A graduate of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town based artist Leigh Tuckniss started painting in 2009 and has seen her work go on to investigate themes of mortality, transition, dreams and the unrecognised moments in the busyness of life. Expanding her profile through a growing portfolio of solo and group exhibitions, her most recent exhibition “Limbo” continued her explorations into a place she calls “the space of nowhere”. We caught up with her to learn more about all her latest works, her process and her infatuation with identity.
Who is Leigh and what inspired you to become an artist?
The name Leigh means ‘dweller of the meadows’, funnily I feel it’s a pretty accurate description of myself and my creative process, I’m a private person whose often in her own world. Creativity started from early on, my parents tell me that I was a child who liked to play imaginary games in the garden for many hours. My mother although she is not herself an artist technically, was the instigator of all the creative explorations we went on. She was forever taking us on outings to see our natural world, I remember for a short while we didn’t have a car and my mom would walk with us to school, stopping to pick up treasures a long the way. Even when we were homeschooled at one point she gave up on our studies and took us to art museums, hiking in the forests, or for a swim in the sea. It was my mother that taught us (my sisters and myself) to not just look at the world around us, but to feel it, to breathe it, hold it, to encapsulate all its worth in a beautiful memory.
Growing up, we went to a unique school in Hout Bay where the individual was greatly encouraged to shine out, I don’t remember doing much school work instead I remember being taken on endless nature study walks, being cast into many school plays, I actually just remember singing and dancing and playing up until grade 7! The teachers there were incredibly creative and invested a lot of their own creative journeys into our education. I guess the artist inside was growing from when I was little, and it was greatly encouraged by those that loved me; I know how rare this is.
What led you to explore and experiment with ink in the manner in which you have?
I began painting with ink when I was in my third and fourth year at Michaelis School of Fine Art (2010). I was in a creative rut when I started using the medium, experimenting with it was my go-to when I was at a loss of conceptual thinking. Half the time all I knew was that I just wanted to paint, I didn’t know what it was but I just wanted to do it.
As a surprise my mother had bought me a couple of oil painting classes outside of university times, something to keep my spirits up, this was my turning point. Although the classes were extremely technical I found a freedom in them, which was inspiring. Our teacher was a very strict woman but I respected her appreciation for painting. She taught us to honour our tools, our approach and to find a deep spirituality in painting. And this I did. I fell in love with mark making, with brushstrokes, drips, and beautiful painterly mess.
The ink paintings flowed on further as a side project, simple process work for my bigger oils. However it was my fourth year lecturer, Virginia MacKenny, she encouraged me to pursue them more. I suppose she could see my freedom in them, the drips that fell, and the marks that moved. There was nothing precious about them as they were just process work at the time, experimentation was fun and easy, as I didn’t know where these small ink paintings were going. To me they were just expressions from my visual journal.
When looking at your approach to work, how important do you think being a storyteller is when you’re an artist?
Your point about me being a storyteller is quite an interesting one, I never really thought of myself being one. As out of us three girls growing up I was the last one to give commentary on an event that happened. Coming back from travelling it was always my older sister who could retell the stories and memories as they happened. I have never found it easy to use words to explain things. Therefore to answer your question, yes, being a story teller is very important to me, yet through images not words. I long to capture a moment, a story and a thought in one single expression. I want the viewer to feel the story I am telling, in his or her own words. I’ve wanted my work to connect with its audience the same way poetry does. This is my version of storytelling.
How important is drawing from minimalism in your work? Are there any art styles you draw inspiration from?
There is a lot to be seen in minimalist art, I suppose that’s why it’s around, sometimes less is more. I enjoy isolating images as it gives the viewer time to appreciate a movement or a subject that they might have, in another context, walked on by without noticing. But painterly wise, I have always adored works by Marlene Dumas, Francis Bacon, Kent Williams, and Cy Twombly, something about their painterly approach hypnotizes me
Looking at the style of most of your work, you appear to explore themes of losing control and relating to an almost heightened sense of freedom. Why are such elements so important to you as an artist?
Themes of losing control and freedom are what bubbles to the surface, as I don’t always set out with those in mind. I enjoy the feeling I get from particular happenings in life. My main objective when painting is to always pay homage to a moment that is fleeting or less important, a moment which often passes many of us by. The movement of a bird’s wings when landing, or a girl’s hair in water, the pleasantness of the sun-kissed fur of a lazy dog as it sleeps, the gait and a posture of an old woman walking down the road, and the curious sadness of a limp dead frog. I enjoy these moments, as it relates to how my mother taught us girls to always appreciate our world as it passes. It’s possibly my rebelliousness to the fast pace of modern life!
As someone working in the medium of painting, how do you think digital innovations will affect future painters and artists?
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, I should have chosen new-media as my major and not painting, as today’s world is so driven by technology it would have been very beneficial! The digital world is expanding so rapidly, opportunities are forever at our fingertips, and the artist of the future is going to be incredibly complex. However, with that being said I am so grateful for my ability to paint, because the tangibility and again spirituality of working with your hands is a huge blessing. It relates to the debate about the book versus reading online. I am a person who enjoys the feeling I get from the pages of a book, I like to pile my books high just as my grandpa did, I appreciate the art that went into making that book. As with painting, nothing beats that smell of oils, or the permanence of ink stains on the table, or the feeling of a fresh piece of paper. I am concerned that the future artists and painters will sacrifice a lot if they lose that beautiful tangibility. Technology in whatever form can remove one from the now, the present moment, you can always click ‘undo’ if you are not happy, but with painting it’s a very different approach. However again the positives of technology are that you can be a very eco- friendly digital artist!
What are you currently working on?
Currently I am working on some commissions; a couple of paintings and an album cover for musician Greg Abrahams. I love doing these, as I feel honoured when someone chooses me or my style to reflect an idea that they had. It’s a very warm feeling. I’m a bit stuck for a private studio, but our entire house is working out great in the meantime, my boyfriend is a musician so he is always encouraging the creative craziness! We are very blessed with a landlord who allows us to draw on the walls too.
Outside of working as an artist, how do you recharge and find some escapism from the art world?
Music! I am surrounded by it all the time and I am lucky enough to live with a musician, so music is a blessing for escapism. Other than that my surroundings, living in Muizenberg is amazing, if you’re stuck for creativity one can walk a block down and see an amazing world emerge. I love the ocean, being active, being in the library, or just spending time with my family and friends, these are all my ways to escape and re-energize.
Where can we find more from you?
You can find me on Facebook, or through the gallery The Studio Kalk Bay, you can also visit my personal website. I’m not very good at keeping up with my digital portals (this is an area I am working on), but sending me an email will definitely put you in contact with me.