Witnessing nature in action is one of the greatest treasures of human life. Flowers and foliage blossom and wilt with each seasonal change. The sky transforms into myriad colors, and shifts between light and dark shades as the days grow shorter or longer. Even the appearance of animals may alter to adapt to changes in their environment. Artists Catherine Lea and J. Michael Kennedy successfully capture the essence of serenity in nature with their impeccable use of color and texture. Their combined show, “Carolina Brilliance,” opened last Friday and will grace the walls of New Elements Gallery in downtown Wilmington through October 22.
Kennedy’s collection in the gallery mainly consists of landscapes, particularly those of the Carolinas. Born in Pittsburgh, PA, Kennedy has loved art his entire life. In high school he took private painting classes, which allowed his skills to flourish. Although he obtained a BFA in graphic design from Youngstown State University, he also studied painting as part of the curriculum. He went on to work in advertising as a designer and eventually art director after graduating in 1981, still painting occasionally as a hobby. A move to Charleston, SC, in 1986 led him to painting classes once again, as well as workshops with several local artists. Throughout the years, he has received tutelage from the likes of Albert Handel, Martin Ahrens, Joyce Nagel, William Jameson, and Kim English.
“I started to exhibit in some short-term shows in Charleston,” Kennedy states. “Some artists who had seen my work told me they just opened a gallery and asked if I would like to open a business together in 1995.”
Kennedy accepted the offer to join Waterfront Gallery, and sold artwork for a few years until he quit the advertising industry in ‘97. Since, he has used oil paint to capture the beauty of his surroundings in the southeastern coastal region full-time.
“It’s very gloomy and grey most of the year [in Pittsburgh],” Kennedy says. “Things there are not very colorful, but in Charleston the sun is out so often. The sky is bluer, and the greens are greener. I still haven’t lost my obsession with the beauty of the Low Country on the Carolina coast.”
Currently, Kennedy is represented by four different galleries throughout North and South Carolina. Along with New Elements, his work is featured in downtown Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Mount Pleasant, SC, where he currently resides. “I’m really lucky, and very excited I get to do this for my career,” Kennedy says. “I never imagined that I would get to do something like this. It doesn’t feel like a job.”
While Kennedy’s work is the result of expertly used oil paint, fellow artist Catherine Lea embodies nature on canvas with acrylic. Born in Wilson, NC, Lea studied dental hygiene at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and moved to the Port City after graduating. She began practicing dental hygiene and involved herself in the local arts community, as well as within the nonprofit sector. She served on the board of directors for the Arts Council for Lower Cape Fear for nine years, eventually even as president. She continued to raise money and awareness for art when she became the manager of the Opera House Theatre Company.
Like Kennedy, Lea has loved art her entire life, especially drawing. As a teenagers, she was a cartoonist for her high-school newspaper. However, it wasn’t until she was inspired by her mother in 2007 that she pursued a career as a painter. “My mother started painting at age 70,” Lea tells. “She found out about a painting class, and when she joined it, she blossomed.”
As Lea’s mother flourished in her new hobby, she continuously encouraged Lea to try her hand at painting and finally succeeded after inviting her daughter to accompany her art class on a trip to France. When Lea accepted, she knew she would have to start learning to paint herself.
“The trip was planned 18 months in advance,” Lea says. “I used that time to learn to paint through private lessons. From there, I transitioned from drawing to painting.”
They spent seven days painting in Monet’s garden. The trip inspired her to pursue the newfound hobby even more. Drawn to nature, Lea loves painting flowers. Her floral works are inspired by her mother’s talent for arranging flowers and always keeping them in her home. Included in her collection at New Elements is a painting of a floral arrangement her mother created for her. “Mother’s Gift” is a direct result of her mother’s inspiration and their tight-knit relationship.
While Lea occasionally enjoys painting architecture, as seen in a few of her pieces, she discovered a particular fondness for painting animals after completing a portrait of her friend’s dog. “I’ve spent a lot of time with animals; I have been obsessed for a few years now,” Lea states. “I never get tired of painting animals.”
One of the main reasons Lea loves painting animals and florals is because of their complexity and dynamic. While she would like to explore the creation of artwork from her imagination, working in realism, specifically with shadows and lines found in photographs she takes of her subjects, presents learning curves, so to speak.
“I’ve never been a ‘straight line’ type of person,” Lea says. “Cows and goats especially appeal to me because they’re so weird. They have angles and curves, and they’re skinny and fat all together. They’re perfectly imperfect.”
New Elements Gallery will host “Carolina Brilliance,” featuring the work of J. Michael Kennedy and Catherine Lea through October 22. All pieces on display from the two artists are for sale to the general public.