Story by Angela Lowell
“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
– Maya Angelou
In early June 2018, I visited my cousin Jonathan and his wife Leah in St. Louis at their new house – a charming American Foursquare that they were renovating into their ideal family home. Behind the books and toys that would decorate any busy mother’s living room, I noticed the realistic, yet ethereal, paintings in the background. I enjoy paintings with a completely uneducated appreciation of their beauty, but even I knew there was something special in these pieces. Something compelled me to pause a moment longer and look a little deeper. My observations were cut short by the cacophony that 5-year-olds produce while getting ready for a trip to the Magic House, and I had to chase my son and his cousin out the door.
A couple of months later, those same paintings happened to float across my Facebook newsfeed, and I discovered their genesis. Leah bravely posted her original art to share with the world on social media, and I was overcome by the realization that she was the artist behind those striking paintings. I knew she was artistic, but in the small talk and child wrangling of large family dinners on my visits home, we had never discussed the details of her work. But now, in a quiet and calm moment, with her unique and beautiful pictures in front of my eyes, I realized that she was the person whose gift I had admired earlier.
We made time to talk about her art on the phone, while her baby babbled in the background and she managed all of the dinner preparations. She explained to me that her technique was, in fact, not a traditional form of painting, but what is called encaustic, or “encased” art. While attempting to depict the seemingly bottomless scope of the Grand Canyon 6 years ago, she challenged herself with the question, “How deep can I paint?” What developed was her love for using layers of paint and wax, heated on her trusted pancake griddle, and fused together through a delicate and long shaping process. She uses wood, brushes, irons, and fire to create dimension that draws you past the surface of the scene. Her craft is actually painting and sculpture – together – blended to form one remarkable vista.
Leah learned to paint this particular way from her own meticulous research, but she has impressive formal education in art and media. She apprenticed for sculptor Rudolph Torrini, who served as an Artist in Residence and Professor Emeritus at Fontbonne College. He is best known for his commissioned masterpiece of Pope John Paul II, which stands in front of the Cathedral Basilica to commemorate the Pontiff’s 1999 visit to St. Louis. “I worked with him on his last public commission, a 6ft tall boy and his dog, ultimately cast in bronze,” she described for me. “We did a lot of sculpture, wood carving, life drawing, and a wide range of both 3D, as well as 2D, arts.” Tenderly, she recalls their daily breaks from work, when they would relax across from a replica of Mr. Torrini’s famous Papal statue and enjoy “tea with ‘the Pope.’” Additionally, she completed a degree from Webster University in Media Communications with an emphasis in print journalism and a minor in film history.
Although Leah’s current days are quite busy providing in-home childcare for two toddlers, along with her own young daughter and son, she miraculously finds increments of 10 to 12 minutes at a time when she is committed to making progress on her art.
“I feel literally exhausted all the time, but incredibly blessed. I’m lucky enough to have my studio in-home, in the midst of all the action, where I’m able to keep track of the household as well as my studio projects conjunctively. It can get really maddening at times. It’s difficult to switch on and off that ‘art flow’ headspace as rapidly as I’m forced to, but the medium is perfect for it. Fuse 10 minutes, change diapers while the wax dries, add the next layer of wax, fuse it down, then go make lunches while it dries. Just like that, all day. But in a way it makes me even more determined and productive – and then when I do get the rare couple of hours to work by myself I can crank work out like a madwoman.”
In those remarkable bursts of time, this spring Leah put together a brilliant debut solo art show at Third Degree Glass Factory in St. Louis’s Central West End. As a St. Louis native, she is passionate about the distinctive characteristics of her hometown. In her introductory collection, she explores the local scenes that are so familiar to those of us who also grew up or now live in St. Louis. Starting south of the city and moving north, she creates a vision that encompasses the entire region, juxtaposing landscapes along the Mississippi River with landmarks branching out from the famous Gateway Arch. Nostalgically, I smile and nod my head in agreement with each of her tender descriptions below.
“Hey, You Guys Want to go to Ted Drewes?!”
In St. Louis, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is a staple as much as baseball or even the Arch. It was a special treat when I was growing up and one of my very clearest memories as a young artist occurred in this very parking lot. I can distinctly recall sitting in my parents’ car while my father went up to get our order. As I was sitting there, I was looking at the lights on the building, then the “icicles”, then the way the roof pitched. I vividly recall following the lines the roof made with my eyes and realizing that the angles of the roofline changed as it got further away. I was discovering depth of field on my own as an 8-year-old in the second grade. And what’s more, when I got home I drew what I saw, I took it to school the next day and a little boy in my class asked me how I knew to draw the building as I did. I was truly delighted. I was so proud of that moment as a young artist and it made such an impression on me that I’ve repeatedly illustrated this spot as an homage not only to the city I love, but how it shaped me into the artist I am now. I still have that original drawing.
“The Great Balloon Race, For Grayson”
Every year when the weather starts to cool at the end of summer, St. Louis’s skies welcome The Great Forest Park Balloon Race. First, the “hare” balloon, which is always the delightfully pink Energizer Bunny hot air balloon, takes to the air, bobbing along where the wind likes. Then the “hounds” are released! Seventy brilliant floating orbs of rainbow take to the skies in an attempt to chase down the Energizer balloon. The hot air balloon to land closest to the Bunny balloon wins. It was such a magical surprise every year to look up and see a parade of balloons drifting overhead. Many of the balloons in my piece are drawings of actual balloons that have raced here in past years or hand-inked prints of images I’ve taken of the race. They’re then cut out and “floated” at different layers in the encaustic wax sky, giving the viewer a fun demonstration of the medium’s range of 3d effects.
“Eads Bridge, for my Grandparents”
In addition to celebrating the quaintly Americana Route 66 attractions and annual St. Louis hometown traditions, I love to reflect on the living history which is the City of St. Louis. The Eads Bridge, designed and built by James Buchanan Eads and opened in 1874, is only one small example of the very big influence St. Louis has through time. At the time, this bridge was the first to be built across the Mississippi River south of the Missouri River, although it is now the only surviving bridge across the river from that time, making it the oldest bridge connecting the two halves of our country. The technology used in its construction was revolutionary and used as a model for future iconic bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge. In this piece I’ve done an illustration of the bridge as it stands today, but placed it underneath an illustration of the bridge’s construction. It brings the past of this historical piece to the forefront, literally, and moves forward in the shadow of our time. This piece again shows off the wax medium’s versatility. The ability to layer and “shadow” images embedded in the painting contrasted with the light-catching copper leafing of the river’s reflection adds both depth, balance and movement to the imagery.
Still when I see a new piece of Leah’s art, I am genuinely struck by the beauty of her paintings. I may not be able to fully articulate how she conveys such a profound sense of home, but I sure do feel it.
If you are fortunate enough to be in St. Louis, you can see the large version of “The Great Balloon Race” on display at the prestigious Angad Arts Hotel in Midtown through the rest of 2019. Starting in July, Leah’s growing collection opens at Green Door Gallery in Webster Groves, which is known for its exhibition of Mary Engelbright originals. And I highly recommend following her on Facebook or Instagram @LeahMerrimanArt, to enjoy more of her wit, honesty, and progress updates.