Clare Leighton is everyman's artist, an idealist, a naturalist, and a champion of manual labor. Those are a few reasons you've never heard of her.
In an age where logo trumps name, personality supplants character, and idol worship rules the common man, the soft spoken message of hard work, the value of manual labor and the joys of rural living is lost in the bellicose wind. Particularly if that message is 70 years old and whispers in black and white.
Leighton calls to us from her show Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand: The Graphic Work of Clare Leighton at the Mint Museum of Art. These incomparable black and white woodblock prints record the childhood and adolescence of a big slice of America's Greatest Generation. The years between the two world wars are Leighton's canvas. She carved tributes to people forged in the cauldron of hard times, hard work and meager returns. These men and women ended each day with spent bodies and grateful hearts. And without a TV!
The spirit and hand of Clare Leighton are attributes American Art largely abandoned in the post-war years with the stormy arrival of Jackson Pollack, Abstract Expressionism, and the New American Art. The realists of the preceding years were rendered quaint and dated. For artists entering the second half of the 20th century, the years between the Great Depression and World War II were enough realism for a lifetime, and a blank white canvas, a new age, a new direction beckoned. Leighton's work, greatly admired and sought after by book publishers in her own time, faded behind the face of new American Art. With the help of The Mint Museum, and collector Gabby Pratt, Leighton re-emerges.
Leighton created black and white prints from wood blocks, an ancient craft medium which paralleled her dominant subject matter: workers of the farm and field. She stuck to the black and white format, though sepia and watercolor paintings in this show testify to her great talent in handling color. The choice of that medium is in keeping with those she praised without glorifying. She kept her presentation plain and simple, without adornment, gracefully, and with precision.
"Calf Auction," 1924, is stark and graphic, a study in black and white and the finite subtle world in between. The artist's grays bring silhouettes into full bodies, lend features to faces, and bring texture and depth to wood and stone and earth. In "Calf Auction," the auctioneer stands head and shoulders above a gaggle of milling farmers, beyond the low overhand of a post and beam stable. His dark figure is cut from the white sky and framed by the stable roof and milling men. The print is dynamic and finely wrought, though the men, and this outtake from the lives of men from early century England, are not. With a sure hand and eye for composition, Leighton demands attention to the seemingly non-noteworthy event; her allegiance to these men, and their ilk throughout all her work, is echoed with each push of the carving tool through the wood block.
"Treading Grapes" and "The Grape Harvest," both from 1928, are renderings of women in head shawls and men in denim vests and rolled up sleeves. Women carry grapes in homemade baskets and dump the grapes in homemade barrels. The men do a little dance in half barrels, mashing grapes with their feet. Wooden barrels and woven baskets, steel wheels on wooden carts, straw hats, cedar shakes on a pole shed roof, countless grapes and a hilltop village in the distance are all rendered with a baffling exactitude. Wood blocks are not amenable to such detail. Beyond her technical facility, Leighton's hand conveys a grace which acknowledges the mute insoluble integrity of these anonymous workers.
The sense of the work of the harvest, though it was inarguably strenuous and tedious, is conveyed as routine and acceptable; heads bow to their work, in poses not cowed, but attendant and determined. The nature of work -- what it is like moment to moment, and day after day -- is a commentary which runs through all of Leighton's work. The manual labor which the artist portrays is not conveyed as odious.
In the excellent catalogue for Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand, essayist Caroline Hickman points out that "Leighton's images of 'heroic labor' not only preserve the practices and rituals of rural life, but also illustrate her belief that the true source for health and sanity lay in 'the heart of the laboring man.'" She goes on to quote Leighton's admonition to preserve the countryside, written 70 years ago:
"At no time has this been more needed, and at no time have we stood a greater chance of losing it. For with the modern rush of consciousness about the country we may destroy the thing we love. A sentimentalized, self-conscious countryside, fixed for the sightseer, would have lost all that made it desirable."
Sounds like petting farms and tree museums.
"It is the worker on the earth who matters -- the blacksmith at this anvil, the shepherd, the feller of trees."
Leighton's earthy laborers don't live in an absurd world. Sisyphus is not in these fields and factories, in the barnyards and sawmills and forests, scything wheat, pulling corn and picking cotton. Suffering here is imbued with meaning, the load is lightened with the implied understanding that the struggle yields more than merely another day of struggle. The struggle yields life, sustenance. Leighton weaves a tale of workers' lives as admirable, even enviable.
In the mid 1920's, Leighton traveled to France, Italy and Eastern Europe. What she painted there is the only color in this show. The paintings are excellent and make me wonder why she was so devoted to the restrictive black and white medium of wood block.
The painting "The Gossips (Two Women on Steps)" casts light on stucco and cuts shadows across leaning walls and stone steps. This picture tells the short story of two women in bonnets and long peasant dresses gossiping long and lazy under the afternoon sun. Leighton's draftsmanship appears effortlessly graceful. The thickness of doorway and window openings, the lone tree punching through a stone patio and pushing the adjacent low wall catawampus, create the welcoming and organic feel of place. She brings you to the places she's been.
In 1931, Leighton visited a Canadian lumber camp for a week. These prints -- titled "Limbing," "Cutting" and "Loading" -- show French Canadians fiercely laboring under and over massive standing trees using axes and hand-pull saws. They are the most riveting pictures in the show. What stands out as extraordinary is the all-encompassing white snow enveloping everything -- the log cabins, the standing and felled trees, the laboring men. These prints are as close to abstract as the artist gets, with her rhythmic use of vertical tree lines, repeated patterns and loping flows of hillsides and mountains in the background.
Leighton was a member of Duke University's art department from 1943 to 1945. She traveled the state from mountain to coast, recording her impressions of various labors -- corn husking, dragging nets and cotton picking, among others. She also recorded mountain moonshining and a river baptizing in her travels.
These pieces depicting North Carolinians, along with many other works by Clare Leighton, were donated to the Mint Museum by Gabby Pratt. The Museum has been greatly enriched by Pratt's acquisitive mission, as have we.
(The exhibit Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand: The Graphic Work of Clare Leighton, runs through Sept. 14 at The Mint Museum of Art, 2730 Randolph Rd. For more information, call 704-337-2000 or go to www.mintmuseum.org.)
For extensive Performing Arts coverage by Perry Tannenbaum, including reviews of Spoleto productions, go to www.charlotte.creativeloafing.com.