During the Pandemic: A Conversation with Barbara Leiner

Written by: Francesca Sinnott

Pictured above: Barbara Leiner in front of one of her paintings.

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Pictured: Abstract Figurations, oil on canvas, 50”x90”

My conversation with artist Barbara Leiner brings me to a new level of understanding how the process of “creating” goes way beyond the intellectual for some artists. Painting is visceral and instinctive for Barbara. “As I make that first mark, I get chills and my creativity begins to flow; and then it becomes like a dance for me, with the push and pull I feel as I’m painting.” Barbara leans towards abstract expressionism and figuration. Her intention is to communicate authenticity and passion and she achieves that and much more. Her stunning oil canvases are loaded with color, movement and texture; bringing new interpretations to regular everyday objects and experiences. Her work is like a breath of fresh air in the dullness of this Covid winter that has descended upon all of us. Barbara became a member of Co|So in 2011 and is very active with the organization.  Through the Copley Society of Art she received a fellowship for a month long artist residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. “This is an amazing program that I hope Co|So continues as it enabled me to explore and stretch myself while having the time and the freedom with no distractions”. In 2016, the Co|So fellowship recipients had a show at the gallery.

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Pictured: Anchors Away, oil on canvas, 40”x40”

Throughout the pandemic, Barbara has been able to work in her Boston studio. To stay motivated, Barbara and an artist friend started “a challenge”, whereby they each produced one painting each day. “From this, I created 85 4”x4” ‘Pandemic Portraits’,  some posted on my instagram. I felt it was important to continue to create and provide solace to others.”

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Pictured left to right: Pandemic Portrait #43, & Pandemic Portrait #45, oil on linen, 4”x4”

Barbara knew she was an abstract painter when she found herself concentrating on the essence of simple forms rather than the obvious scenes before her, while taking a series of plein air painting classes with the Washington Art Association (2000-2007). “I love the natural landscape but why paint something that is already beautiful as it exists in nature? So, while most of the class was painting landscape scenes, I was intrigued by the shape of a fire hydrant or anything else that caught my eye.”

In the same way, Barbara’s figurative painting is more interpretive than representational. “When I’m doing a ‘portrait’, I will look at the face, make a mark then look away, capture a cheekbone or an eye. A cheekbone will remind me of a soft or a sharp shape. The complexity moves me forward and becomes the beautiful essence of that person.”

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Pictured: Spilling My Guts, oil on canvas, 52”x50”

Barbara works from her Boston studio, near to where her family moved in 2007. She likes working quickly on large (46”x44”) and small canvases (4”x4”), sometimes square, sometimes rectangular, usually a series of 3 at once on a wall. She will start with a turpentine color wash. Using a charcoal pencil she will “make a gestural line” to start the work and then it becomes a natural progression. "I will get out my paints and the works comes out of me as I become a vehicle for the expression of the idea.” Even Barbara’s color choices are not intentional. She will mix and explore color ranges rather than rely on primary colors. She will use a brush and a palette knife, adding “a schmear” here or there as she goes.

“Sometimes one painting leads to the other and I go back and forth to create a series, but each one has to be able to exist independently.” One example is her cow paintings. “Cows are sharp, round, funny or mean and that is what I convey in my work”.

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Pictured: Moovement Series 1, oil on canvas, 40”x46”

According to Barbara, “Creating the art is a struggle between being truly authentic with myself versus capturing what I know other people want to see. Creativity doesn’t always flow so easily either. I will have an initial burst, then I have to calm myself down, go back and keep working at it. Often I will sit with a painting and let it talk back to me.” Recently, expressing herself through writing has also contributed to her creative expression and strengthened her painting.

Barbara began as an ER nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, but always had a creative inclination. She later obtained a degree from the N.Y. Fashion Institute of Technology (1985), and designed her own clothing line for 25 stores across the country. She eventually became a knitwear designer for Ralph Lauren and Andrea Jovine while raising her twin boys with her ophthalmologist husband and living in suburban Connecticut. Juggling the commute and the work became very difficult so in 1995 Barbara took up the paintbrush with her first watercolor class. Her teacher encouraged her to try oils. “I came to love oils for the rich colors and flexibility they offer.” Her weekly plein air painting class with the Washington Art Association would change her life. “Trey Friedman, realist artist and teacher, inspired me keep my originality and get to a new place with my work.”

Barbara wants her work to generate an emotional response and feel the artist in it. “I’m not concerned about someone liking it or not. I love it when someone tells me that a small work feels big to them.” Her advice to young artists: “Stay true to yourself. Paint like you breathe and use your art to express what words cannot.”