Wednesday, Jun 26 2013 10:28 AM

Eye Gallery Chapter Eight: Betty Leonor a mistress of mood

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    Born in New York, Betty Leonor, of Dominican heritage, spent a lot of time overseas growing up in places as far-flung as Santo Domingo and Spain.

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    Betty Leonor's artwork for Eye Gallery.

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BY MATT MUNOZ Californian staff writer mmunoz@bakersfield.com

Our Eye Gallery story -- all shadows, mysterious figures and haunting music -- has been flirting with darkness from the beginning, but the saga has finally gone full-tilt noir, and Betty Leonor was just the artist to do it.

Conveying mood is a specialty of Leonor's, evident in all her work, and she uses that gift to give Chapter Eight of the ongoing narrative a sense of regret and loss. Using her trademark warm palette and sensual eye, the artist jump-starts the plot by offering detailed imagery and text where prior artists offered only hints.

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About Eye Gallery

The annual art series is a partnership between The Californian and the Bakersfield Museum of Art whose purpose is to put the work of local artists in the spotlight. This year we asked 10 artists to collaborate on a story, in words and pictures. Each was given 96 hours, a canvas and all the work that had been produced to that point. The story will unfold in Eye Street every Thursday through June 27, when the museum will host a reception for the artists and unveil other exhibitions.

CHAPTER EIGHT: A dark turn

And I won't. There is no coming back. You deceived me while living and you insist on haunting me now. I despise being a widow, but I do not miss being your wife.

I learned to live alone by living with you. So it would be perfect -- if you go chase them now. And stop this music. Your song is useless. Remember... we never danced.

Our protagonist is shown sitting on a bed, languidly smoking a cigarette as she studies newspaper clippings detailing the tragic end of a couple whose lives were a painful reminder of her own lost love. A wine bottle lies empty on the bed.

"Trying to find a backbone to the story was the challenge," said Leonor, who, like all the Eye Gallery artists, was given the opportunity to study the artwork and text up to her point in the series.

"So when I noticed that I needed to urgently create a solid base for the story, I gathered all the writing, avoided looking at any of the pictures, and came up with something less familiar and more concrete."

Her analytical approach to the project makes sense, given Leonor's field of study was business, not art.

"Discipline, focus and determination to grow are key elements. Maybe I was fortunate to have attended school for business and not art, or perhaps it all adds up the same. Not having an art training has been my biggest battle, but I do see more and more trained artists struggle with the business end of it."

Born in New York, Leonor -- of Dominican heritage -- spent a lot of time overseas growing up, in places as far-flung as Santo Domingo and Spain.

"I was not raised around art at all. I don't even recall knowing there was such a thing as being an artist. I knew of creative careers like designers, interior decorators, architects, musicians, writers, but to paint was in the hobby category, like crocheting or horseback riding. As a child, I thought I was just a heavy dreamer, inclined to draw, simply because I needed a place to put all my dreams."

Over the last several years the representations of her dreams have been displayed on the walls of galleries across the western United States, including her first exhibition in Las Vegas and several one-woman shows here in Bakersfield, where Leonor moved six years ago. She remembers selling her first painting in 1996, when she was a struggling single mother. The buyer, it turned out, was after more than her work.

"I sold it to a man that wanted a chance to take me to dinner. He thought it clever to use the excuse of wanting to see my work and buy a painting. I was a single mom, going to school and working two jobs to make ends meet. That sale paid that month's rent and I'll never forget the joy and relief."

While she never obliged the man's offer for dinner, she did continue to paint and 12 years later found herself taking the plunge to become a full-time artist. During her first exhibition in 2008, a respected mentor advised Leonor that she needed formal training, forcing the artist back to the drawing board.

"After being offended and in total denial for a little over a week, I went and did what he said, but my way. I bought every drawing book on the market and even read most. But I began faithfully drawing night and day. Today, five years later, I do know what he meant, and consider it one of the best pieces of advice ever given to me."

Explain process/technique on this piece:

A good portion of the time was spent collecting the images that would make the background. I had to find newspaper clippings of a band, a crash, a good image of a woman that was the opposite from the one telling the story on the bed and different photos of the same man. Once found, I combined, edited, and sized everything with Photoshop into one background piece. This background was printed in archival digital paper and adhered with acrylic medium to the primed wood. I glazed the background several times and let it dry. Then came the painting part -- I designed the room with different complementary light hues and gave it textures using different acrylic mediums and a palette knife. The woman in the bed, lamp, and the remaining the items were all painted traditional-style with a brush. I painted a mustache on all the images of the man. Those images were actually of the actor Gary Cooper.

When did you know art was your passion?

There was no epiphany. Painting was always there for me when nothing else was. Like a best friend who readily listens quietly without judgments. Very intimate and personal. It never occurred to me to live without it and I didn't begin painting for the sake of art; I began for the sake of me. So while some people paid a shrink, I just bought more canvas.

What kind of art speaks to you?

I have the most respect for realism. It isn't easy and you get no breaks. I am blown away by paintings that clearly show me the artist's eye and how they can highlight subtly their subject, capture a mood and/or masterfully place brush strokes that seem effortless.

What does your art say about you?

Although I use my own life and personal experience as reference, it is the universal emotion that I try to capture and frame. I love when I hear someone say, "Oh my God! That can be me, I've been there," or "That's exactly how I feel." I know then I have accomplished my goal.

Beyond art, what else are you passionate about?

I enjoy designing my own clothes and making them. Cooking my signature gourmet fusions is now a regular event in my home. Traveling to foreign countries has always been fascinating. Love books, so reading is on the list

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