“You can’t make art in a vacuum,” Leslie Gorder Rousseau began, explaining that the full breadth of her experiences informs her painting. After her undergraduate studies, Rousseau moved to New York, but got distracted from her art. “Life kind of gets in the way,” she said. “I went down some other roads.”
Years later, now in Alexandria with a husband and child, she took up the brush again. “I was scared it had left me somehow,” she admitted. “I was quite amazed to find that not only was it still there, but in a more intense form. My experience of life had broadened, and it really broadened my art. You can’t make art in a vacuum, so it all comes into it.”
For the past two years, Rousseau’s experience has been that of both student and teacher. She has been working towards her master’s degree “forever, I think,” she said, laughing. For the past four and a half years, she’s been enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University master’s program, while teaching at T.C. Williams High School and before that, John Adams Elementary School.
Rousseau, who works primarily in oil, says the program has “been a god-send to me.” It got her painting again.
“I stopped for a long time,” she admitted, saying that she focused on her family as well as her teaching. “It was really the VCU program that got me back to my own art.”
The program, created especially for teachers — many take a class for recertification without enrolling in the master’s program — is especially convenient for Rousseau, as the classes are held at T.C. Williams. “Teaching’s a pretty demanding profession. A lot of times teachers tend to put their own work on the back burner,” she explained. “I had always dabbled, but I only got back to my own work with this program.”
HER WORK, and how it has progressed during her time in the program, will be the focus of the Del Ray Artisan’s show this weekend. “From the Edge” is Rousseau’s thesis show, which supplements a shorter thesis paper for art students completing their master’s. The selection of paintings will be just that: a selection. “I tend to be a fairly prolific artist,” Rousseau said, which means she and her advisor from VCU, Kurt Godwin, had to confer and pick only about 30 paintings to display at the Del Ray Artisans Gallery, of which she is a member. “I’m trying to show my aesthetic and the progression from the beginning through to the end of the program,” Rousseau said. “My personal desire is to show something representative.”
And representative is perhaps one of the best words for it. Rousseau was asked the question many artists find the toughest: to describe her work.
“I am primarily an abstract painter, and I work with issues of space,” she said. “I’m very interested in our relationship to space and to each other and how we use, how we divide space.”
An example: “We build houses for ourselves to envelop us in a space and to separate us from one another, but we put windows in the houses to connect us,” she explained. “I’m interested in the ambiguity of space and our relationships — and the ambivalence.”
A variety of shapes and “tenuous structures” are some of the tools Rousseau uses to explore this connection and separation within relationships.
“There are a lot of planes, shifting planes, collapsing planes,” she said, in addition to the more organic forms she has added to her recent paintings.
But the real key to her work? “I’m a color freak,” she said. “I use color to kind of bend the space and make it a little unstable.”
Part of the instability is due to the pigments themselves: Rousseau uses “invented, found colors” she creates by mixing oils.
“I tend to like unexpected color and color combinations.”
FOR SUCH A MODERN APPROACH to art, Rousseau draws her influences from known names: Paul Cezanne, Edouard Manet and Richard Diebenkorn. “Cezanne and Manet are my absolute heroes, but Diebenkorn — there are things I took from seeing his work,” she said. In fact, one of the references from the show’s title, “From the Edge,” comes from Diebenkorn’s influence.
“For me [the title] has a lot of reference points,” Rousseau said. “One is as an undergrad I was very interested in the work of Richard Diebenkorn. His work deals a lot with actual edges, physical edges, creating a history,” so in Rousseau’s work, “part of it is the actual painting of edges.” The other facet of the title refers to the separation and connection idea Rousseau works with — and, as it turns out, feels. She spoke briefly about how people in general seem unable to understand art, especially abstract art, and said that this drives a wedge between artists and their audience. “For me the edge is a reference to that too … trying to connect but feeling separate.”
For the most part, however, Rousseau finds art much more of a uniting factor. “In one sense art has always been how I have connected to my world,” Rousseau said. “I don’t think I chose it, I think it chose me … I think it was just always part of me. It’s not really what I do, it’s who I am.”