In the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 lockdowns began, Heidi Leitzke and her 11-year-old son, Henry, were at the Mount Pisgah Overlook at Samuel Lewis State Park in York sketching landscapes of bridges spanning the Susquehanna River. .
The symbolic power of the scene, one that Leitzke had studied and incorporated into his work for about 10 years, suddenly struck him with a new meaning.
“A bridge’s job is literally to get you from one side to the other,” says Leitzke, assistant professor of art and director of the Eckert Gallery at Millersville University. “I felt like we were going to pull through. There are bridges. There is a way forward. Just having this symbol from the start of the pandemic to reflect on and work with in the months to come has become very meaningful to me – as a physical thing to do, but also metaphorically.
Taking the familiar and giving it new and fresh meaning is the challenge of any artist – especially landscape painters. Leitzke accomplishes this successfully with his series of 25 familiar scenes from Lancaster County – and beyond – in his latest exhibition “A Bridge Across, A Path Across” currently on display at Elizabethtown College’s Hess Gallery until December 10. .
“It’s really beautiful work and I think what’s intriguing and really interesting about this work is the way Heidi takes us on her journey through Lancaster County,” says art teacher Milt Friedly and Director of Art Galleries at Elizabethtown College. “I think what I see in Heidi’s work is this combination of reality, observation, fantasy and imagination.”
A bridge across
The place is extremely important for the work in “a crossing bridge, a way across”. Some of the locations featured in the exhibit include the Susquehanna River, Mount Gretna, the idyllic winding roads of Lancaster County, breezy beach scenes from Delaware, and memories of Leitzke’s life growing up in the Midwest. Its atmospheric Susquehanna River scenes are instantly recognizable, yet feel imbued with a sense of hopeful wonder. They seem to breathe with a life of their own.
“It’s almost like amplifying or intensifying what I see and that’s kind of where the sense of wonder or the imaginative qualities come in,” says Leitzke, 42, of Lancaster. “I try to do something that resembles how I feel about this place.”
His approach – and the use of various surfaces and mediums, including gouache, oil and acrylic paint, ink and thread – add new dimensions of feeling to these familiar scenes of a way which, say a photorealistic landscape painting, might not be able to accomplish. There is an ethereal sense of magic swirling around Leitzke’s work. The images of Leitzke’s recent works act as a bridge between reality and the fantastic realm of the artist’s imagination.
A way through
The scenes of “a crossing bridge, a crossing path” are particularly poignant now as the world tries to see a path to a future beyond the pandemic and faces the perils of climate change. The sense that we live in two worlds simultaneously – one familiar and one that has been radically changed – manifests in Leitzke’s work.
The tranquility of the natural world was on Leitzke’s mind during the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, our family really enjoyed the hiking trails maintained by the Lancaster Conservancy and we went through the list of all the reserves and explored new hikes,” says Leitzke. “It’s something we were doing while I was doing this job, and the kind of comfort and renewal that I personally feel when I’m out is definitely in there.”
Mount Gretna has become an important place featured in “a crossing bridge, a crossing path”. Leitzke and her husband, Jay Noble — the director of the Mount Gretna School of Art — and their son Henry, have spent a significant portion each summer since 2013 living in the woodsy borough steeped in a rich artistic tradition.
“It feels like a very magical place,” says Leitzke. “It feels like walking through this wooded wonderland and the more time we spent there the more I started to feel that it was a really special place in general, but also for us as a family.”
Leitzke says the play of dappled light passing through the trees, the shadows of the ferns on the winding paths and other unique forms of Mount Gretna’s dense landscape inspired her to make a series of black and white ink drawings. . The drawings helped her chart a new course in her work.
“By nature, I’m drawn to a lot of colors,” says Leitzke. “Color is usually one of the main visual strengths in my works. So by removing color I was able to focus more on formal qualities and try to really force myself to build a structure based on value rather than , say, a hot-cold color relationship, so it was kind of an exercise in getting out of my comfort zone.
Leitzke says looking at the isometric perspective and calligraphic brushstrokes of traditional Chinese landscape paintings helped her find a new path with her own work.
“I call it a stacked space. It feels like everything is sitting on top of each other as it moves across the picture plane,” says Leitzke. “A lot of artists will look at the work of other artists to build their visual vocabulary, so I was thinking of these Chinese landscape paintings.”
Son to the past
Another paradox in Leitzke’s work is the way the landscape is both universal and also extremely personal. Some of the works reference Leitzke’s childhood in the Midwest in terms of landscape and medium – particularly his use of thread on linen.
“I grew up in the Midwest in a family of makers,” says Leitzke. “My mum did a lot of sewing and we learned crafts and my dad was a woodworker. If you couldn’t afford the beautiful thing, you just figured out how to make it yourself. So, it has always been a manual production.
Leitzke’s use of yarn to create landscapes occurred out of experimentation and convenience. They say necessity is the mother of invention. In Leitzke’s case, the idiom is more literal. When Leitzke became a mother 11 years ago, it led to some needed innovations in her work.
“I did oil paintings and works on paper until my son was born, but it’s hard to take care of a baby who’s just woken up from a nap when you’re covered in oil paint,” says Leitzke. “Returning to that cherished format of hand embroidery, the basics of which I had learned as a child, I found this way of creating a clean and wearable painterly image. It was truly perfect for this time in my life. life and it became something that felt even more like my own voice than the paintings I had done before.
Some recognition for some early yarn work in the form of an honorable mention from art critic Jerry Saltz let her know she was on the right track.
“You can bundle the thread and make it really messy or sew with just one or two delicate threads, so I like this range too,” says Leitzke. I found a vocabulary of brands that seems really pictorial and exciting.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO:
What: the exhibition “a crossing bridge, a crossing path” by Heidi Leitzke
Where: Hess Gallery in Zug Memorial Hall at Elizabethtown College, 1 Alpha Drive Elizabethtown, 17022
When: The exhibition now runs until December 10. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday. 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sat. and Sun. 1-5 p.m.
More info: Visit heidileitzke.com for more information.