Leigh Ann Culver: From Cave To Canvas

When looking at art it’s easy to consider the evolution of creative expression. There are various forms, techniques, and periods. However, like most artistry, they are all influenced by one another. Subjective art has the ability to elicit emotions no matter if it is positively or negatively perceived. Many art traditions evolve and grow while still remaining as a medium among present-day creatives. This is applicable to the work of Georgia artist, Leigh Ann Culver, who has more than a decade of experience in creating distinctive pieces of art.

On her personal Tumblr page, Culver describes herself as an “unknown, closeted, gallery reject artist from Marietta GA.” A quick stroll through the artist’s Instagram profile relays how comfortable and at home she truly appears to be in her studio. Most often these spaces provide a certain level of relaxation, and an atmosphere that is conducive to creativity. However, Culver doesn’t need to divulge much information because it is conveyed through the emotionality of her work. Culver identifies that some of her biggest inspirations come from the media she consumes. “I love capturing eccentric characters to whom I can relate to,” says Culver. Earlier in Culver’s career, she mainly used oil canvas painting as her main mode of expression. She is, however, skilled in other areas such as watercolor and acrylic charcoal. Presently most of Culver’s showcased works are charcoal drawings.

One of Culver’s most poignant pieces is the drawing entitled “Blue Petals.” This magnificent work depicts a middle-aged working-class black woman who is sitting down as she is showered in blue flower petals, with a murder of crows flying overhead. Her head is wrapped in a tightly knotted turban that makes her appear bald. Her dress resembles that of a middle-class Victorian woman. Her hands are lightly clasped in her lap and have the appearance of a person that has endured hard labor all their life. There are exactly six crows located above the woman’s head which naturally draws more attention to her face. Crows are often viewed as prophetic and six typically symbolizes an omen of death. The woman averts her eyes looking downward with her mouth slightly agape. Her expression feels knowing and calm yet brimming with sadness. It’s as if she was captured in the middle of deep contemplation.

When looking at her eyes more closely they reflect this eternal turmoil that seems to be taking place below the surface. As an observer, Culver instills life into this work and creates this interesting implication of motion. I can hear the squawking of the crows and imagine a light breeze as the flower petals descend around her. It’s almost like you want to reach out, press play, and watch the scene develop in front of you. I want to know more about the subject, her life, and state of mind. Often with any type of art, we project our own experiences onto works because they resonate with some part of us. I found myself paying attention to the eyes and vantage point of the subject. I wanted to follow the gaze of this woman to determine where she’s looking and what her facial expression means? The overall painting is shaded darkly with some areas of light depicted around the subject’s face and right side of her body. While other areas cast shadows your eyes are immediately drawn to the flower petals which are the only vibrant sources of color within the piece. “Blue Petals” is a breathtaking work of art that is quite nuanced in its depiction, resonating with each of my senses.

Charcoal art has a long history that predates modern civilizations. Charcoal was prevalent in primitive cave art created by early humans. It is believed that many of these markings were drawn using the charcoal created from burning sticks. During the Renaissance, charcoal was used to prepare paintings, fresco murals, and as a part of drawing studies. However, some artists of the time used charcoal by itself to create extraordinary pieces of art. Charcoal provides a certain versatility in terms of texture, shading, and producing soft or strong lines. In order to protect charcoal works, a fixative must be applied to better preserve and prevent an illustration from smudging. This vulnerability could explain why so many artists initially only used it as a preparational tool. While charcoal drawings were previously viewed as part of the preliminary sketching done before painting a piece, it has developed into its own unique medium.

“Gola” is another piece by Culver that immediately caught my attention. On her site Culver writes that the work was inspired by the North Carolina portion of the Smoky Mountains. The subject appears to be the floating head of a Native American woman that is surrounded by trees in a forest covered in snow. Her head is elongated, as the top portion of her hair appears violently stretched with the remaining hanging bottom pieces morphing into trees. This woman is intrinsically a part of the environment a choice that feels symbolic of the connection that many native people feel towards this land. A horizontal strip of red paint is covering the woman’s eyes. While red is a typical color of face paint in various tribes the use here feels symbolic of some sort of intense pain. Her eyes resemble that of a person that has recently finished crying and her face looks tense — stoic even. Unlike the woman depicted in “Blue Petals”, the subject of “Gola” stares directly at the viewer. Similarly, in real life when someone gazes directly into your eyes it can often be unsettling or off-putting. When the subjects of art are human there is often a personification of the work by the viewer. The woman depicted in this drawing seems just as real as any person I know. The gaze of this individual invokes a feeling of being bare and vulnerable to her seemingly omniscient sight. When initially looking at the piece it felt as if she somehow delved deep below the surface and saw some sort of identifiable quality within me. The beauty of this painting is knowing that another observer may not feel exactly how I did, but will have an interaction with the work that is tailored to their own personal experience.

It’s apparent that enormous amounts of practice and dedication must have gone into Culver’s work to achieve such results. Culver creates these strong compositions that are amazingly hyper-realistic. Her art is very reminiscent of portrait photography because of the way she cultivates the observer’s interest in her subjects. In the hands of a skilled artist such as Leigh Ann Culver charcoal is capable of creating works that subtly produce enormous amounts of detail while simultaneously invoking a great deal of emotion within viewers. A charcoal artist possesses the ability to create gradation by utilizing their fingers to apply varying amounts of pressure. A simple turn of the hand or rotation of the wrist can create a whole new kind of stroke within a work. Charcoal art has provided a means to draw with a certain level of freedom in capturing the personality, gestures, and feelings of its subjects. As one of the world’s longest surviving artistic mediums, charcoal art has continued on beyond its prehistoric origins, the Renaissance, and various other periods remaining a staple in modern 21st-century art.

-Tasha Hayes