A Lovely Workshop with Leah Macdonald

"In one way and out another"

“I came in one person. I left another person, and for that I am forever grateful.” Yesterday I posted this quote by Evangeline Lilly on my Facebook page. It said everything I wanted to say about my experience at “A Lovely Workshop” in Poitiers, France with Elizabeth Messina. I don’t think the sentiment is all that original, but maybe a link to a famous person will do wonders for my web traffic. Ha! The truth is, I find that aspect of our culture terribly annoying, even though I am as guilty of reading Page Six as the next person. (that’s NY Post gossip for those of you not as addicted to NY as I am).

I’d like to believe Leah Macdonald doesn’t read tabloids or gossip. She seems too much herself to care what celebrities are doing. She was celebrating something more important. Just for now, I’ll leave her on that pedestal I have made for her. I went to “A Lovely Workshop” largely because she would be teaching there. I had no idea she and Elizabeth were such longtime friends; I only knew I had seen one example of her encaustic paintings (wax paintings) at a friend’s house the previous summer in Canada, and I wanted to know more about it. I always wished I had gone to art school and learned more about the various techniques and processes of making art. It is one thing to study the great frescoes of the world; it is another to try to paint on wet plaster.

In high school, I wanted to go to a school in San Francisco called Lick Wilmerding where every student took wood shop and machine shop and a bunch of other hands-on courses that sounded like heaven to me. My mother forced me to apply to a more academic school nearby, and so my path was set in a more academic direction. I had one art teacher at University High School that really inspired me. John Bloom was my photography teacher, and his personal work could best be described as paintings on giant photographs, similar to some of the work one of my now favorite artists, Gerhard Richter. As a teenager I just thought his work was a bit weird and I didn’t think the photos were particularly good. I would really like to seem them again now. I imagine I would love them.

When we went to Leah’s makeshift studio at the chateau, I thought of Richter and Robert Rauchenberg, two of my favorite artists. For me, both men are playing with layers and things that are seen, and unseen by the viewer, and a photograph covered in wax and oil paint must be related to that. I knew I was in the presence of a great talent, and I was so aware of this that I could barely stay in the room. I felt my head was about to explode as so many doors and pathways flung open at once.

"Old Church"

The encaustic wax session was our second rotation of the day. Our morning activity was a trip to a nearby medieval church. Pretty, yes, but honestly I have seen so many amazing old towns in France that I felt a bit lost in this church. I really didn’t need any more old church photos to file away. Why was I here? Was I supposed to take photos? I wasn't really feeling any. I played with a few of my oddball lenses, the 15mm fisheye which does very wide angle distorted images, and the Lensbaby, which does very selective focus if it is in focus at all after squeezing and tilting the bellows. I was messing around with gimmicks, but feeling nothing inspired in my images. Most of our group ended up lying on a stone wall in the sun, just enjoying the improved weather in France.

In Leah’s mobile studio, she had several examples of her work laid out on the tables. They were so beautiful, so full of soul, that I could barely look at them. I understood a lot about Leah from those books. I forget the exact story she gave us, but I remember she said how much she liked to work with her hands and get dirty. I used to love that too. Where had I buried that part of myself? Why did I abandon that desire to fingerpaint and make a mess? Leah had turned that into a business, no, two businesses: Bliss Books and Waxworks.

I was falling in love with these amazing women I was meeting through Elizabeth Messina. They were all so damn authentic, and I couldn’t believe how they were really following their passion. I had done that off and on over the years. I became a wedding photographer out of that kind of love and passion. Twenty years later, I was only feeling it from time to time, always while traveling, and mainly at weddings where couples were truly, madly, deeply in love (which is not every wedding, if you ask me) In the name of having a business, I was losing some of my passion. In the name of giving my clients what they wanted, I was forgetting to create what I wanted. Only when you are older, do you truly realize that life is not getting any longer. The Nike slogan, "Just do it" still resonates with me because it is so simple and free, yet complex and heavy all at once. I told Leah I had always wanted to go to Yale for an MFA. Guess what she said?

It turns out, Leah teaches encaustic painting at her studio in Philadelphia. I could have read a lot about her on the internet before I went to France, but I’m glad I didn’t. She studied at the Art Institute in San Francisco, an enchanted place (I thought), that I regularly passed as a child on my way to the original Gap store on Chestnut and Columbus. How often have I passed by a wellspring of art on my way to buy clothing? I remember peering into the school’s courtyard through iron gates. I wanted to go in, but that place scared me. Art and clothing have always motivated me to dream, though too often the pursuit of clothing has blocked my impulses to be more creative. Too often, I find myself wearing the uniform, and hiding my feelings (my figure?) Not always, but too often. I kind of love the fact that I had all the wrong clothes in France. I had planned a perfect wardrobe of sunny dresses, only to change to more practical cold weather gear after reading the weather forcast. In the end, none of it mattered as much as I usually think it does.

Leah’s arms and chest are covered in tattoos. She wears a permanent dress of this particular design. I wish I had that level of commitment to a single design. I don’t. One day I love modern architecture, the next I want a vintage car. I love a clean and simple website design, and then I want to photograph decaying peonies in a stone niche and cover them with wax and oil paint. Leah made it all ok. Her thinking was so free. “Add and subtract, add and subtract. If you don’t like it, change it. You can always melt all the wax off the page and start again” she said. So I made a mess, didn’t care, used big brush strokes and gold paint and just went with my instincts. So what if it wasn’t the most beautiful painting ever? It was a lot of fun to do.

We were painting on photographs that Elizabeth had made around the chateau over the previous week. I loved the layering implied in this: a blend, a fusion, of three artists in one piece of work. The two of them were inspiring the artist in me. Perfect.

"My thinker"

We each chose a large and a small image….one color and one more monochrome/sepia. Of course I agonized over these choices. I was intrigued by the psychological component of the exercise. What did my choices say about me and my experience? As I look at it now, I think I chose the right photos for me. The larger one was the easier choice. I picked an image of a statue of a woman in a pose close to that of “The Thinker” by Rodin. This was a statue I knew well from my childhood. We even had a sort of mini version in our home. I was taking my ‘thinker’ and making a mess of her, thoughtlessly layering wax and paint over the woman frozen in thought, or possibly grief.

I am tempted to go on and on about Leah and what she was unlocking in me. Suffice it to say that she gave a little talk after dinner that night, and opened it with a slideshow of her work on her laptop (the small size did not do her work justice I am told by people who saw it large in an auditorium). During the show, she read the words that were part of the work, written across the images, but illegible at that small size.

From about the second slide, tears began rolling down my face. Midway through, I could barely see through the blur, but I was too embarrassed to try to wipe off my face….and for what purpose? She kept reading, the images of the 27 dresses continued, and the tears kept falling. I could barely breathe. Since I was in the front row, I figured no one would know.

But Leah did. After her talk, I had to go to the library and write. I tore a page from my journal to write a letter for Leah. In my 43 years, not a single piece of art has moved me like hers did, and I thought she should know. She said, “Of course it touched you, because you are a woman”.


She photographed one dress, over several years, worn by many different women, photographed by one true artist who was able to reveal all of life through her art, which had nothing and everything to do with the dress. When the project was done, she burned (cremated?) the dress. I hope she has the ashes in her studio somewhere. Leah taught me a simple, profound lesson about things I have always known, but have been hiding under beautiful dresses for years.

I just finished writing. Surprisingly, or not, the time is 10:23, also the day of my birth. Leah knows what this means to me.