Leya Evelyn was born in Washington, D.C., and educated at Brown and Yale Universities. She moved from New York City to Nova Scotia in the early 1980s. “For an artist, it is a good place to live," she says. "Spacious and quiet. Despite the beautiful scenery and frequently grey skies, my abstract paintings focus on color, its expressive qualities, and how it creates form and space.”
Leya Evelyn exhibits her work widely in Canada and the U.S., as well as across Europe. She is the recipient of numerous grants from provincial and federal agencies including a Canada Council Established Artist Grant in 2000. Evelyn became an elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 2011. She has taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax as well as privately.
The primary focus in Evelyn’s artwork is color that provokes emotion and challenges perception. The paintings seek to evoke uncensored memories and states of mind: exploring possibilities, imaginings, and openings. Her process begins with photo-silk-screened images drawn from personal experience. Inspired by these images and the emotions they fuel, paint, collage, written words, form, and texture are added and build up into a density that reveals a deeper, nonliteral, experience. Removed from specific contextual references, these works become a metaphor for the elusiveness of knowledge and experience.
An Interview with Leya Evelyn
Who are you and what do you do?
Over my many years of painting, I have consistently been dedicated to creating abstract images. Although I studied drawing and painting using objects, the focus was on creating form with color, not on the image itself. This focus was an easy introduction to creating paintings about how color can in itself be the image and create a sympathetic emotional response.
Why do you do what you do?
I paint abstract because it feels right. Without words, I can reach a deeper level of emotions and connections with myself and with the viewer. I am an abstract painter. Right from the first day, abstraction spoke my language. I never wanted to paint otherwise. For me, it talks about the inexpressible part of being human. Not being attached to objects, makes sense out of the unknown. Forcing me to be open to what I don’t know. Literally, through the paint itself, it educates me. Teaches me to experience, to be open.
“I want to create a world that goes beyond something that you or I know about. I have been told by many people that what happens over the years is that they look at a painting and they see new things, and that’s very exciting for me.”
How do you work?
I begin with photographs and collage elements. For a long time, I silk-screened the photographs onto the canvas before starting. More recently I have been using Xerox transfers which allow me more flexibility. The collage elements are pieces of fabric, used for the added texture and color they present. After this process, I write, text inspired by the images, onto the canvas. Then I begin the painting using cues from the many possibilities that arise from these preliminary acts. I have used oil bars for most of my painting career. They give a very rich sumptuous color to the work.
What’s your background?
I studied English Literature at Brown University, intending to pursue academic work until another student in my junior year suggested: “go down to the basement and paint.” And that was it. I then went to Yale University to study painting and never had a doubt that this was what I needed to do.
What’s integral to the work of an artist?
The most important aspect of being an artist is honesty and integrity. No matter what is happening otherwise, it is important, to be honest, and be true to yourself. Self-discipline is the necessary element to be able to produce sincere creations.
"My paintings explore non-verbal, intuitive means of communicating. The painting method itself -- as a ritual of becoming -- is the narrative. These mixed media works include collaged images which have been photo-silkscreened onto canvas. Writing, inspired by the photographs, is buried beneath the paint. Together, paint, collage, words, form and texture build up into a density that reveals a deeper, non-literal, experience. As the layers accumulate, imageless forms become the wordless language of emotion. Removed from specific contextual references, these works become a metaphor for the elusiveness of knowledge and experience."
What role does the artist have in society?
Artists are often found to be at the vanguard of society, often pointing out what is actually happening. Artwork can thereby be important in uplifting and enhancing the life experience.
How has your practice changed over time?
To me, my work has changed dramatically over the years. Yet I can look back and pick out persistent themes. The figure/ground relationship is always important to me, as is the power of color to provoke various conditions and reactions.
What work do you most enjoy doing?
I really love painting, look forward to it every day. It never seems to be without surprises and information. All I need to do to be inspired is to allow the time to be in my studio.
"Every painting has its own private story to tell. The story evolves as the painting is created. Every time paint is applied to the canvas, the story changes. The painting has its demands and is not content unless I listen. There is a careful balance between listening, seeing, and creating."
Name an artist you’d like to be compared to and why.
People often compare my work to Rothko. He uses color with a similar intensity, although a completely different density. Even though my work is abstract, I feel closer to Rembrandt than to Pollack. Rembrandt’s paintings feel to me like they are created from an inner environment beyond thought, transforming and illuminating the search for the right image.
Professionally, what’s your goal?
My work needs to be seen, given space. It is not about ideas but about states of mind and feeling. It, therefore, needs a broad audience.