Round and round

Painters are frequently afflicted by lengthy obsessions with their subjects. But book artist Ken Leslie’s Space + Time exhibit at Western Carolina University’s Belk Gallery is quite literally a tale without end.

Over the course of a single year, Leslie left his bed each morning to go outside and look at the sky. For six of the seven days in each of the 52 weeks, he created a small (7 by 8 inch) watercolor of what he saw. In some of the paintings, the sky is a hard, cold blue; in others, it’s soft with strips of morning glow — or else pale gray, or dark with approaching or receding storms.

Each of these Sky Journal paintings is annotated: The viewer is told where and when the individual piece was made, the exact time of day it was completed, and the corresponding temperature (in Fahrenheit and centigrade). In fact, a few paintings include frost patterns — spots where the paint froze before the paper could absorb it. Leslie’s notes conclude with a brief mention of the artist’s plans for the day.

These individual paintings were ultimately sewn together in strips, which were then accordion-pleated and turned into a book.

For the WCU exhibit, Sky Journal is presented in seven horizontal rows, one above the other.

Leslie’s other passion is the circle, which he claims “[escaped] the history of art.”

Thus he’s been all too happy to leave behind the prison of the rectangular canvas; the WCU show also includes paintings on throwaway CDs and vinyl records, and works mysteriously enclosed in glass balls.

But however they take shape, all his pieces are location-specific.

“Kotzebue Winter Solstice” is a donut-shaped painting recording a day of perpetual darkness in a small Alaskan town. Each wedge-shaped section of the circle, again annotated, depicts village buildings beneath a shower of the glorious Northern Lights.

In obvious contrast is a work created during 24 hours of daylight in a little Icelandic town, where Leslie found an elevated spot from which to chronicle the path of the sun in the sky, making a wedge-shaped painting for each hour.

These paintings, too, fold into wedge-shaped books. The largest piece, painted on linen, is 10 feet in diameter; the smallest is 2 inches across.

Leslie’s most recent work — a series of seasonal photographs of his home and yard — is likewise stitched into his favorite shape. Titled “Space + Time,” the circular piece has been turned into a limited-edition, one-of-a-kind artist’s book by Nexus Press in Atlanta.

Leslie, currently a visiting artist at WCU, has been a professor of drawing and painting at Vermont’s Johnson State College for more than 20 years. Not surprisingly, he emphasizes to students the importance of maintaining a bedside sketchbook like a writer might keep a journal.

His own work — both in his choice of formats and his close attention to seasons — clearly addresses life’s cyclical nature.

Leslie’s next project, a timeline of his marriage, will be paired with a fictional line depicting the life his wife might have led — had she chosen a man consumed with money, power and other, commoner obsessions.

[Connie Bostic is an artist and writer living in Asheville.]

Space + Time, a collection of works by Ken Leslie, shows at Western Carolina University’s Belk Gallery through Friday, March 19. Hours are Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m.-noon, and from 1-4 p.m. For more information, call 227-3591.

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