Our exclusive Q&A with Academician Leslie Glenn Damhus…
“…the painting caused a bit of controversy. This is the response I had wanted; it convinced me I was going in the right direction because I was ruffling a few feathers….”
Originally from Pennsylvania, USA, Leslie Glenn Damhus has lived in Denmark and Australia, and graduated in Fine Art from the University of the West of England. She now lives and paints in Frome, Somerset and has a growing reputation for her immediately recognisable style that puts an idiosyncratic contemporary twist on Renaissance religious imagery.
Leslie became an Academician of the RWA in 2017. Here’s our Q&A…
When did you realise you were an artist?
From a very early age I knew that I was at my happiest when I was drawing or painting. It wasn’t until I became a bit older that I understood that this was an integral part of who I was. However it still took many years to persuade myself and completely commit to my painting.
Why do you make art?
On one hand I’m trying to express ideas that are important to me: a sense of sacredness, my passion for how women are portrayed in historical paintings, and on the other hand I’m trying to communicate some relief from the everyday complexities of life for others to grab a moment of contemplation, and hopefully a smile.
What is your usual process for making an artwork? How do you choose your subjects?
Sometimes the first triggers for my paintings come from being aware of the little treasures that are right in front of you. For example a recent painting was inspired by a walk down a lane in Frome. I saw an old cabbage up on its stalk and when I looked closer there was a pigeon in the cabbage. This was incorporated into a piece of work where Mary Magdalen is grasping her breast, whilst wearing a cabbage and pigeon headpiece.
I create the work in the computer, putting together images, almost like making a collage. I use a transfer printing process for the backgrounds applying it to wooden panels which suits the printing and my painting method. I work in oils using small detail brushes. The paintings can take anywhere from two weeks to a month depending on the size and complexity of the details. I often make changes to the work as I go along. I usually finish the painting with a beeswax Damar varnish.
You are known for very distinctive paintings taking direct inspiration from Renaissance devotional art, but including striking contemporary symbols. How did you come to develop this style?
My painting style has developed over time and has been mainly influenced by the symbolism of the Renaissance and childhood impressions.
My mother was a fabulous seamstress and her love of fabrics left a lasting impression on me. Her choices of fabrics were often rich in colour and elaborately patterned. I often use contemporary fabrics in my work such as polka dots, animal prints or even knitted pussy hats as cultural references.
Animals play another important role and I use them as the trigger point to engage with the viewer. I learned to draw animals when I was quite young from an artist who lived below us, called Paul Bransom. He was a well established animal illustrator who amongst other accolades illustrated the 1913 US edition of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. He taught me to draw my first cat, dog and horse, he was a real early mentor for me and we were lucky to have several of his stunning originals hanging on our walls.
My partner Rob has a knack of finding me books containing inspirational material. For example Hope B. Werness’s book Animal symbolism in Art and Ronald Lightbown’s book Carlo Crivelli started me thinking about how I could use the symbolism of the renaissance in a contemporary style. Lightbown described Crivelli’s crown halos as looking like golden plates. I liked this description and decided that my Madonna’s halos would be inspired from modern dinner plates. This became a starting point for the using of contemporary objects in my paintings.
Has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point or success that changed your path?
Going to university as a mature student proved challenging especially with my interest in devotional imagery. In my final year I wanted to create a contemporary altarpiece. I was encouraged by my tutor to work big and the result was a 6 panel altarpiece titled Madonna and Chimp. The painting was also displayed at the Black Swan Open in 2010. It featured the Madonna holding a chimp with sad eyes, and halos fashioned from pieces of the Large Hadron Collider. It was Darwin’s anniversary and I was playing with the idea of the chimp and Darwin, and the God particle.
Some people became quite upset by the painting – they didn’t connect with the chimp as being one of God’s creatures that might be used for science, in a cruel way. Whatever the reason, the painting caused a bit of controversy. This is the response I had wanted; it convinced me I was going in the right direction because I was ruffling a few feathers.
What other artists, works or art traditions have most influenced you?
I’ve been influenced by many artists and continue to discover renaissance and contemporary artists that influence my work but there are few historical paintings that come to mind.
When I was very young I was mesmerised and terrorised by Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was like looking at something naughty, and being a bit terrified by it, but not being able to look away, I was drawn back to it, time and time again. I believe it was the contrast of ideas that fascinated me. Beauty and sweetness a long side the grotesque and nightmarish or paradise and hell all in one painting. I think this idea still resonates with me today.
Another painting that affected me greatly was standing in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation at the Galleria degli Uffizi. I remember, as I stood there, losing a sense of time and place. I was trying to take in every delicate brush stroke, every magical element that radiated from this small masterpiece. It moved me to tears.
Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child (The Lenti Madonna) is probably one of my favourite Madonna paintings. I’d bought a book entitled Masterpieces of Italian Renaissance. This was the first time I saw Crivelli’s work and I was immediately seduced by it. I was struck by so many gorgeous details; Mary’s long white skinny fingers and ghostly pale skin; the saturation of colours in the fabrics; the sensual fruits suspended from beautifully painted gold tipped cords, which seem to float in space; the exquisitely painted little black fly and his shadow, the spreader of disease – the whole painting is highly stylised and dripping in symbolism.
You became an Academician of the RWA in 2017. What did that mean to you?
I first exhibited at the RWA in 2011 at the 159th Annual Open. As soon as I walked up that spectacular staircase and stepped into the galleries I immediately felt a strong connection to the history of this place. I knew this was an environment where my work belonged.
It was a great honour to have been selected by my peers to become an Academician. As well as the recognition that my work resonated with other Academicians, it’s such a privilege to be involved with a wonderful and dedicated team that is committed to bringing so many exhibitions and creative projects to a vibrant artistic community.
Being asked to work with the placement team for this years 166 Annual Open Exhibition was thoroughly enjoyable and I’m also pleased to have been asked to select the ‘Artwork of the Month’ for November-December 2018. I look forward to further opportunities and hope to be involved in many aspects of this wonderful organisation.
What are you working on now?
My most recent work was a re-evaluation of the historical myth of Saint Catherine.
I’m about to start a new painting of a Madonna who is reluctant to accept her role as domestic goddess.
A fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?
I love early Netherlandish Art and I could easily select Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross it overwhelmed me when I first saw it in the flesh, as it were.
But I think the obvious choice would be the painting that had a real impact on my own work. That is, Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child (The Lenti Madonna), described above.
You can see more examples of Leslie’s work on her website.
Portrait (top) by Rob Irving