Lisa Lebofsky finds her inspiration outdoors. A self-described “nomadic plein air painter,” the New York visual artist is an active participant in the landscapes she depicts, imparting a distinctly human vulnerability to the rogue and restless natural world. Now she’ll bring those sensibilities into the classroom as drawing & painting co-instructor, alongside fellow New York artist John Hampshire, during the 2021 Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute at the University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma.
From the disappearing glaciers of Antarctica to the rugged mountains of Newfoundland and Labrador, Lebofsky travels the globe painting in the elements to arrive at a more intimate understanding of our changing environment and the people it affects. Before she adds Chickasha, Oklahoma, to her list of locales, we talked to the artist about painting landscapes, environmental storytelling and her hopes for the drawing & painting students of OSAI 2021.
Can you introduce yourself to readers by talking about your background and art practice?
So, when I was four years old …
We're going back!
[Laughs.] Yes! When I was four years old, I told my parents I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, and they sent me to a local art school where I studied Chinese watercolor up through high school. My teacher would take us out plein air painting, actually. So, I had a very early exposure to the work I ended up doing years later. And then when I went to college at SUNY New Paltz, I studied metalsmithing. I love working with metal material but I found that my heart was still in painting.
So I then went to the New York Academy of Art to hone my skills. And while I was there, a workshop brought me to Italy and back to plein air painting, and I was just like, “This is what I want to do.” So it's kind of been this organic flow, in terms of where I landed with my art practice, but my heart has always been in painting nature. Every choice I've made along the way has formed who I am today as an artist, for sure, because my work is primarily on aluminum, which is something I gained familiarity with during my time as a metalsmith.
Painting en plein air took me to some very obscure locations, and I’ve always been fascinated with remote regions and painting sparsely inhabited landscapes. And you don't go to places like Newfoundland and Antarctica without having a conversation about climate change. So that really started to drive my work. As I developed my style and my vision, I realized these were not just documentarian objects I was making, but more like psychological portraits of the landscape. Humans are very much a product of nature and are as vulnerable as nature in the face of adversity. I’ve been learning how to humanize the story of climate change, so people can relate on that human, emotional level.
Is that what painting en plein air offers you as an artist — the ability to have that conversation about the interaction between people and nature?
Definitely. As [Henry David] Thoreau did at Walden Pond, writing his poetry; that's how I think of plein air painting. I think of each brush mark I'm choosing to make in the moment onsite, viscerally experiencing the landscape, as a word to describe that landscape. So am I telling a bland story — you know: the clouds are white, the sky is blue? Or am I actually saying more about it? So, that mark-making becomes a very poetic way to translate the landscape.
Can you talk about your residency at Shenandoah National Park?
Yes! I have a particular fondness for national parks. I think the history of the National Park System even comes from art. You know, artists’ works were used to make the case for the National Park System. So they're very intertwined, the history of the two. I think of the Hudson River-era painters and photographers, and the work they were doing in the 1800s and early 1900s, which really spoke to that importance. They were responding to nature and its significance to — well, I don’t want to get political …
Go for it!
[Laughs.] Well, they were responding to its significance to expanding colonialism. But there was always this awareness and want to maintain our relationship as we expanded and took over these natural settings. So there was a preservation [element] which the artist saw as important, and the naturalist saw as important, and the government then saw as important. So I love the National Parks System for that, because it is really making the case for the importance of our lands.
So, when I saw there was a residency at Shenandoah National Park, which is one of the first national parks, I was like, “Oh God, I have to do this!” I grew up in the Hudson River Valley of New York, which borders Appalachia, with the Appalachian Trail going through my hometown. So I have a real connection, specifically with the Appalachian Mountains, because they are where I'm from. They’re just so fascinating because they have such an interesting and ancient geologic history, which is so intertwined with American history, going back thousands of years. A lot of that is evident in Shenandoah National Park.
“Nature is going to be the unifying framework for all of the techniques I'm going to teach [OSAI students]; it's not just going to be painting trees, but I'm using that as the scaffolding of what they're going to learn about expressing themselves through paint. What is the story you're going to tell and how is the paint advancing that story?”
- Lisa Lebofsky, OSAI 2021 Drawing & Painting Co-Instructor
Living and working within the park was an amazing experience. It brought me home in a way, and then it also took me out to other places. It was only two years ago, and sometimes I'll do a residency and I'll make work there and really learn the visual vocabulary of a place, but its real impact isn't always noticeable sometimes until many years later. But this residency immediately altered my palette and mark-making language.
I had the opportunity to work with the park rangers and staff, and really learn about threats to our environment I didn’t even know existed. I started thinking a lot more about trees, which I had always been painting, but I was learning all these interesting stories about trees and thinking of them more as individuals.
Any good tree stories you can share?
One story I like to tell is about the American chestnut tree, which was devastated by the Chestnut Plague in the early 1900s, and it has vastly changed the look of the landscape. It was from an introduced invasive species. So I’m learning about this chestnut tree and going around and drawing the dead ones. Then I went on a hike with this local group in a part of the park that had been hit by fires. Whether it was manmade or not, I’m not sure. But they wanted to see how this part of the forest was regenerating. Some of the trees were fine. The table pines were doing great; they need fire to live and reproduce. But the fascinating thing is you saw chestnut trees everywhere — young chestnut trees. I was like, “This is amazing!”
I thought [the trees] were gone, but they were like, ‘No, this is what they do. They're still in the soil, and they'll come back, but they only can grow to a certain height before the blight takes them again.” I just thought that was such an amazing story of perseverance. Because in my own situation at the time, I was nomadic. I was living on the road, and I was trying to make a home in Canada, but it wasn't really working out. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I get it! The chestnut tree wants to be here no matter what. Keep trying.” I felt like I was the chestnut tree.
That’s the thing that’s humanizing in this experience, because we care about what we’re aware of, or we can relate to. So I’m telling you stories of plants in this manner because it's like, “Oh, man. Yeah, I get that. What can we do to help those little chestnut trees?”
It seems like that human element within nature is critical to getting people to care about it. You have to be able to tell that story.
Exactly — exactly. And even though I’m creating a visual object that people spend time with, to me the storytelling element is as crucial as the visual experience. So I do like to have the opportunities to talk about my work and write about it and, in the instances when it does happen, meet the people who may be purchasing or experiencing my art and letting them know more of the story.
Will OSAI be your first time in Oklahoma?
Actually, no, but it's been so long.
What brought you here before?
My best friend was moving to Scotland, but I flew out to California to meet up with her. This was right after I finished grad school, summer of 2006. It was 115 degrees in the desert. Anyway, I helped her pack up and we drove cross-country. We went through Oklahoma, but we actually spent time in the state because her brother was there. So we camped out a bunch and had crazy long road trips and stayed in some really questionable hostels, and then when we arrived in Oklahoma at her brother’s, that was when we were able to decompress and have some nice showers.
Oklahoma is kind of this blank space on the map for a lot of people, but we actually have the most diverse terrain per square mile in the U.S.
From the far east you get the rolling timber and even some wetlands further south, to the high plains and mesas out to the west, with a bunch of other stuff in between. As someone who's drawn to landscapes, hopefully you'll find something here that sparks something for you.
Yeah, I think so. I can be happy with most landscapes. ... When I interact with people and learn what their experiences are with the landscape, I can find anything interesting because I'm finding what they're finding interesting. I have a friend who's Chickasaw and she’s not from Chickasha but she's from near Oklahoma City. I told her I was going out there and she got so excited. She’s just like, “It's beautiful, and I can’t believe you're gonna paint the landscape. This is amazing!” She was just so happy, and her enthusiasm really sparked me. So yeah, I can get into any landscape.
I have a real interest in getting [OSAI] students outside to paint, depending on what the weather is like. I'm not going to torture us if there's crazy weather like what’s happening in Portland right now. If it’s 116 degrees, we're not going outside to paint. [Laughs.] But that is a part of the conversation of what it is to paint with nature as your influence.
Have you ever taught in an immersive, multidisciplinary environment like OSAI before?
This is definitely unique. I’ve taught many classes in high schools and primary schools and in universities, and I've taught week-long workshops, but … it is still [just] a week at the end of the day. I’ve done it before, but not for this many consecutive days.
What do you hope your students walk away with at the end of your time together?
I kind of touched on it, but for me it's so important to really think of painting as visual storytelling. There is poetry to it. Nature is going to be the unifying framework for all of the techniques I'm going to teach them; it's not just going to be painting trees, but I'm using that as the scaffolding of what they're going to learn about expressing themselves through paint. What is the story you're going to tell and how is the paint advancing that story?
For a complete list of OSAI 2021 faculty, click here.
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