way of working or thinking. Its hand will reach into the past to see if there is any viable thread that had been dropped, one that can be picked up again and rewoven into the fabric. The thread does not carry on from where it was previously left off. Instead, it is refashioned and integrated into the present, taking advantage for its metamorphosis all of the experience that I have accumulated since last it was touched. The thread is tested for its strength, durability, and flexibility before it can be tugged up and interwoven. After metamorphosis, a thread can be almost unrecognizable from its previous iteration when it is picked back up and woven into the overarching body of work. But the whispers of its former shape always remain.

Concepts, materials, and techniques can be pulled from far in the past and spiraled into a new body of work. Most times it is a combination of these. In reality, several threads are picked back up, twisted and braided together. The interlacing increases its strength.

Stories Told by Water (in progress), Listening to the Forest in Leah Wilson's Studio

Work in Progress 2: Stories Told by Water, ink on paper, (Listening to the Forest panel in background), Leah Wilson

Stretching Back

Once the Listing to the Forest was finished, I could feel a deep stretch into the past. The hand reached for something that was more immediate and much smaller, even intimate. It wanted something that requires slow and deep looking. It was looking for music – not in the sense of songs or actual notes and sounds, but music in the sense that it needs to be experienced to be understood: art that can’t be explained, but must felt within.

The hand reached back and pulled forward charcoal drawing. That was an unexpected surprise. The last time that I made a charcoal drawing was in the 1990s when I was still working with the figure. Drawing feels very foreign to my hand now.

The hand grabbed a photograph that I took and I liked from 2016, but the hand didn’t know what to do with at the time. It was an unintended image: a byproduct from reference material that was created for Ambient, an entirely different type of project so it didn’t seem to belong with anything that I was working with or thinking about at the time.

Work in Progress 3 Stories Told by Water, Charcoal, ink & gouache on Paper - Leah Wilson

Work in Progress 3: Stories Told by Water, charcoal, ink, gouache on paper, Leah Wilson


I held onto that image and several others like them. I had no idea what to do with them, but every now and then I would pull up one of them and ponder it. Nothing. No thread was found and no reach of the hand tried to find one, until Listening to the Forest was completed. The hand reached back and definitively pulled one up. It was unmistakable. It WANTED to be made. 

But I didn’t know how to make it. So the hand reached back and pulled charcoal drawing with it. The two threads were braided, and then they were handed to me. 

Stories Told by Water 4

Work in Progress 4: Stories Told by Water, charcoal, ink, gouache on paper, Leah Wilson


I have them now. It wasn’t worth arguing about. The muse doesn’t stick around long enough to let that happen. So I started to draw, awkwardly at first: it was hard to find an entry point. I eventually found one. Every day I sit down and a little bit more of the braided thread is woven into the fabric of my art. This is where it stands to date.

Josh, Charcoal on Paper, Leah Wilson

Josh, charcoal & conte crayon on paper, c. 1995, Leah Wilson

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