Urbana artist paints ‘skyscapes’

URBANA — From habit, we call them landscapes.

In truth, the wheat fields, corn fields and pastures, the churches, barns and railroad crossings, the school buses, largely empty roads and grain bins, make mostly cameo appearances in Leigh Ann Inskeep-Simpson’s paintings now on display at TeaBaggers Coffee, Wine and Tea on North Main Street.

Rendered from scenes she’s come across in the seven miles between Urbana and her home near St. Paris, the pieces are more aptly called skyscapes and are part of a series of paintings she’s been working on for half a dozen years.

The series represents something of a return to the easel for the artist, who was born in Urbana and for the past 10 years has taught art, art history and photography at Urbana High School. She took that job over from her late husband, Mike Simpson, beloved by generations of students and for his renderings of some of Urbana’s most interesting historic buildings.

Inskeep-Simpson’s time away from painting was necessitated when their first son, Burr, was born two months prematurely, spent six months in Dayton Children’s Hospital, was on oxygen for his first two years and endured 10 surgeries, major and minor, along with years of occupational and speech therapy.

They have two more children, son Leman, now 19 and a student at the College of Wooster, and daughter Bryn, 16.

The artist’s skyscapes series (my name for it) started on the way back from a visit Inskeep-Simpson, now 50, paid to her Otterbein art professor Joanne Stichweh. (Inskeep-Simpson went on to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts in painting from Miami University.)

Something about the sky that day struck her, she took a picture, and she began painting.

She and her husband had added a naturally-lit studio to the home, and with all in place, her artist’s eye pointed upwards.

As she put it: “I’d go out and say, ‘Oh, it’s a great cloud day. I’ve got to take pictures.”

For every, perhaps, 1,000 pictures she takes – overtaxing her phone’s memory on the way — she’ll pick out one or two.

“There’s something about the photo I like, whether it’s the color or a man-made thing in there, or it could be the farm or roads.”

She prefers acrylics, for their quick drying qualities, the opportunity to paint over faulty spots, the easy clean-up and an aversion for the smell of turpentine.

She prefers pre-made board over canvas largely for practical reasons: “I can prime them and go.”

In addition, she said, the boards’ smoothness means “I’m not fighting the canvas” and its texture at every brush stroke.

Inskeep-Simpson starts each painting with the sky, applying lighter blues in the foreground and darker cerulean and cobalt blues in the distance.

She often mixes in orange, blue’s complementary color, to manage the changing intensities of blue.

“Then I’ll start building layers” of clouds, she said, something that requires a quality that can’t be found in a paint jar: patience.

After adding only a smidgen of paint in dry brushing, it’s important “to let it dry and build. I do think of things in layers building toward us …. The very last part is white, straight out of the jar.”

Predictably, most of the paintings are horizontal, though only occasionally dramatically so. Some are square-ish. An outlier is radically vertical “Yesterday’s Clouds,” 1 foot wide and 3 feet tall.

What’s extraordinary about her paintings, however, is how she takes the measure of mood and explores the emotional dimension of the sky.

In the upper portion of “Movement,” a dramatically deep blue plays backdrop to clouds that string out like white cotton candy taking form at a vendor’s cart at the Champaign County Fair. In “Hilltop Crossing,” it’s impossible for the viewer not to look for the shapes of animals in the clouds. “Milking Time” captures the peace and somehow the silence of a 6 a.m. sky, and “Rebecca’s Storm” shows the dark lines of an intense downpour streaking in distance in the slim horizontal space between low lying clouds and the earth.

Still, in an important way, Inskeep-Simpson’s skyscapes are grounded in the Champaign County countryside.

It’s not just that her trained eye sees “the interplay of organic and ever changing cloud formations contrasting with geometric forms of barns, silos and fields,” as her artist’s statement puts it.

Her artist’s heart is in the venture as well, as reflected in the regard and affection she has for her brother-in-law and so many others who work the land with such deep respect.

“You won’t find any weeds in his fields, and he’s going to mow around the edges,” she said. “We have a lot of really, really good farmers who take care of their fields for the long run,” fields in which her aesthetic sense took root.

Inskeep-Simpson’s favorite art quotation is from British landscape painter John Constable, who said the scenes he came upon in his carefree boyhood “made me a painter.”

Inskeep-Simpson also credits her childhood next-door-neighbor Linn Wilson for her interest in art. She said the slowly changing seasons and constantly changing skies constantly renew rural vistas, supplying “enough variety that I think I can keep the series going for quite a while yet.”

Of all the scenes she’s painted, the artist said, “The next one’s always my favorite.”

To view more of Inskeep-Simpson’s paintings go to http://www.leighanninskeep-simpson.com.

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