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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

The Weaver

Silver City artist Diana Ingalls Leyba blends together thread and paint, the sacred and the everyday, revealing the oneness of large and small.

By Donna Clayton

"Someone told me to leave out her stuff, her facial piercings," says artist Diana Ingalls Leyba, gesturing with an open hand over her own face.

Diana Ingalls Leyba
Artist Diana Ingalls Leyba in her Silver City gallery with
paintings from her "Wolf Spirit" series.
(Photo by Donna Clayton)

"I couldn't do it. It's part of the whole thing for me, that combination of the universal and the personal, the sacred and the everyday."

In her painting studio on Texas Street, Ingalls Leyba stands before a work-in-progress, just one of the half-dozen sizeable paintings stacked up against the walls, surrounded by drop cloths, paints and brushes. In the painting, framed by Ingalls Leyba's trademark motif of multi-colored squares, the subject wears nun-like garb and serenely holds a bouquet of lilies. The gold filigree behind her plus the woman's eyes cast demurely heavenward invoke the mood of an ancient religious icon. But her gold nose ring and the pointed studs at the ends of her pious smile identify the unmistakably modern face of the clerk who works in Ingalls Leyba's gallery and art supply store, Leyba and Ingalls Arts on Bullard Street.

"I mean, this is Tasha," Ingalls Leyba says, a finger grazing thoughtfully, sensitively, over her painted subject's facial jewelry. "It's part of who she is, and I think that adds so much to the image to include all that. It turns your first impression of this old-feeling, iconic image on its head, you know?"

Layers — stylistic, thematic, literal and metaphoric — are the undercurrent of Ingalls Leyba's work. Arguably one of Silver City's most prolific artists, she most often works on a half-dozen canvases at once, laying down backgrounds of bold swaths of color, hand-written words scrawled repetitively over themselves, and grids of those multi-colored squares that have become her signature style. Often the squares are hand-stitched with thread, creating little boxes that stand out from the canvas, bringing a third dimension to her work.

In the next layer come the subjects. Sometimes she paints numerous versions of one image, like her Native American series featuring the many faces and moods of Chief Geronimo, or this month's Desert Exposure cover featuring Red Paint Pow-wow's Joe Saenz. Another Native American-themed series currently hangs in her gallery, "Wolf Spirit," I, III and IV. In those, a contemporary Native American man is depicted from several angles, in different sizes, in each pose wearing the time-honored traditional headdress of a wolf's head.

"The Apache theme is a natural offshoot from living here," Ingalls Leyba says. She moved to Silver City a dozen years ago from Philadelphia, where she earned a BFA from the Tyler School of Art, part of Temple University. Of the Apache theme, she says, "It's all around you and it's very inspiring, it's ancient and it's modern, so how can I not paint it?"

Sometimes she works on a half-dozen paintings with completely different subjects and themes, like the grouping currently in progress in the studio today. Ingalls Leyba walks from one huge painting to another, pointing out the different subjects. But though the faces looking out from the canvases are all different, the artist shows how she's endeavored to weave together once again the universal and the personal, how her layers and layers of paint and thread help her to capture and convey layers of meaning.

She points out a painting that looks nearly complete, a woman lying on her side, gazing tenderly at the newborn nestled to her breast.

"It's my daughter-in-law with my first grandchild," Ingalls Leyba says with obvious affection. "Of course, it's intensely personal for me because of who it is, but anyone else can look at this and still get it. Who does not know what is going on here? The image is universal: motherhood. And it's a natural thing, it's everyday-type stuff, but it's also sacred, something eternal, all at once."

She cocks her head, taking in the image from another angle, then smiles and adds, "I like showing the universal in the personal and the sacred in the commonplace. It makes the work bigger, I feel."

The painting beside this one, another work in progress, invokes the sacred in another way — putting the subject into the pose of a many-armed goddess.

"That's Faye," Ingalls Leyba says with a sly smile, identifying Faye McCalmont, executive director of the Mimbres Region Arts Council. "If you know Faye, you know she's always in motion, a real multitasker!"

Ingalls Leyba points out a pile of photos, studies for the painting, that she took of McCalmont in various poses, holding a range of objects all having to do with the arts — a bowl over her head, a violin and bow out to her sides. Though the objects are singular in the photos, and held by just two arms, of course, in the painting they come together, held by six arms at once, suggesting the Hindu goddess Kali.

"The image is Faye, and that's personal, but the many-armed goddess imagery brings in the sacred, too," Ingalls Leyba explains. She adds with a laugh, "I'll bet Faye would love to have all those arms in real life!"

With her distinct palette of color, a certain visual tone and those omnipresent grids of squares, the different paintings with their different subjects are all recognizable in an instant as Ingalls Leyba's work.

"I started with this (grid motif) when I was in college," she says. "It's a way of building up layers of color. When I'm creating a piece now, I go back and forth between them, some painting, some stitching by hand."

She uses a nine-inch-long soft-sculpture needle to add her characteristic three-dimensional squares, sewing with embroidery floss or crochet cotton thread.

"I love the discipline of improving on that grid," she says, "and the structure it brings to the work."

Ingalls Leyba also creates sculptural and assemblage pieces. "I approach sculpture like a painting," she says. "Lots of color! And I like doing assemblages, because you get to use things that you just find." She notes that quirky Day of the Dead-themed pieces especially benefit from found objects.

"I've had a whole theme of puppets," she adds — both in her sculptural pieces and paintings. "There's something mystical and mysterious about them, something a little scary, even. They mean different things to different people, and I like that."

To illustrate, she points out another painting leaning up against the wall, this one with a woman seeming to animate a small child at the end of strings, like a marionette. The woman, she says, is a friend in real life. Ingalls Leyba relates a complex story surrounding the mystical presence of the child, and how it connects to the long line of tiny children that trails into the painting's horizon.

Again, her trademark grid enters in, the whole painting seeming to vibrate from the tiny squares with little abstract symbols superimposed over the entire surface of the painting. The effect is indeed mystical, and adds to the magical — even surreal — impression given by the subject matter. The literal is layered over with the mystical — the tangible, real-life friend a grounding layer behind the layer of fantasy, of wonder.

"I love layering. I love line. I love rendering," Ingalls Leyba says of her painting process. "And I love it to have a higher meaning. That's what it's all about for me."

Diana Ingalls Leyba's work can be seen at her gallery in Leyba and Ingalls Arts, 315 Bullard St., Silver City. 388-5725, www.leybaingallsarts.com, dianaingallsleyba.com



Donna Clayton is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

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