Portrait of an Artist: Leslie Adams

Sensazione: A Self-Portrait / Leslie Adams / Toledo, Ohio / Charcoal on paper, 2010 / Collection of the artist
Sensazione: A Self-Portrait / Leslie Adams / Toledo, Ohio / Charcoal on paper, 2010 / Collection of the artist

Q: Where are you from, where do you live now?

A: My name isLeslie Adams. I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, where I currently reside.

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: My works on paper are created with various forms of charcoal and dry pigments, and my paintings are executed primarily with oil paint. I have also recently returned to traditional printmaking.

Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.

A: Drawing is my first love; I always return to it. Drawing has the ability to reveal the most intimate thoughts of the artist’s mind—the initial ideas, the mistakes, the clues. I am fascinated with charcoal because it can achieve a full range of values, from delicate lights to rich blacks; it exudes a presence of strength and dramatic allure. Charcoal is a superb medium for capturing form, texture, and energy, whether it’s the light falling on a young girl’s cheek, the feel of luxurious velvet, or the restless movements and behavior of the subject. Oil paint can accomplish all of these things and have the brilliance, luminosity, and depth of color, but it all begins with the eloquence of line and a clear understanding of value.

The process with which I begin a work is to hand-tone the paper, creating a middle value and an underlying web of lines from which the figure will emerge. From this ground, I carve the lights and darks to create the illusion of three-dimensional, sculpted forms.

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.) and how does it contribute to your art?

A: As a child, the Toledo Museum of Art was my playground. Within its walls and among its treasures, I was given the opportunity of being surrounded by great art as well as the extraordinary privilege of beginning my formal art education.

At the University of Toledo, I had the great fortune to study with Diana Attie, my mentor and friend, who first introduced me to the academic study of human anatomy and figurative art. After receiving a BFA in printmaking and drawing, I was awarded the grand prize in the first International Drawing Competition sponsored by the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Art; this enabled me to attend the prestigious New York Academy of Art and earn an MFA in figurative art.

I was again fortunate to have been one of the first graduate students to study with many of the leading artists in the field, including Vincent Desiderio, Eric Fischl, Edward Schmidt, Margaret Bowland, Jack Beal, and Xavier deCallatay. After returning to Ohio, I refined my skills through further study in technique mixte with Patrick Betuadier, director of the Atelier Neo Medici. Both my life experience and my academic background provided a natural entrance into the field of portraiture and figurative art.

I have been a professional artist for almost twenty years, and I am a member of the Portrait Society of America. My patrons include many distinguished members of private society as well as the corporate, academic, religious, cultural, and civic leaders of our day.

Q: How did you learn about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition?

A: While attending the Portrait Society of America’s annual conference in Washington, Marc Pachter, then director of the National Portrait Gallery, delivered a lecture on the museum’s history and renovation. He also introduced a new and exciting competition, the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which was at that time still in the planning stages.

Q: Tell us about the piece that you submitted to the competition.

A: “Man paints with his brain and not with his hands.” These words attributed to Michelangelo, as well as an alarming mini-stroke, initially inspired me to create a self-portrait. Soon after I began the work, I was introduced to the concept of “Sensazione,” illustrated by author Michal Gelb in his book How to Think like Leonardo. Gelb’s theory emphasizes “the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience” and offered yet another insight into my work.

Through traditional technique and personal iconography, my concept was realized. The drawing includes many symbolic images—the MRI scans of my brain, my eyeglasses, Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait, and a handmade box embedded with cast fingertips created by my mentor, Diana Attie. These elements all add to the traditional image of an artist at her easel. The portrait considers and asks, What is the connection between the brain, the hand, and the eye? Can an artist survive without the use and function of all three?

A medical scare always forces one to reexamine life, existence, and purpose. As a visual artist, the realization of losing the use of any or all of the functions of thought, physical dexterity, or sight overwhelmed me. As a professional artist who specializes in commissioned portraiture, I was eager to confront these issues and take the time needed to create this more personal work.

Q: Tell us about your larger body of work.

A: In the fall of 2012 my solo exhibition, “Leslie Adams, Drawn from Life,” opened at the Toledo Museum of Art during the museum’s fall season of portraiture (which included “Manet: Portraying Life” and “Made in Hollywood”). This was a dream come true.

The inspiration for my show was simple—to tell my story of becoming an artist. The exhibition pays homage to the nurturing love of my parents and family, who encouraged me as a young girl to attend art classes at the Toledo Museum of Art.

Like many children before and since, I spent countless hours in the galleries creating memories that continue to influence my life and work. The works are personal thank- you notes to the memories of the museum and its collection, and to the people, places, and institutions that have shaped my artistic career and life.

Included are references to the New York Academy of Art, the Portrait Society of America, the Ohio State House, the “Draw Me” contest I entered as a child in hopes of winning a scholarship to art school. This new work incorporates old master compositions and drawing techniques, weaving classical and old master references with the occasional healthy dash of twentieth- and twenty-first-century pop culture. It broadens the thematic scope of my continually evolving work.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: Because of the realities of time and space, not all of my autobiography could be produced nor exhibited. There are many more personal stories that I need to record and share, and so I am continuing with the body of work that I unveiled at the museum last fall. Yet as I maintain this grasp on more personal reflection, I must also return to my work on the official historical and biographical portraits that I so love. I am currently working on several portraits for the Supreme Court of Ohio and the Ohio State House, as well as works for the Ohio State University and other private individuals.

Q: How has your work changed over time?

A: It has been said that the role of a portrait artist is to capture a likeness, find the character and the essence of an individual, and tell each person’s unique story through a lasting image. I have focused most of my attention on commissioned portraiture for almost twenty years. During that time, I have produced personal work, but never to the degree with which I have in the past year in preparing the solo exhibition.

Now that the exhibition has come to a close and I am returning my focus to official portraits, I have found that my work has changed. Although I have always considered myself a recorder of history, I have since worked to create my own personal narrative and therefore, humbly, placed myself within the context of our history. My personal journey cannot escape the entrance into my commissioned work any more than my commissioned work can avoid entering the more personal images I create.

Q: If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?

A: Leonardo da Vinci. Of course.

Q: What inspires you?

A: I have always drawn inspiration from the classical tradition with reverence to the old basters—especially Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. In the world of portraiture specifically, there are no greater influences on my work than Ingres, John Singer Sargent, and Cecelia Beaux. Among contemporary artists, I find myself inspired mostly by those with whom I have had the great fortune to study under: Vincent Desiderio, Diana Attie, Edward Schmidt, and Margaret Bowland. The many contemporary portrait artists I admire are too numerous to mention here but include Nelson Shanks, Ronald Sherr, and Rhoda Sherbell.