Stuart Leask: From Photojournalist to Fine Artist in Thirty Short Years
Photo Supplied By Stuart Leask, Artist
Story By Christina Heintzelman – email@example.com
*From a quote by Joan Miro.
When someone begins an interview with the statement, “Back in the 80’s getting into trouble is what saved me,” you know you are in for a remarkably interesting story. Welcome to the wild ride that has been Stuart Leask’s life.
From his early years, Leask was influenced by his parents’ love of bright colors – picture purple walls and orange chairs – and his father’s job as a talented photographer working for S.I. Newhouse Sr. whose family owns Conde Nast, a cable company, and various newspapers including The Harrisburg Patriot-News.
“From my father I learned how to compose a picture to capture a moment in time – to tell a story in a single frame,” Leask says. One million of his father’s negatives from his time with The Harrisburg Patriot News have been donated to the Historical Society of Dauphin County as a time capsule of events from 1952 through 1995, portraying important times in Harrisburg and the famous people who came to the city. Steven Wydra, the office manager for the Historical Society says, “This has been an invaluable gift for our area as we use it for research projects and exhibits. Volunteers have been tasked with cataloguing this huge treasure which allows us to easily find specific negatives for specific projects.”
Because of this influence from photography, drawing became second nature to Leask and his parents encouraged his creativity. “I excelled in art but flunked ninth grade,” he laughs.
From high school to York Academy of Art and Philadelphia College of Arts, he proceeded to become an art school drop-out. “I partied way too much, brawled a bit, and drank even more, ending up in jail quite a few times.” His father found out about these problems via a news article in a Philadelphia paper. Leask adds “One week I was taking a photograph of inmates in shackles being led to their hearings and two week later I was the one in shackles.” When asked how these times saved him, he replies, “I needed to face my problems with alcohol and through the tools I received from AA and the Big Book, I have been able to remain sober and put my energies into art.”
Leask’s father suggested that he return to their Mechanicsburg home and work with him as a photographer for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, which he did for about 13 years. Leask’s first assignment was to photograph the ‘dog of the week’ for the Harrisburg Humane Society. He failed miserably. Well, at least his father felt it was an awful photograph and compelled him to return to the Humane Society and do the photograph over and “make it right this time.”
For thirty years, Leask worked as a professional photographer, thirteen of those with The Patriot News. His work includes two AP distributed photographs from this time at The Patriot News. The first one was of a State Police helicopter flying under the Dock Street Dam in Shipoke to rescue a drowning man. This photo made the cover of the New York Times and a copy of it hung on the walls of the press/city room for years – it may still be hanging there today. Two weeks later he snapped a photo of a young boy whose head was caught in between the bars of a porch railing and again, AP distributed the photo around the world. “Here is the crazy part – forty years later the young boy in the photo, whose name is Carlos Rivera, ended up working with me at UPS,” he adds, “My life has always been about synchronicity, being at the right – or sometimes the wrong – place at the right time.”
As a commercial photographer, he did a photo shoot for the November 2004 issue of Harrisburg Magazine providing six pages of photographs for Barbara Blank’s article Sweet and Hot: Ethnic Restaurants Worth Finding.
In 2011, Leask was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm which required an emergency helicopter trip to University of Pennsylvania Hospital for surgery, and four weeks later another diagnosis of prostate cancer. This was a wakeup call for him and he says,” I am now in my bonus round of life, and I ask myself ‘am I gonna be the best person I can be?’ And the answer to that is ‘Yes’.”
After having worked part time for UPS for quite a few years, in 2013 he sold all his photographic equipment to go full time with the company. “Working for UPS was an awakening for me as I learned how to do the impossible – load a truck and deliver everything inside it within one workday. Nothing was impossible for me to accomplish.” Thus was the end of Leask’s thirty-year hiatus from painting as he felt more secure in spending time with his paint brush and doing the impossible. Often the scene of Leask’s paintings will be a location of where his UPS letter boxes were located.
A ray of sunshine entered his life in 2016 with his marriage to Joann Wingert, who he describes as his best friend and support system. This relationship made him even more resolute in becoming an artist.
Unfortunately, tough times continued. In 2018, Leask’s daughter from a previous marriage, Samantha, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he came close to a nervous breakdown. “I paint for her – for when she can’t express herself through her art.” He then adds, “In the act of painting all my worries disappear. Right now, Sam is doing great and is back to painting and creating some amazing work, much of it on her iPad.”
It was also during this time that Leask put together his first public exhibit of his acrylic arts, which were featured at BrainVessel, a unique gallery of sensory experiences located in Mechanicsburg, PA.
Leask uses social media quite a bit to post his art, to look at the art of others, and give and receive feedback. “This is integral to my art, and it is what drives me forward reaching further within myself to create my paintings.”
To understand Leask’s art, it is important to know his inspiration. He states, “A lot of my inspiration is based on my photojournalism background. How I visualize things on my travels as well as my day-to-day routines. I take a lot of photos of places I go . . . all sorts of images. Then I mentally group the separate images into one central illustration. The magic comes in between the various photos I shoot and the scene that develops on the canvas.”
Leask’s technique is unique in that he often starts with an underpainting of a gray gesso to which he then uses chalk to create outlines of his work, much like a black and white negative. After this he may also do an underpainting of burnt umber. He then layers on colors and watches as the negative becomes a composition. He often leaves bits of the chalk outlines showing through the work to create a luminous effect and sometimes bits of the gray underpainting will also be left exposed. He works entirely in acrylics as he feels these allow him to work faster and achieve his desired effect quickly. “There is not really any single feeling I am consciously trying to express. I paint what I like. I paint how my eyes see a scene, differently than how others would see it. I attempt to seize a moment, to experience an event and transform it into a visual display of light and movement. I want people to feel they are part of the painting – to be able to see it come alive as if they were there.” He adds, “Early on I wanted to paint like N.C. Wyeth but soon learned that I needed to just be myself.”
When asked what he would like for viewers to take away from his art he says, “I want people to feel emotion when looking at my work. I want people to understand that behind each finished work, there is an artist that experienced the scene first-hand. It is my grasp at immortality – when I am gone part of me will remain and hopefully be cherished and each scene can be relived.”
Leask’s website is www.stuleask.com; Facebook is @stuleask.com; Instagram is Stuleask. His work can also be seen at Smith’s Custom Framing and Fine Art Gallery located in New Cumberland (which was featured in Harrisburg Magazine’s March 2022 issue). There is also a YouTube ArtTalks2U video created by Smith’s Custom Framing and Fine Art Gallery featuring Leask at https://youtu.be/uHM2fveG3fw.