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Where the Heart Is

Silver City artist Patty Clayton Leff paints—and collects—a visual record of people and places she has loved.

By Donna Clayton Lawder

To walk through Patty Clayton Leff's home is to meet her present and her past, to march headlong into the midst of her deepest passions, both creative and human. Her house holds a small gallery's worth of work—rooms and a hallway bedecked with art, some framed and sitting on the floor, propped up against the walls—almost an equal share between her own and that of her artist friends.

Patty Clayton Leff, with one of her late husband Lenny's sculptures and her own work hanging on the wall behind her.

This month, Clayton Leff's work also adorns the cover of this issue of Desert Exposure and the commemorative poster for the annual Silver City Blues Festival, May 25-27. (See complete Blues Fest schedule in this issue's "40 Days and 40 Nights" events calendar.)

"I was always happiest when I was creating something," she says. "From a little girl, it's how I worked things out, how I made sense of things."

Growing up on Rhode Island, Clayton Leff attended Brown University, where she was influenced by the work of American abstract painter Arthur Dove, as well as Emil Nolde and other German expressionists.

"But it wasn't until New York, really, that I developed the desire to create fine art," she says. She lived in New York for some 20 years, from 1974, where she studied privately with Carl Molno.

"Carl was very influential," she says. "He taught me a lot about simplifying shapes."

Her late husband, Lenny, was another important influence. "Lenny saw art as a calling. He was very serious about it," she says. "We even fought about art. He didn't think I was serious enough!" she adds with a laugh.

In a new phase with her work and life, Clayton Leff and her husband were ready for a change of scenery and moved to Silver City 13 years ago. She recalls, "Lenny and I were looking throughout the Southwest. We looked at Santa Fe, but it was too phony."

Then they heard about Silver City from two of their longtime New York friends, Ann Simonsen and Jeff Turner, now both Silver City artists. "Well, Jeff and Ann were here, so we knew them right off, and then we started meeting all these other wonderful artists, all the wonderful people in this town, and we just knew it was the place for us." She pauses, then shakes her head and smiles at the memory. "Lenny loved it here. I'm so glad he had this at the end of his life."

The two bought the Broadway Bistro, near the intersection of Broadway and Bullard Street in Silver City's downtown, and turned it into a gallery with studio.

"We owned that for six years," she says. "It's now the Twisted Vine."

 

Though she largely painted with watercolors and oils before coming to Silver City, Clayton Leff has mostly done monoprints and mixed-media works since. She credits that change to the influence of classes she took at Western New Mexico University and the encouragement of artist Dorothy McCray.

"The printmaking class changed everything for me. I'm very tactile," she explains, "and I just took right to it."

In fact, Clayton Leff has just completed making a run of prints—the commemorative print for this year's Silver City Blues Festival—on the press that sits in the middle of her studio. The Mimbres Region Arts Council will sell these 10 original prints for $100 each as a fundraiser. As with each artist so honored, her time and talent to create the limited edition print are donated.

"Sometimes I don't even know what the subjects will be," Clayton Leff says of her creative process. "Lately it's been fish and birds. I also love abstracts, just making shapes and colors work." That's part of the reason she admires her friend Ann Simonsen's work, she adds.

And though she loves creating art—in fact, she couldn't imagine her life without it—she isn't always sure that she, well likes it once she's done.

"It's all about the process for me. I'm working things out in my work," she says. "Once I finish something, it takes me about six months to see how I even feel about it."

She points out one of her own pieces, a monoprint sitting on the floor, propped up against a table in her studio. It's entitled "Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe." In the simple composition, the long, thin line of a train runs completely across the horizon, its row of small, dark, rectangular windows somewhat resembling the perforated edge of a piece of movie film. The train fills the work from one edge of the print to the other, its silver-gray body against the dark mountains behind it becoming the dividing line of the horizon itself. It separates the sand-colored desert foreground from the mountain range, which is framed by a moody, piercing blue sky. A wedge-tailed bird, perhaps a raven, swoops down from the upper left corner.

"I named it that, but it's really the train going to Deming. This sounds better," she says with a laugh.

Next to the "Atchison" piece is a work called "Barbados." The center, nearly representational image, is a sea turtle, swimming in a deep green sea. Small groups of more fanciful, abstract fish, in yellow, blue and red, swim around the turtle. Wisps of seaweed collect at the bottom and float in the foreground.

"That was two or three years ago," Clayton Leff explains. "Ann Simonsen's daughter got married in Barbados, and I got to swim with the turtles. I was very pleased to attend that wedding!"

The piece is mixed media, and she points out that one of the bulbous, slightly cartoon-like fish is actually a piece of paper that was added onto the work, as is some of the brown seaweed at the bottom of the deep.

 

In the next room are more of her own works, along with some sculptures by her late husband Lenny. One of his works, a dark-brown, carved wooden piece, sits on a pedestal. Above it hangs one of Clayton Leff's prints, "Remembrance"—a combination of her and her husband's work, actually. The center image, she explains, is one of his few linocut prints; he'd started doing linocuts near the end of his life. Clayton Leff worked around the image, using it as the focal point. "I call it 'Remembrance' because it's a remembrance of Lenny," she says.

She gestures toward another of Lenny's sculptures, this one of light-gray carved stone. Its abstract form invokes the thought of a woman curled up on the floor, her round sensuous bottom, as it would be, facing up toward the viewer. Clayton Leff runs her hand over the smooth surface and remembers how much she'd wanted to buy the sculpture when she first saw it—at the very beginning of their acquaintance—but couldn't afford the piece.

"But I wound up with it anyway," she says, laughing, "because I wound up with him!" Her mischievous eyes and smile show her wonder at the outworking of life, love and art.

She walks through the living room and points out a painting made for her by Silver City artist Diana Ingalls-Leyba. Three women—Clayton Leff, her mother and her daughter—are portrayed in what appear to be some sort of joined stone archways, like Grecian temples, perhaps. Stepping out in front of the fourth structure is a little girl, Clayton Leff's first granddaughter.

"Oh, I'm a collector," she says, advancing to another room. "I love collecting my friends." She has a print of Silver City artist Lois Duffy's painting "Four o'clock at A.I.R.," the well-known piece depicting a popular downtown coffeehouse. Another work by Duffy, a large painting hanging over a bed in a spare room, depicts Clayton Leff's hands with those of her granddaughter Hadley. "That's very special to me," she says. "I have unusual hands, very unique, and so, it is uniquely 'us' when I see it."

Family is keenly important to Clayton Leff. When talking about the art awards she's won in several juried shows, including the Hecksher Museum show on Long Island, she pulls out a photo of her "two gorgeous granddaughters."

"My son presented me with these awards!" she quips with a broad smile. Her three grown children, and the precious grandchildren, all live in New York. "I get to visit them about four times a year."

She continues down the hallway, pointing out prints she's done of musical instruments and jazz singers, a series of works that celebrates the musical arts. Two relatively dark, simple pieces with mystical Native American-inspired images, entitled "Shields" and "Sentry," are propped up against the wall. She mentions that the added objects in the mixed-media piece, "Shields," are porcupine quills. She gathered them on one of the Simonsen-led art trips to Italy—a wonderful trip, she recalls. Again, the cherished memory of a life experience with a friend is woven into her work.

She leads the way down into a living room. A large painting on one wall, "Reflections on Providence," shows a dramatic cityscape of Providence, RI, a skyscraper prominent on the horizon. Dark and dramatic, the piece seems to capture the city in a bygone time, and in fact, Clayton Leff says she painted the piece based on her time of living in the city as a young woman.

"That's the Industrial Bank Building. I worked there," she says. "You should have seen me in my black hat and my Chesterfield coat!" She adopts the vivacious carriage of a confident young woman, flitting about the city in her best suit, thumbs thrust into imaginary lapels, head thrown back. She says she walked around that city like she was "hot stuff"—or words to that effect.

She leads the way back to her studio, chatting animatedly about her friends, her work and Lenny, the love of her life. In the artworks she's collected throughout her home, her own and those of others, Clayton Leff enjoys not only beauty, but memories—a record of the marks left upon her by an experience, by a trip, by one love or another.

They also serve as a roadmap of her own journey, so far, through her life as an artist.

 

Patty Clayton Leff's work can be seen locally at Eklektikas Gallery, 104 W. Yankie Street in Silver City, 538-8081.

 

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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