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Dottie Leatherwood, The Storyteller

Camellia Art began showing local Plein Air artist, Dottie Leatherwood’s, pieces just over two years ago and she’s quickly become a favorite among our regular clientele and visitors alike. Her lively impressionistic landscapes come in all shapes and sizes and radiate everything extraordinary and endearing about our beloved Lowcountry backdrop.

She currently shares Salt Marsh Studio with fellow Plein Air painter, Marc Hanson, another Camellia Art Favorite. Camellia Art receives new, amazing inventory from them frequently. In fleeting observation as an outsider, it seemed that Dottie and Marc live to paint and paint to live. They are constantly busy, immersed in their work. Art machines.

I thought it would be interesting to ask them a few questions for our blog. Just to tap the surface on the methods to their madness. They were so kind and generous with their time; graciously answering my questions in between painting, and teaching, and living their lives. They were completely thorough and included so much interesting and important information, it was impossible for me to edit any of it out.

Because of that- the length of their carefully thought out answers- I decided to split their interviews into two separate posts.

Today, I’m posting Dottie Leatherwood’s interview:

A little bit of background, first- where are you from and how did you get into art?

“I think most painters are storytellers at heart. With paints, pastels, etc. instead of words. But a lot of artists do both. From my earliest memories, I was a storyteller. Long before I picked up a pencil to draw. With a huge imagination and a fairly lonely childhood, stories both reading and telling them, were my entertainment and my escape. I drew endlessly but never thought of it as anything but a fun way to pass the time.

After graduating from University of Georgia with a journalism degree, I went on to work in advertising until my first child was born. Fast forward a few years as a stay at home mom with three children, I started a business painting murals and furniture. I was successful, but I remember one day, on the way to a new client’s house to paint a ceiling, I knew I couldn’t keep painting murals for another 10 years. It was so physically demanding, and I wanted to do something else. I decided to scale down and start painting on canvas instead, thinking naively, it would be so much easier. That moment began my love affair with landscape painting. I was hungry to learn everything I could and painted all day long every day. If I wasn’t painting I was studying other artists’ work or taking workshops.

When I decided to try and swirl a brush into oil paint and then touch it to canvas, my life was forever altered. Even though I still looked the same, talked the same and seemed the same to those that knew me... my life had changed. And the pathways to be created from that change would be so much different than the ones that would have presented themselves, had I never put brush to canvas. When I decided, a year or so later, to haul myself and my painting gear outside to try to paint what I saw in front of me, that too, changed the course of my life forever. Many years later, I still reap the benefits and the challenges, the elation and the frustration of that day. The way I see the world has changed.”

How did you settle in the Lowcountry?

“Easy question for me! I was born and grew up in Savannah but left when I went to college and lived away for the last 36 years. I had always wanted to move back and in all the time away, always thought of this area as home. I feel this place. It is alive to me in a way that no place has been since I left. It’s the salt air, the tangy smell of the marsh, and that ever changing almost indescribable light that illuminates it all... it stirs my soul.”

What inspires you most about being an artist?

“My love of the barrier islands that surround me, is so much more than just a painting reference. I believe and passionately support the protection of the wilderness areas that are so important to ecology and wildlife. We have both a duty and an obligation to preserve these areas and keep development and industry, pollution and desecration away from these priceless natural resources. I want my paintings to help in that preservation. My hope is that the beauty and fragility of the wild landscape that I try to portray will inspire others to want to protect it too.”

Obviously, you’re a landscape artist, where is your favorite place to paint from and why?

“The southern coastal landscape is absolutely my favorite place to paint. I love the contrast between the wide open spaces and the close, chaotic, jungle-like vegetation of the maritime forests. The inspiration to be found here, as a painter, is as easy as breathing in the salt air.

Our marshes, skies, and ocean are beautiful expanses of space. Being in the middle of this landscape causes you to involuntarily take a deep breath. Stress melts away, surrounded by all of that open air. You get a sense of just how small you are in this big world when the landscape around you stretches for miles in every direction.

In contrast, where the serenity of the marsh ends, the wildness of the landscape begins. A mass of tumbling vines wind their way through tall, swaying pines and giant, old live oak trees draped in cascading Spanish moss. Palms grow wild in every size and description and wild grasses tower above me. What at first glance seems wild and chaotic, reveals itself to be almost a symphony of movement and structure, each element playing in perfect harmony with those around it.”

How do you know when your piece is finished?

“A painting is finished when I have nothing else to say. That seems ambiguous, but it is actually pretty simple. When I start a painting, I always have a thought or mood in mind that I am trying to convey. Occasionally, that may change along the way, but most of the time I try to stay true the the original idea. When I feel as though I have accomplished that idea, then I start losing interest in doing anything else to the painting and often, have already moved on to the next painting idea. That’s when it is time to pull it off the easel and start a new one.”

What is the most important thing art, or being an artist, has taught you about yourself?

“Persistence. Consistency. Dedication. As an artist, you have to get in front of the easel. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. Talking about the work doesn't do it. Reading about the work doesn't do it. Even taking a class or a workshop doesn't do it. Actually doing the work, each and every day is the only thing that works. So many artists expect to get better by osmosis. It doesn't work that way. It takes sacrifice, single mindedness, dedication, and consistency.

An integral part of being an artist is learning to listen to your instincts. It is learning to trust yourself. It is learning to make decisions quickly and be able to change course midstream if things aren’t working out. It means looking for opportunities to improve upon where you or your painting are at the moment.”

Who, or what, has been your biggest artistic influence?

“Along with the landscape that surrounds me, I am endlessly inspired by other artists, both legends of the past and current artists of today. There are so many that amaze me with the way they feel/see things and then the skill with which they translate that into paint. My professional heroes are artists who give it their all. Who strive to be better. Who are constant students. Who work hard and find solutions. Who make mistakes and keep on going.

I would love to have the mastery of technique that all of these artists do, with my soul and my passion thrown in. I don’t want to “be” them or even to paint like them. I admire the proficiency in which they do what they do and want to get my skills to their level. But I want to paint my own story.”

How has your practice changed over time?

“I used to be a strictly Alla Prima artist, in other words, I would work on a painting consistently painting wet into wet until it was finished. I loved the spontaneity and the challenge of that. As I started painting outside more often, that filled the desire for immediacy that I craved and I became more interested in telling a more complete and thoughtful story with my studio paintings. I spend more time on my studio paintings now, working over several days or a week now, often on two or three paintings at the same time.”

Professionally, what is your goal?

“I just want to get better at being able to express more succinctly the way the landscape makes me feel. I feel like I am just beginning and the longer I paint, the more I realize just how much I have to learn.

Success professionally to me, means getting to do what I love, - paint, and being able to make enough money to support myself with painting so I don’t have to spend my time doing something else. I want the time to devote to getting better, learning more, discovering more about painting.

Success also means connection. A painting is an expression. For me, it is an expression of a mood or an emotion. It is also an expression of a place that I found captivating. I pour my soul and my skills into putting that vision, those feelings, onto the canvas using a brush and oil paint. Simple. But the painting isn’t complete until it connects with

another person who gets what I was trying to say. Who feels the emotions I was trying to express and puts their own emotions in the painting enough so it now becomes their vision. Their expression. Their place.

Painting is my vocation. It is my career. It is my hobby. It is my job. It is how I see the world and relate to it. It is me and I am it.”

What can you not live without?

“I wouldn’t want to ever live without my family and friends and my dogs. Life is an ever changing thing and I know that our loved ones come and go in and out of our lives just like the tide. But if I could orchestrate the perfect life, I would always be surrounded by the ones I love.

I would also always be surrounded by paint. Painting has consumed me for the last ten years and there is no way I could ever give it up. It is who I am now. I paint because it is the best way I know to relate to my world. To connect with it. To be a part of it and give something back to it.”

Here is a quick preview of some of Dottie's newest pieces. Her entire inventory can be viewed on her portfolio page on our website.

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