Profile of Anne Leone

Anne Leone's paintings explore the buoyant world of figures under water

Originally published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on April 28, 2007

Anne Leone delights in being a storyteller. But the stories in her scenes of submerged swimmers are not clear-cut narratives with chronological plot lines or definite endings. The artist describes her characters and defines her settings through the colors of the waves and the choreography of the figures. She offers the viewer "a moment of heightened awareness" captured on canvas.

Growing up in New Jersey, Ms. Leone loved to read. As a little girl she enjoyed the talking animals and palace scenes in "scary but magical" fairy tales. Later she pored over her mother's coffee-table art books on master figure painters, from the flamboyant Delacroix to the precise Ingres. She excelled in art and English as a student at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley. Here she studied with art teachers Scattergood Moore and Phyllis Scattergood, husband and wife, who were surrogate parents to Ms. Leone in the boarding school setting. It was Ms. Scattergood who urged Ms. Leone to apply to the art program at Boston University.

Ms. Leone "adored" her professors at the university. One of her favorites, Joe Ablow, taught her that art was "an intellectual pursuit, not just a skill-oriented recording of what you see." She recalls one particular meeting of Mr. Ablow's senior seminar course, when renowned painter Philip Guston was the guest speaker. The conversation between Mr. Ablow and Mr. Guston "opened my eyes to the way painting could be as challenging and rewarding as literature and science," she says. Ms. Leone particularly enjoyed her studies with "tough but kind" professor Reed Kay, who taught painting in a wide range of media from egg tempera to encaustic (hot wax) to oil.

The figure was Ms. Leone's favorite subject, and her figure paintings were often singled out by her professors as among the strongest in the class. Her work was also noticed by a new student who transferred to Boston University during Ms. Leone's junior year, Daniel Ludwig. At first, the two of them sized each other up as competition, but soon they were a serious couple, and later husband and wife.

After graduating from Boston University, Ms. Leone and Mr. Ludwig relocated to Kentucky. Here the young artists lived as caretakers in a farmhouse on a hay and tobacco farm, in addition to waiting tables and painting as much as they could. In her small studio, Ms. Leone painted a series of self-portraits, but she missed working from the model on a grand scale, as she had at college. She applied to graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, where she was granted a full fellowship. Mr. Ludwig soon joined her, and they both earned their master of fine art degrees from the university.

Directly after graduation, Mr. Ludwig was offered a teaching position at Salve Regina University, so the couple moved to Newport, R.I. The following year, Ms. Leone accepted a professorship at the UMass Dartmouth's College of Visual and Performing Arts. Ms. Leone's studio work at this time involved landscape paintings influenced by the lush gardens of Newport, works she exhibited at the London gallery Cadogan Contemporary. During visits to Europe in conjunction with her shows, she toured London's gardens and gathered further ideas for landscape imagery.

With the birth of her son, Ellis, Ms. Leone experienced a burst of intense energy and inspiration in her studio. She switched from oil paint to acrylic, and taught herself to use the new media to mimic oil's luminosity and richness of color. Figures now entered her garden scenes, introducing mysterious and unspoken narratives into the pictures. These works reminded the artist of short stories, with an underlying psychological tension implied among the characters.

Ms. Leone first tapped in to the possibilities of water as an environment in a series inspired by her excursions with Ellis to Roger Williams Park Zoo and the New England Aquarium. These paintings depicted the swimming polar bears and fish they encountered on their visits.

The first manifestations of the human figure in water came in a group of portraits Ms. Leone made when she was pregnant with her daughter, Madeline. She painted her husband, her son and herself, each jumping in to a body of water in a way that reflected their varying states of mind in anticipation of the new baby. Mr. Ludwig, elated at being a father for the second time, was shown plunging off a cliff into the ocean in a "moment of exaltation." Ellis, looking forward to a new companion, splashed in a shallow puddle, dancing with his reflection. Ms. Leone portrayed herself as hesitant but determined, jumping into a pool at night.

Figures moving under water have remained the central focus of Ms. Leone's work since 1993. Each series develops from season to season with variations in color schemes and the use of individual or groups of swimmers, reflections of changes in her personal life. But the reference to water remains constant.

Her fascination with this subject has been sustained over the years by three qualities that water alone can offer. Water has no color of its own, and thus provides the chance to express a range of emotions based on the psychological impact of the entire spectrum. Water has no form, so it presents a technical challenge to describe a convincing physical depth. And water has no gravity, making unique poses possible because of the figures' weightlessness. "It's a wonderful feeling when you're all by yourself in water, reacting to its buoyancy," says Ms. Leone. "It gives you an 'in-the-moment' feeling."

To create a painting, Ms. Leone photographs the human body moving under water, often using her family members as models. She picks out the shots with the most visually interesting poses and interactions of bodies and limbs. Then she turns to the computer to consider the dynamics of color and light, experimenting with different possibilities in Photoshop. She tacks her favorite printouts to the wall beside her easel for general reference and begins painting on stretched linen prepared with sanded layers of gesso.

First the artist places the major forms with lines of thinned paint, then blocks in tonal contrasts. Next comes the application of color, laid on with both brushes and knives, to create the illusion of realistic forms moving through a believable three-dimensional space. Foreground areas are defined, while the background is softened. Also the "ceiling" of the water's surface must be brought into focus.

At regular intervals, Ms. Leone applies a coating of acrylic gloss medium over the entire painting, as if to encase the image in a "thin sheet of glass or ice." This technique unifies the surface and helps to create the impression of water engulfing the figures.

This process of layering pigment and gel continues until the underwater drama has come to life.

Ms. Leone currently finds herself at a professional crossroads. She has just announced her retirement from teaching at UMD, and plans to turn her attention to full-time painting. She looks back on her career at the university with great fondness for her colleagues and for the many students she has nurtured during her 20 years as a professor there.

She counts among her experience seven years as director of the Fine Art Department's Foundation Program. But with Ellis about to head off to college and Madeline settled in middle school, now seems like a good time to her to make this change.

In future work, Ms. Leone plans to create paintings on an even larger scale and explore more complex interactions between groups of swimmers. Like Dickens and Shakespeare, her favorite writers, Ms. Leone is first and foremost a storyteller, describing the range of human experience through the non-verbal language of color and form in space.