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Meet Amelia Leonards of Amelia Leonards Art in Rockport

Today we’d like to introduce you to Amelia Leonards .

Amelia, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’ve been drawing and creating for as long as I can remember. My mother told me that one day when I was two she handed me crayons and paper to keep me out of her hair, and my eyes lit up and I shrieked “OH BOY!!”- and here we are. First it was all dinosaurs, since they’re amazing and I was absolutely certain I was destined to be a paleontologist (5), then I began illustrating all of the fantasy stories I wrote, since obviously I was going to be a writer (8), and then I jumped into archaeology and Egyptology and fell so in love with ancient cultures that art took a back seat until I got to college. Where I found that. . .in order to really delve into Egyptology and pursue a Ph.D., one must speak/write/read several languages, many of them dead.

I tried Ancient Greek. Let’s just say that my professor remembers me very well to this day, and more positively than I deserve. I couldn’t translate Apollodorus, but I could make unflattering drawings of him in the margins of my tests, so that was something, right?

After barely surviving my initial foray into college I didn’t know what to do with myself, but it was 2004 and my parents would have ended me if I didn’t try again. They moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts, towing a confused, depressed, and bitter nineteen-year-old me in their wake, and patiently suggested that I investigate the art school twenty minutes from our new home. It was a rather pointed suggestion, as I recall.

And so I studied Illustration at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, which actually turned out to be more difficult than Egyptology. I was so discouraged by the time graduation rolled around (not the college’s fault, which was all on me and my poor attitude) that I swore to never lift a paintbrush again. I’ll just keep working retail forever, I told myself, it’s less anguish and heartache- horrifyingly true, by the way- and I probably would have grumbled off into the distance if I hadn’t been offered an opportunity to volunteer at the non-profit Art Haven in Gloucester a week after it opened.

To this day, I don’t know what I was thinking; I had little teaching experience, and I was absolutely terrified of children, especially the middle schoolers I was entrusted with. They’ll sense my weakness, I thought in horror, eyes wide as I imagined spitballs and curses flying around the room in wild abandon, they’ll know I’m not a REAL artist, I can’t possibly teach, my paintbrush cred is LOW. I almost chickened out completely right before walking in on that first day, but thankfully I didn’t.

I ended up teaching at Art Haven for four years, and the spitball-slinging middle schoolers who I‘d anticipated grinding me into the dust became family- a legion of curious, attentive, and occasionally outrageous minions whose interest and trust literally demanded that I be a better artist- and to paint what I actually wanted to paint, which I really didn’t think was allowed.

“I can’t though,” I explained early on, “My ideas get too weird! Or I can, but no one would buy anything- I mean, I paint mythology and fae, and man-eating trees!”

“Doooo iiitttt,” they encouraged with all the careless abandon of thirteen-year-olds, “and teach us to do it too!” So I did.
When I moved on from Art Haven, they came with me, like a smaller, more artistically inclined version of Dumbledore’s Army. We still meet every week, almost ten years since I met them.

Around the time I left Art Haven, my partner gave me the opportunity to run a store on Bearskin Neck in Rockport called Earth’s Treasures. Not only was it full of crystals, fantastic clothing, and handmade jewelry, but he also wanted me to commandeer the back and turn it into a gallery. He was impressed with my work and thought I needed an opportunity to dedicate myself to art. In vain did I try to explain the difference between ‘illustration’ and ‘fine art’, that it would be a massive failure, that his trust was misplaced and ps, he had to know that there wasn’t really any way I was brave enough to actually try to be an artist, right?

In the end it was sheer guilt that spurred me to take him up on the offer, along with some prodding from my friends and family, and once again, thank goodness I didn’t chicken out. I am more grateful to him and his faith in me than I can express, and I am absolutely certain that without the opportunity, I would never have had the courage to take the final leap into art as a career.

It’s still a little jarring to see my framed pieces in the gallery and explain myself and my work to customers, who often seem to think that I arrived where I am in a blaze of predestined talent and glory. Depending on the mood I’m in, I’ll either correct them or just smile. One day, feeling especially fulfilled and grateful, I made a point of contacting that ancient Greek professor to let him know I was alive and making art.

“Oh, thank god you went with art, I was worried,” he sighed in relief.

Has it been a smooth road?
It’s been an interesting journey thus far, and thankfully there’s no end in sight. Honestly I feel like less of a traveler and more of a bemused fool, traipsing along and occasionally having the good fortune to meet awesome people as I fall into beneficial situations.

The biggest obstacle, of course, is actually trying to make a career in art. Close your eyes. Imagine you’re seated at a desk, a tyrannically blank piece of paper before you. You have paint, you have a pencil, you even have the germ of an idea- thank goodness- and now you just need to execute it well. It might take five hours. It might take eighty. It might turn out beautiful. It might. . .not. No pressure! Your ability to pay your bills rests on the outcome, mind you. Buying food. Gas. More blank paper to taunt you.

So that’s all pretty daunting, but that’s just the run of the mill, everyday, inspire you to go nuts and cut your ear off artist obstacle. The road ahead is like a diamond; pick it up, observe the light glinting off its facets. Each side is another struggle, another, more personal reason why you should give up. And there are a lot of sides.

For me, one of the shiniest sides is the nature of my art- I’m a fantasy artist. What does that mean? It means that seascapes bore me. I can appreciate and absorb art in that vein for hours, enthralled by the mastery of light and technique, but I will last approximately ten minutes painting it myself. Unless I add a dragon. I like dragons. And mermaids. And ancient goddesses, like Hera and Ereshkigal. And fae with twisting roots for feet, dark glittering eyes peering from dense foliage in a lantern-lit forest. The unseen, unexpected, mythic creatures lurking at the shadowy edges of our subconscious, flickering in and out of being.

This may sound all well and good- “follow your heart”, after all- but there’s a problem. I’m in Rockport. The average customer is looking for a nice landscape to put over their fireplace, perhaps a watercolor of a ship for their bathroom. They really don’t want dryads staring critically at them while they shower. Reactions to my work usually fall into two categories:

1) Wow you’re talented, you should illustrate children’s books!
2) . . .What is that?

Then there’s the whole ‘image’ thing. Often people expect me to be swimming in hallucinogens or knitting my own clothes from yak hair, to at least smoke pot and have a nose piercing. Maybe tuck healing crystals into my pockets and shoes (ok, I totally do that, but that’s beside the point), do so much yoga I can balance on a single pinkie while reciting the Rig Veda backward, or have a deep, mystical aura that resonates with the mellow clang of temple bells. Instead, they get me. I wear jeans and like floral prints, the only drug I can tolerate is caffeine in very small doses, and I’m manically friendly in a kind of goofy way. Sincere, like my art, but still goofy. It confuses people.

The final obstacle, aside from the incredibly complicated nature of watercolor, of course, is me. I, like every other artist out there, am extremely overly critical of my work and my right to share it with others. I will never be “good enough”- remember that low paintbrush cred?- and for years that restrained me, held me back from ever trying to make a career from my passion. Having good self-esteem and a high level of confidence as a young woman is difficult to begin with, now toss art into the mix. Stand up in front of complete strangers with your painting-that you feel is a window into your soul- clutched in your nerveless hands and try to convince them to pay you $850 for it. Try. I dare you.

Oddly, it was all the retail that helped me through it. Fourteen years of haranguing customers, from telling shell stories back when I sold seashells by the seashore to explaining ammonites and handcrafted jewelry boosted my confidence. Surviving five years sitting next to my art in the gallery and managing to not spontaneously combust from sheer terror also helped, and shrieking at my students took care of the rest. I used to be shy and inhibited, barely able to speak a few words or raise my eyes. Not anymore, thank goodness.

Now I am able to stand comfortably beside my art, looking less otherworldly than some would like, and discuss pricing and technique without cringing too visibly. For the most part I’ve been rewarded with enthusiasm, kindness, and appreciation, and even when I’m not, I enjoy the stories and quotes that unwitting detractors sling my way:

“Your mother must have helped you do this.”
“I hope you see a therapist.”
“Is that a paint-by-numbers? YOU couldn’t have drawn that!”
“Seriously though, what KIND of drugs do you take?”

Never a dull moment.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Amelia Leonards Art story. Tell us more about the business.
I specialize in watercolor fantasy art, though I am more than capable of whipping out a dog portrait or two if the mood strikes, and I almost always resist giving them antlers and wings. My main themes are mythology and folklore; after moping around for a bit in a post-archaeology funk, I realized that I really hadn’t changed anything by switching my focus- it was always the stories that attracted me to ancient cultures, the myths and legends. What better way to appreciate and enjoy them than to paint them?

I began with a little world goddess mythology, from Nigeria (Ala) to the Amazon (Evaki) to, yes, Ancient Greece and Egypt (Hera and Sekhmet, two of my lifelong favorites). I’ve been asked if I am planning on painting any gods, but as of right now the answer is no. I could embark on a bitter feminist rant (I have several, all measured and sincere unless I’m having a truly terrible day) but the truth is that while I appreciate the gods, I’m just drawn to goddesses more. Some of this is due to my desire to explore how attitudes towards women and the definition of femininity have evolved over the years, culture by culture. Did you know that Hera was originally from the Middle East? And was a mother goddess archetype associated with lions and the wild? The peacocks and jealousy came later, so what does that say about shifting attitudes and cultural values?

When I’m not painting deities I delve into the realm of fae- fairies, faeries, spell it however you’d like, we’re all discussing the same thing. Most people are accustomed to seeing pixies and flower fairies of the Cecily Mary Barker variety, which is not. . .quite what I do. I’m more focused on creatures like the Fideal, a carnivorous water fae from Scotland, or Huldras, Scandinavian forest nymphs with cow’s tails and hollow backs. Many of the fae I paint are part animal or plant, oddly angled antlers and bark sloughed skin.

They’re extremely important to me because they’re a celebration of the natural world, aspects of our environment personified and given a relatable form. They live in rivers, mountains, and forests, and remind us of a time when we were in awe of the mysterious forces all around. Humanity has done its best to move on, shut them out, hunker down behind our screens in our climate controlled homes and forget that we were ever a part of something so interconnected and vast, so much vaster than we can imagine. I paint them to remind people of that connection, to try to inspire them to hunger for what we’ve lost, to wake up and blink in the glaring light of impending environmental catastrophe and think “. . .we need to fix this.”

Throughout everything, that archaeology background has been invaluable. I spent my high school lunch periods hiding in the library studying the Odyssey, the Mabinogion, and voraciously reading folklore. As a result, I have fairly good command of knowledge that would be otherwise thoroughly useless. Once the entire school was gathered together in the auditorium for a rehearsal, and the most popular girl in my class suddenly called out “Incubus? What’s an incubus?”

“It’s a male demon who seduces women in their sleep, stories go back to ancient Mesopotamia,” I answered primly into the utter silence that had fallen. She made a disgusted sound and rolled her eyes.

“Of course Amelia would know that.”

Most of the fantasy artists I see today work digitally, which is a medium I’ve always envied. I tried a whole two times, and let’s just say it went about as well as Ancient Greek. Watercolor sets me apart, but at the cost of many a trashed paintbrush and anguished afternoon. In digital work, or even oil or acrylic paint, one can correct their mistakes. Move things around, play with the composition, explore different lighting techniques. Watercolor, though. . .

When you’re painting with watercolor, there isn’t really a lot you can do to correct mistakes. There’s a heart-stopping few seconds after making an errant line to water it down and try to mop it up with a paper towel, but that’s really about it. A lot of people abandon the medium for this reason, but I’m incredibly stubborn and was completely clueless when I started- I taught myself, so there was no one to tell me it was one of the most difficult mediums out there. I assumed all the others were just as hard, and I cried a lot and shrieked many inappropriate four letter words within the confines of my room as I struggled. But I just figured that’s the artist’s lot and kept going.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
I’m honestly unsure where I see fantasy art going. The simplest answer would be that if you accept a broad definition of the term- something depicting the fantastical and unseen- then it’s been with us since the first human scribbled on a blank cave wall. I think there will always be a very human appetite for the mythic and fantastical, and it is therefore unlikely to disappear or do anything too unexpected over the next five years.

Our methods of sharing and consuming it have changed, of course. We can’t all visit the caves at Lascaux, but with the click of a button we can see a myriad of beautiful, unique, and inspiring images. The world has opened up for us in many ways- now an artist can build their brand and find an audience on their own, no longer quite as dependent on an agent or gallery. I hope that trend continues; it’s extremely rewarding to actually communicate with your audience, to speak to and connect with people.

Medium-wise, I think most fantasy artists will continue on in the digital vein over the coming years, so we’ll likely see more of that. It’s very practical, since fantasy artists also animate, create concept art for games, and work in movie production. Maybe I’ll give it another go sometime, we’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll be in the corner cursing over a jar of indigo paint water, downing kombucha and chocolate chips and wondering what to paint next. If you happen to pass by, please do say hi.

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