By Rena Desmond
On a cold wintery day in January I was determined to be one of the first in line at FVCC to register for the Senior Institute Watercolor class taught by Karen Leigh. In the past I always registered by mail. This time was different. Several people told me that this class fills up quickly. When I arrived there were a lot of senior citizens already in line. My only hope was that I was early enough to have made the cutoff. I finally arrived at the registration desk, paid my fee and held my breath while the young man put my information into the computer. He looked up and said, “You’re all set.” I have to say that it was all worth it. From the time the class started, I was transformed. I was amazed at how I was able to shut out everything else and concentrate on painting. I shared this with Karen during our interview and she said, “You have transitioned from the left side of your brain to your right side. This is very healthy.”
Karen Leigh is a 4th generation Montanan who has lived in the Flathead Valley near Glacier National Park since 1970. She grew up in Great Falls, east of the mountains. Her great grandfather was Cornelius Hedges. As a young attorney with degrees from Harvard and Yale, he headed west, leaving his wife and young son behind. He hoped to find his fortune in Virginia City, Montana. He didn’t find his fortune there, so he moved to Helena, where he opened up a law practice and then sent for his family. He later became one of the most influential men in Montana history. While visiting Yellowstone Park with the Langford-Doane Expedition he suggested that it become a national park. It became the first one in the world. He was the first superintendent of schools for the territory of Montana and rode horseback to visit all the schools in his district. Cornelius Hedges elementary school continues to educate the youth of Kalispell and can be seen from Karen’s studio window. She is very proud of her history.
I asked her if anyone was artistic in her family. She said, “Half of my family is English and the other half is Norwegian. They were immigrants and they farmed. My mother had very good taste. She was good at decorating, she set a beautiful table and dressed with great style but didn't draw or paint. So, I really didn't know where the artistic part of me came from, but I always knew, even as a little kid, that it was what I wanted to do.”
About 15 years ago she visited a cousin of hers who lived in one of those old big houses in Helena. They were chatting about family history when he said, “I want to show you something.” She followed him upstairs and at the end of a long dark hallway was a watercolor in an old dark frame that was done in 1890 by Cornelius Hedges’ niece, Margaret Hedges Atwater. She was a part of the family that stayed east. Karen said, “The painting looked like I had done it, it was absolutely shocking.” Of course she asked her cousin if she could take it home to reframe it and have it archived, and he obligingly agreed. She still has the painting in her studio. On the back of the painting is written, Margaret Atwater, April 19th, 1890 Provincetown, Mass. This discovery prompted some research. Karen knew that Margaret had attended Smith College, so she phoned the archivist there and found out that Margaret and her classmates kept up a round robin letter for many years. Oddly enough, Karen and her sorority sisters have kept a round robin letter going as well. Smith College has copies of all these letters and pictures, and sent them to Karen. Margaret studied in Paris for two years before returning to the states and continued painting for the rest of her life. For Karen it was really exciting to find out who she acquired her artistic talent from. She would say, “I didn’t choose art, ART chose me.” Art is her passion.
Karen’s parents were always supportive of letting her paint. She attended Montana State University and received a degree in graphic design. Her mother said she must also have a teaching degree. She remains grateful to her mother because she probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise. After graduation she moved to Seattle and worked for a screen printing firm. She realized quickly that she was at the bottom rung and she would never have a vacation of any length to fulfill her dream to travel. She then taught for 3 years in Great Falls, where she met her future husband. They lived in Germany for several years and in Helena until her husband took a job with the Forest Service in Kalispell. Karen had loved this area since she was a child, and besides, her sister and her family lived here. She has been here since.
Karen’s primary interest has always been transparent watercolor and she has studied under a number of well-known painters, including Irving Shapiro, Al Brouillette, Skip Lawrence and Joseph Zbukvic. Always on the lookout for ‘accidental magnificence’, she is particularly interested in finding beauty in unexpected places.
She thought that one day she would like to teach a class in watercolor, so she carried a small portfolio under her arm into the Dean of Instruction's office at FVCC and asked if she could teach a summer school class. He agreed. The college at that time was located on Main Street in the old Elks building, where she taught her very first class. The college then moved her class to the Old Depot Building that now houses the Chamber of Commerce. When some of the classes moved to Central School, her favorite classroom was located on the second floor in the northeast corner of the building. She remembers the beautiful tall windows, the 18 foot ceilings and the north and west light. Then the College moved to the new building on the present campus. And lo and behold, she is still there after some 40 years.
Over the years she has taught many different classes, such as drawing, calligraphy and design. Little by little she has narrowed it down and now she teaches just watercolor, her first love. She teaches classes in her studio occasionally for 1 or 2 students and does workshops all around the state by invitation. She has taken 2 or 3 groups overseas to paint. On her first trip she traveled with 12 women to France. Her daughter, an artist also, proved to be a very good interpreter as well. A visit to Monet's Gardens was a must. On Mondays the gardens are closed to the general public, but with permission from the Monet Foundation they let a few artists in to paint. Karen was lucky enough to bring her class and spend the entire day all by themselves in Monet’s Gardens. She describes the experience as absolutely magical. She has also traveled abroad to Venice, Italy with students, and had the privilege of taking in some of the most beautifully inspiring and historic scenery an artist could dream of seeing in person.
I visited with one of Karen’s students (Bill) who started taking classes from her when she was teaching at Central School. Bill was in the very first class she taught, and lo and behold there he was in the class I took in January of 2013. She keeps up with what’s going on in the watercolor world. She is always bringing in new ideas. Bill has worked on several series. Her classes are always full but she tries to accommodate everyone who is interested in joining the group. She thinks everyone has the ability to make art and she convinces them that they can do a tremendous job. Certainly for FVCC she has been a real asset. Bill said that, “I’m certainly no artist, but she makes me think that I can paint.”
Inspired by the beauty and spirit of her native Montana, she has painted many landscapes. Although landscapes are beautiful and work very well for teaching purposes, she loves the city, urban landscapes and New York. Just give her a city with fire escapes, garbage cans and junkyards and she will find wonderful subject matter. In the summertime she loves to take her students outside to paint because they have the whole day. Some of her favorite spots include Schlegel's Heavy Equipment (down on Hwy 93) or Somers Antiques. She likes to make something beautiful out of things that many people would not normally find pleasing to look at, and looks for inspiration in unexpected places. She thinks many artists go through different phases, such as the flower phase, the landscape phase and figure and portrait phase.
For ten years, in collaboration with calligrapher Gini Ogle, she produced an published a line of prints, posters, calendars, and note cards which were marketed under the name of Echo Designs. Karen maintains a studio in the newly renovated Eastside Brick, formerly the local hospital constructed in 1911. You can also view her work on her website at karenleighart.com.
One of the many other things she loves to do is work in her sketchbooks. I was honored that she brought 3 of them for me to look at. As I paged through them, I was transported to other places and times. She captured the history, architecture, and the warmth of the people in Venice and Romania. All her sketchbooks are done on location. She says sometimes she doesn’t get all the color but she gets the shape; I find all of her work beautiful.
The year 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of Karen Leigh’s career teaching watercolor classes at FVCC. Through her teaching Karen has helped countless students realize their artistic aspirations. Her work is included in the collections of Beringer Wineries, ConAgra Industries and the Smithsonian. She is a signature member of the Montana Watercolor Society. She received the Gold Medal in its 2006 National Juried Show and the President’s Award in 2008. She was selected to design an ornament for the White House Christmas Tree and was honored at a reception hosted by First Lady Laura Bush at the White House. She was also selected for inclusion in the 2008 and 2009 C.M. Russell “Masters in Miniature” invitational.
You can rest assured that I will be one of the first senior citizens in line at FVCC to register for Karen Leigh’s watercolor class. You know, she did make me think that I could paint.