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CoverArtist: Lesley Walton loves nostalgia and has a fascination for old black-and-white photos
"The Women" (above) and "Graduation 1955" (below, left), paintings by Lesley Walton (below, right)

Every image that I look at, I try to think about who that person really might have been. ... I try to bring the feelings I have inside of me out into the painting.
- Lesley Walton

by Norma Smith Olson

When coming across her mother's black-and-white graduation photos from 1955, Lesley Walton wondered what the students really looked like. What was the tone of their skin, their eye color? What was their hair shade? She thought: Wouldn't it be fun to bring them to life by adding color to the images?

"Even though I didn't know them, I could form their personalities with the colors I chose - my creative license," Walton said. "I felt like I took them out of their mundane, black-and-white world, kind of like Dorothy going to Oz."

The old photos she found in her mother's drawer led to a whole series of graduation paintings representing different decades - 1945, '55, '65 and '70. Each "yearbook" page painting is 24 by 24 inches, made up of individual wallet-sized "photos" painted with oils on handmade paper. "When I exhibit the paintings, people will recognize or relate to somebody in the 'photo,'" Walton said.

Life happened

Walton grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and attended the Cleveland Institute of Art with a focus on painting, drawing and silver work. But, she said, "life happened" and she did not finish her degree. She went back home to Dayton to work.

"I thought I would go back to school, but I put my art on hold for a while," Walton said. She met her husband, started a family (she has two sons who are now 19 and 22) and worked for 23 years at an art supply store.

However, she found the circumstances challenging. "It was difficult to be around working artists when I wasn't [creating art]. I didn't have the degree and I questioned my abilities as an artist," she said. "Because I had taken so much time off, I was afraid of jumping back in when my children were older."

Then a chance, 10-minute conversation with an art professor gave her a new perspective.

"He told me that being an artist wasn't just about painting a pretty picture. It's about bringing out everything that you've taken in over the years. He told me not to be afraid, that being a mother and experiencing life ... [that art is] about bringing out life experiences," Walton said. "That was the best advice I ever got in my life. I never thought of it that way before. It carried me through. The ups and downs make you better."


Inside out

Walton jumped back into her artwork when her sons were in their teens. Her focus has been twofold - oil paintings with bold colors and graphite pencil drawings in black and white.

Her pencil drawings are softer, warmer in tone. The people she portrays aren't looking directly out of the paper like they do in her paintings. "I'm looking to draw the 'inner self,' not just a typical portrait view of a person," she said. "The warmth of the graphite brings out a depth. It's a whole mood."

In her oil paintings, Walton likes to have the people in the portraits engage with the audience. They look directly at you and make eye contact.

"Every image that I look at, I try to think about who that person really might have been. I try to bring that out. I try to bring the feelings I have inside of me out into the painting," Walton said.

For her painting, "The Women," featured on this magazine cover, Walton worked with a black-and-white photo of her grandmother (in the center), with her grandmother's sister and sister-in-law on either side.

"I was captured by these three strong women, arm in arm. They have that bond. I think it's that bond that every woman wants and needs. They are sisters, girlfriends," she said. "I wanted to use strong colors to show that they are strong women, even though in that time period, the 1940s, I'm sure they didn't have much of a voice. My grandmother lived a rough life, but these women had each other. They had their sisters and their girlfriends."

Making the time

Finding time for her artwork is Walton's biggest challenge. Her full-time work with the nonprofit Kids in Need Foundation brought her and her family from Ohio to Minnesota in July 2012. She procures products for teacher "free stores," providing school supplies for schools with low-income students.

"I love my job, the mission of the foundation and giving back," Walton said. "We'd all love to do what our passion calls us to do full time, but unfortunately, sometimes in the art world that's not possible. I have to condition myself to put time aside. You have to love it enough to make the time."

At 53, Walton said, she's just getting started. "Now, it's my time. I want to get out there and create."

FFI: lesleyart4u.com

If you go: Lesley Walton will be exhibiting her artwork at Art-A-Whirl in northeast Minneapolis, May 16-18, 2014 at the Q.arma Building, 1224 Quincy St. N.E., Minneapolis.

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