Island Art: Espress yourself

Island Art: Espress yourself

Michael Singman-Aste

Artist Dawn Leigh. Photo by Michael Singman-Aste.

Dawn Leigh was flipping channels and came across a documentary about wine making, which included a snippet on an artist painting with wine. “I never seem to have enough red wine left over,” Leigh said, so she went with “her next favorite elixir,” coffee. She brought some brushes and card stock to Spritzers Cafe, ordered a cup, and got to work.

“The owner got very interested,” Leigh said of the proprietor and curator Wubet Woldemichael. “And as I started doing more she said, ‘Let’s do a show!’” An opening reception for her “Espressions and More” will be held at Spritzers from noon to 5 p.m. this Saturday, November 9.

Leigh recently exhibited a landscape painting at Studio 23 Gallery as part of the “Show Me the City” group show, but this is her first solo exhibit in Alameda. She moved to Alameda from Southern California about a year and a half ago.

It took a bit of experimentation—and patience—to master her new medium.

“The coffee pieces take a lot more time because they have to dry between each layer,” she said. “It’s not always predictable as to what it’s going to do when it dries. If you’ve ever gotten a coffee stain on a piece of paper, it bleeds differently. Working with that to get it to do what you want it to do is kind of like herding cats.”

She found that she gets the best results using cool, day-old coffee. Hot coffee “ripples the paper much more,” she said, and yesterday’s brew has “a little bit deeper tones.” She also uses watercolor pencils, sparingly, to enhance the pigment. Leigh plans to lead a workshop on painting with coffee, open to the public, at Studio 23 Gallery next month.

Many images in her coffee-based “Espressions” picture turn-of-the-century bathing beauties, inspired by 1920s photographs. “The natural sepia tones in the coffee led to that era painting,” she said. “I’ve seen people go in and colorize (photographs), and that wasn’t appealing to me. Keeping things in the grayscales, and keeping the tonality but still getting something to pop is what I like to do.”

In her “Six Inches” a man is measuring a woman’s thigh to make sure she wasn’t showing too much skin. “A woman couldn’t show six inches above her knee. She’d be arrested,” Leigh said.

“I love that whole era, especially the rebellious ones,” she added. She is considering a series based on Alameda’s Neptune Beach, which was once located a stone’s throw from Spritzers.

The exhibit also features three of her other series, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” “At the Bar,” and “Kisses.” Nearly every piece was created this year in a flurry of productivity.

Work in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” range from a realistic, detailed rendering of a propeller, to an almost film noir-like painting of a train speeding past a car. Of “Speeding” Leigh said, “I purposely tried to make it a little more impressionistic. I’ve been trying to pull away from the more photorealistic stuff that I did to the more impressionistic side without losing my style.”

Leigh described herself as “a frustrated ballerina or diva in my heart.” She got a good foundation in ballet from a strict old nun, she said, but “long ago I realized that I was not the ideal body type for that. Next to drawing it’s one of my oldest memories.”

She expresses her love for dance in the “At the Bar” (sic) series, which includes a ballerina, costumed for performance, leaning en pointe against a pub’s bar, and a dancer astride a skateboard, one foot in toe shoes, the other in high tops. “I was one of those girls that wore skirts and still was a tomboy and skateboarded and all that stuff in the '70s,” Leigh said.

The images in “Kiss” range from a couple butting gas masks in “Powerful Kiss,” inspired by the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in August of this year, to swimming lovers pausing to smooch in “Wet Kisses” and a little boy’s chaste peck in “Surprise,” inspired, like many of her pieces, by a found photo.

Although inspired by coffee’s color and aroma, Leigh usually drinks tea while painting. “I was drinking the coffee and I couldn't sleep,” she said. “And I have accidentally almost drunk my paint cup!”

“Espressions and More” will be on display through December 20. Art makes a great gift, and all these pieces are available for pick up before the holidays. Leigh is also available for commissions. More of her work can be seen at www.dawnleighcreations.com. Spritzers Cafe is located at 734 Central Avenue, near Webster Street.

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