Leah Cupino


Leah, tell us about your story.

I have called 20 different places home in 8 different states, from New England to L.A., WA to VA, and even in the British territory of Bermuda. With many of those early moves came my fun-loving and forgiving mother, my teacher/preacher father, and younger sister and brother. Change was our constant. Inside the same house, my bedroom could change rooms multiple times and fond memories of family time included furniture rearrangement every few weeks.

More than seven years ago I got to choose Montana. It is far past the expiration date of my usual ‘uproot and establish elsewhere’ routine, and now other places just don’t seem as attractive.

In addition to this place I have committed to very few things: I married my high school sweetheart and we created three little adorable, smart, and challenging human blends of ourselves. I was told each of these choices would hinder my career as an artist.

Challenge accepted.

Brilliant items I admire: functional art, Swiss Army knives, sweaters that can be worn six different ways, wooden tangled puzzles, and Murphy beds.

How would you describe your paintings to someone who has never seen them?

My paintings are an energetic tangle of vibrant color marks, sometimes woven with a landscape. My work fits in with the abstract expressionist/impressionist and action painter styles far more than the traditional art found in Montana.

I could paint abstractly all day, but I currently find trees the perfect subject for staying grounded. They have always been anchors to me. They are scratchy, stubborn, graceful and poignant. They hold us in place, keep us reminded that we’re part of the earth. There are benefits to being rooted, to giving back from the place you take. That same tree is always doing its best to grow and reach high.

While at times my work might look like a child’s finger painting, it is not as simple to pull off. I start with a terrifyingly vast expanse of nothing on a velvety white or mysterious translucent surface. You will find great variety in my techniques; delicate as watercolor, bold as gouache on the internet, and luscious like oils under your fingertips. Color and speed become my tools for defining space and shape.

A thin wash of silky fresh blue evokes the smell of a warm winter wind and golden glinting zig-zags nod to sunshine. Fast interruptions of unexpected colors (sometimes soft pastel sticks, too) weave irrespective of the subject. I want the viewer to stay awhile and float around my marks in a new path each time they travel there. Between bursts of speed, I also leave lots of time to look. I contemplate my next move based on strengths and weaknesses. A rushed painting is usually one for the scrap pile.

Do you have any methods or rituals that assist inspiration?

If you’d like to see me squeamish, stick me to a schedule or ask me to perform the same routine every day. My only predictability being my heels in the dirt when forced into one. Perhaps when I’m 80, I’ll develop a few mundane steps organically, and be surprised. Most of my inspiration emerges from new experiences, views, meeting new people, bouncing around ideas and breaking expectations.

Your studio, The Art Space, is quickly becoming a little beacon of light here in Helena. Tell us about it.

Thank you for the compliment! The windows of my current downtown studio let in consistent Northern light and a lot of great people. It has a co-dependency with the public. My home studio was great for incubation and testing, but I missed human interactions.

Every Thursday, I commit my noon hour to people in Helena who need an artistic refuge from the regular pace of the week. You can use my personal high-quality materials to create a little dose of beauty. It is free, it is easy, it is no-pressure! It is also selfish on my part — things shared are twice as enjoyable!

In my full class sessions, you can adopt a new vocabulary and develop your painter’s eye and techniques. And yet again, I gain a painting friend – dually shared delight!

It takes guts to open up anything in a small town. Talk to us about bravery – how did you take the leap?

Most people value small town life for its stability and predictability. This idea makes me nervous because in my experience it hinders learning, or re-invention. Most who desire this path require a level of vulnerability and freedom to pick the wrong answer without harsh judgment.

I am truly painting when the words of professors, critics, family, friends and fans fade away completely and I alone am left with my work. You might crave exercise or entertainment regularly, but I crave time with a complex visual puzzle.

I pause, study what choices I’ve already made, then embrace and celebrate the good while minimizing the poorer choices. Work/pause/observe/react/work… More than just on the canvas, I’ve learned to really value this patient process. In the end I proudly own the product.

Will I have to accept, in the next few years, that the romantic idea of a little downtown boutique art studio is not sustainable? Maybe. But thanks to the interest of this small town, my little business has met its first year goals. I’m confident with my process of reflective pauses and hard work, I’ll have a better handle on how it needs to evolve. Neither a person, nor art, or even a town needs to be pegged down to a single unchanging version of themselves.

How do you know when a painting is finished?

Each painting is a controlled experiment in chaos where I set my own parameters and I am my own critic. A heavy dose of self-questioning is balanced with a heady confidence. In the end, it is my set of questions and the answers I find. Like life, right?

Who is your favorite artist? What about their art continues to move you?

World-renown artists seem more like untouchable Demi-gods. Often that level of success relies on who you know.

I have admired traits and skills of so many art professionals adding influence in the real world that I’ve known personally: A deep undercurrent of spirituality, vulnerability and gentle critique skills from one professor (Martha Mason, Dayton WA), immersive daily life philanthropy in a friend (Kate Daughdrill, Detroit), meaningful idea translation and questioning (Sondra Hines, edu master at Holter Museum of Art, Helena MT), early business acumen and visual flexibility (Brian Michael Reed, hard to pin down), agile philosophical discourse (Dinah and Paul Ryan, Virginia). I owe a lot of the stylistic cocoon-shedding guidance to my mentor in Philadelphia, Kassem Amoudi, and the acceptance of an unintentional quiet maternalistic theme in my art from Sally Bowring (VCU, Richmond VA).

I am also lucky to have consumed delicious plates crafted by Micah Eller, Andrew Brosten, and Davide Giuliani — local chefs in our small town keeping our expectations high. I also make a huge playlist of music from a wide variety of genres (rarely radio stuff) a couple times a year. I just can’t get enough of what humans make well.

I especially enjoy seeing an artist experiment over time — morph their work and self into the next level. And this effort is almost always in the realm of deep, honest integrity.

Where do you most want to travel but have never been?

Japan, for the fresh cuisine, nature, ancient art, and overall aesthetics of the culture.

I am always interested in talking about the role women have in our culture. From the places of power and influence to the more personal level of mentorship and friendship. Tell us about the Montana women in your life. What do they mean to you?

Just before arriving here, I read a bunch of essays to get a feel for Montana’s culture. The first three essays featured frustration, fatigue and failure of a woman and her swift exit from her established life here. What was I putting myself up against!!? I continue to study every woman still here and thriving. Unlike those in the essays I read, Montana women are undaunted and somewhat more selfless.

She pauses and listens more frequently than the fast-paced east coast women I know. She juggles a dozen or more staff and a giant extended family life. She wields a mallet, rifle, saw, pen or camera. She is most happy when her body is performing at extremes. She does not speak ill of others or spread rumors. She is an advocate on issues of class, gender and race. She refuses social engagements before it is too late to slow down. She sees need and addresses it. She creates a sweet, protective family culture. She owns only one pair of heels but eight pairs of useful boots. She is quick to show up for tough tasks. She cares only *enough* about social proprieties and etiquette. When she cannot find what she needs, she makes it. Her standards are high, and she forgives. She is happy because she freely spreads happiness.

What has she taught you about life?

Sure, some of those things I regularly practice; Some I strive to adopt with pleasure. These women are less concerned with personal gain and are more focused on lifting up the collective community. They’ve also taught me that things of real value require hard work, sacrifice, and are never all that easy.

Final question. Your answer and can be silly or serious, but what is saving your life right now?

For real? I am fortunate enough to have chosen the things that drive me (sometimes crazy). My three boys challenge who I think I am as a parent – so much to learn! They also remind me to laugh and see through their eyes the simple pleasures of everyday. My husband is my polar personality opposite, but we really enjoy the broadened views we acquire from each other. In his profession there is a lot of talk about quality of life. He protects my ‘me time’. He never just puts a toe in the water, but dives right in. He inspires me to give it my all, and check in with my priorities for even daily small decisions.

My studio requires a lot of work behind the scenes and is my haven. Sometimes when I am not in the studio, I’m on the trails (sunshine!) with girlfriends and my pup, or learning a new skill (sailing!). However, lately you can find me attending to my newest obsession. I’m planning our new home with a really excellent architect and team of crafters. They let me in on every part of it, and there is so much to learn.

Silly answer? Crunchy chips and clumsy cat videos are my Achilles heels!

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