Dinosaurs in fancy tutus and top hats. An octopus walking dogs. The sheer thought of these is enough to bring a smile to your face or at least make you ponder.
These are just some of the whimsical, fun subjects of artist Leah Kiser’s oil paintings. She’s come to be known for her extraneous and joyful pieces that bring together the most unexpected animals, objects, colors and textures.
“As a painter, I take the tactile visual experiences that excite me and I use them to dream up enticing ideas that I’ve never seen before,” Leah said.
Leah was attracted to art at a young age, but it wasn’t until 2014 that she really decided to hone her focus and find her voice. She began illustrating a children’s book and once complete, she began looking for her next adventure. As life would have it, sometimes answers show up in the most unexpected places. In this case, it was the playful creativity of her daughter that sparked an idea that has since become a growing body of work for Leah.
Read more about Leah and what inspires her pieces.
What first sparked your interest in painting?
Making art has been a big part of my life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to make things and work to get better at it. I was shy and fearful of people, and I spent a lot of time by myself drawing and learning little lessons.
In college, I focused on sculpture and ceramics. Painting was a scary medium for me. I was intimidated by color. Eventually, I started using colored pencils and watercolor, and working out how to get the colors to do what I wanted. I had small children and really liked the children’s book illustrations by Don Wood (the Napping House and King Bidgood in the Bathtub). I wanted to do something fun and detailed like that, but on a larger scale and more fine art oriented.
My daughter had these dinosaur toys that I thought would be fun to draw, and then she dressed one in a Barbie tutu. I fell in love with the concept. I was really attracted to the figure of the vicious dinosaur and the airy graceful form of the tutu. I wanted to make them larger and bolder and full of character, and oil paint ended up being the right medium for that.
What is the most rewarding thing about your work?
When it strikes authentic emotions in people. When they laugh out loud or their eyes light up. They seem to feel the same sorts of emotions that I have when I think of the ideas––the feelings that inspired me to bring the image into existence. I struggle with words, so it is very nice to be able to share ideas and emotions with people by making paintings. Viewers get something enjoyable from it, and I do too.
What is the most challenging?
Deciding on my next subject and backgrounds.
Has your work evolved over the years?
Yes. Since beginning to paint in this style, my technical abilities have greatly improved. I’ve met other artists like Duffy Sheridan who’ve helped me tweak my technique in a more realistic direction, and I’ve gone to illustration conferences that have helped me tweak my compositions in an illustrative direction. I still have a lot to learn and explore on either side. I go back and forth between painting very realistically to painting more impressionistically. The way the image presents itself to me in my mind usually dictates how I will approach the painting and what medium or what level of detail I go for. I have a wide range of variables to play with and I gain a lot from exploring them and combining them in different unexpected ways.
How did you come up with your playful illustrative style?
I did more serious work in college and after, and it just didn’t feel right to me. It didn’t connect with people the way I wanted it to. When my kids were small, I worked as an academic counselor to online students. I helped them uncover their passion, and visualize what they wanted to do and it made me question my own future.
I thought long and hard about what I wanted to spend my time creating when I had the chance to do it again. I kept thinking of my favorite children’s book illustrations, but also about how I loved to observe reality and draw realistically. As a warm up to my future work, I started illustrating a children’s book that my brother wrote. I used pen and ink and watercolor washes, working on it every night after my kids went to bed.
After about a year and a half, I’d completed the whole thing and decided I was ready for a new subject. It was then that my daughter showed up with her dinosaur in a tutu. It made me laugh! I loved it and decided to explore the subject more. I started with small illustrations and quickly worked my way up to larger pieces with oil on canvas. The paintings connected with people in a wonderful way so I kept going in that direction.
When you’re not painting, how do you spend your time?
I’ve been helping develop a 501c3 organization called the Casa Grande Art Association. It brings artists and other creative people together to socialize and do volunteer projects. In 2019, I designed a steel and stained glass fence to go around the Casa Grande Art Museum. There was so much enthusiasm for the project that many volunteers helped bring it to fruition and revitalized the entire exterior of the museum. After several years, the work is finally done!
We also put together creative opportunities for the community like drawing groups and urban sketchers, and art viewing opportunities like the Studio Tours and art shows. In addition to that, I spend a lot of time with my family. Whether we are at home watching funny cat videos and playing board games, or out adventuring in our camper, we have a great time.
What drew you to the Celebration of Fine Art?
I have been going to weekend art fairs since I began focusing on my work professionally. In 2020, I participated in a three-month show in Scottsdale. It was a great experience to meet a different audience and be around so many talented working artists every day. I had more time to focus too. I wanted to try the Celebration of Fine Art to meet even more artists and patrons and continue to focus more on my work.