When Providence Gallery & Frames Owner Debbie Bass visited Nancy Atwell’s Charlotte home in March to install paintings, she was gobsmacked by several wall-size pieces already there. Who was the artist? she wondered.
They were the work of Annie Leist, a New York City (by way of Winston-Salem) artist — and Atwell’s sister.
Leist’s work packs a visual wallop even before you know the artist is legally blind.
About 20 of Leist’s paintings will be on view in the “Beacons” exhibit at Providence Gallery, on display from Oct. 27 to late November.
“We all, literally and physically, see the world differently,” Leist said by phone from her home in Queens. The 43-year-old artist is completely blind in her right eye and has limited vision in her left. She doesn’t have depth perception.
The world looks to her like a low-res photograph, she says. “I see light, color, and shape but not a lot of detail. I don’t think of it as blurry, but physically, it probably is.”
She can’t readily identify a curb, but she can see vertical poles, scaffolding, and crossing signals — her “beacons.”
The work reveals no trace of the artist’s disability. It feels contemporary, yet still figurative. Leist lets us see the world as she sees it: with a little mystery to it. There’s color, sometimes vibrant. There are shapes and shadows. Her work conveys pure joy and loneliness, depending on the painting. All art tells a story, and this story is one of triumph over circumstance.
When her high school art class learned about perspective and how objects farther away recede into space, Leist understood how her vision differs from that of sighted people. “I see in two dimensions,” she says.
Before graduate studies at Trinity College in Dublin and Rutgers University, where she earned a master’s degree in fine arts, Leist double-majored in studio art and math at Wake Forest University. It was there she developed an interest in the subject matter she still paints today.
“The people around me were painting what I considered to be really meaningful work,” says Leist. “Someone was painting about feminism. There was a guy painting about coming out. I felt like I was boring and had nothing to add. I was painting bars and tailgates and fraternity parties.”
Her professor and mentor, Page Laughlin, helped her see her subject matter was meaningful. “We’ve all had that experience of being in a crowd yet feeling psychologically far away,” says Leist.
Much of her painting now is about her experience of urban settings. “Manmade spaces — cities, bars, conference rooms — and the lighting and color used for effect can distort the natural cues I might use to move through a space,” she says. “For me, color and light define a space more than the physical architecture of it.”
Leist credits her family with helping her develop a fierce independence. Her parents always had high expectations of her. They encouraged her to do anything she wanted.
Leist spent a semester in London while she was in college. She promised her parents and her professor she wouldn’t venture into the city alone. “That lasted for a month,” she says. But she became so adept at navigating London’s underground system that friends asked her for directions. That freedom was intoxicating, she says. Leist went on to feel most at home in big cities.
When she’s not painting, Leist works in the burgeoning field of art accessibility. She has consulted with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Seattle Art Museum, among others. Most of her work involves training the front-line staff to “think like a disabled person.”
“We are the largest minority group in America,” she says of the disabled. “I enjoy letting people know that someone who’s blind might actually be interested in going to an art museum. Appreciating arts and culture is part of what it is to be human.”
When Debbie Bass of Providence Gallery & Frames first saw Leist’s large-scale work (as big as 49 feet by 60 feet), she knew it was something special — and something she wanted to share. Her gallery, which has been hidden in plain sight behind and beneath the Manor Theatre since 1978, is now representing Leist, whose work ranges from $750 to $2,800.
“I was instantly drawn to Annie’s incredible use of color and the thought-provoking images in her paintings,” says Bass. “We’re so excited to have this opportunity to showcase this amazing artist.”
But the artist who navigates the Big Apple on her own, teaches a drawing class at the Met to visually impaired people (“Every class is full!”), and consults with the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian and the Guggenheim hasn’t forgotten where she came from.
“I’m proud to be from North Carolina,” says Leist. “I still consider myself a Southern girl. I still say ‘y’all.’ Now, through serendipity, I have an arts relationship with North Carolina. I feel like part of me is living back home now.”
Leist’s work will be on view from Oct. 27 through late November at Providence Gallery, behind the Manor Theatre at 601-A Providence Road. Learn more at providencegallery.net.