Life and Art: FVCC Instructor Marks 50 Years of Teaching
Flathead Valley Community College art instructor Karen Leigh can speak about the technical aspects of painting. However, asked to provide a tour of her students' artwork and she’ll focus on the stories behind the watercolors.
She’ll tell you about the locations students have traveled for inspiration from as close by as West Valley to as far as Africa. She’ll talk about the student who aspires to see polar bears in person, so they painted one in a sketchbook. She’ll recall the time her class floated the Flathead River and spotted a grizzly or the time a group spent the day painting in Monet’s garden in France.
A special exhibition at the Wanda Hollensteiner Art Gallery honors Leigh’s five decades of teaching art. The gallery is located inside the Wachholz College Center on the community college campus.
Running through March, the exhibition features a selection of artwork from several of Leigh’s students as well as one of her own works from her personal collection.
Beginning her teaching career at FVCC in 1973, Leigh simply asked for a job at the college teaching a summer watercolor class after moving here with her husband who went to work for the Forest Service after serving in the Air Force. She has taught a variety of art classes since, including calligraphy, drawing and design.
“I never knew how it was going to unfold,” she said. “Teaching is a nice balance. I couldn’t stay in my studio all day.”
A fourth-generation Montanan born in Great Falls, her family roots in Kalispell go back to her great-grandfather, Cornelius Hedges. Her love of art began at an early age when her parents bought her a set of paints. She earned a degree in graphic design, but pursued art and eventually teaching as it became passion.
“I’m grateful to be teaching and if I sell a painting now and then that’s great,” she said.
STUDENTS IN her classroom are varied, some are seeking degrees while others are retired from careers and looking for a hobby. Many have returned to take classes again and again some for the past 20 years, even though they’ve already learned the skills but thrive in the setting of working together.
“They know how to paint at this point, but they need the affirmation and people to talk to, study and to ask questions,” she said, also noting that many students have become friends.
Leigh brings in other instructors and attends workshops herself to learn as much as she can to assist students. Many come to her with the latest information on new art supplies or an online video with a new technique.
“I learn as much from them as I teach them,” she said.
Student Suzy Cogliati began taking classes from Leigh in 2015 and continues today. Her watercolor painting of her Maine Coon cat is part of the exhibit.
“She always finds things for us to do,” Cogliati says of her fellow students who return each semester to study with Leigh. “She always makes it a point to find a different way for us to paint or a new topic for us. She gives us instruction and is always helping us fine-tune our work.”
Students who enter classes with Leigh start out with an A, and those that put in the work throughout the semester keep the grade.
“She always looks at what you have accomplished rather than your artistic ability,” Cogliati said.
UPON ENTERING the gallery, displays in the center show off sketchbooks containing pages of intricately detailed watercolor paintings. Some include notes, situated alongside the works, of the observations by the artist of the place visited, the colors observed or the weather of the day.
The sketchbooks are small-scale works of art themselves, but they also hold deeper meaning.
“I keep my sketchbooks in boxes and when I go back and look at them I realize I’ve totally forgotten about what’s inside them,” Leigh said. “When you look at the sketchbook that moment comes back to you.”
“The most important thing to me is my sketchbooks,” Leigh adds. “I don’t care if someone steals my paintings, but I do if I lose a sketchbook.”
One student writes poetry alongside paintings, while another identifies birds and wildflowers spotted on a hike.
“All of these are done from life,” explains Leigh. “All it requires is a palette of watercolors, paper, water and a few brushes. It can all go in your pocket and travel anywhere.”
Observing the world is one of the lessons Leigh works to teach her students.
“Art students learn to see,” she said. “You drive by a spot that you have for 30 years and you’re looking at how the light falls and the many different colors of green there are. The sketchbooks make you more aware because when you draw you remember better than if you take a picture.”
Lessons are the mainstays of her classroom.
If a student becomes frustrated with an art piece and is ready to throw it in the trash, Leigh will ask them to push through knowing that they will only get stuck again in the future.
“She encourages the best out of us both artistically and personally,” student Nancy Flint said. “She’s not just teaching art, she teaches life lessons.”
Melding together a classroom with young adult students seeking degrees and retirees who are returning to further learn is a talent that is a testament to Leigh’s ability as an educator, Flint says.
“Her way of teaching is so encouraging,” Flint said. “It creates a caring community and that’s really attributed to her. We call ourselves a tribe and that’s because if someone has a health issue or something to celebrate in life, she’s making sure we’re signing a card for that person. Pretty soon we’re passing a piece of paper for that person that has snippets of art on it.”
AROUND THE edge of the gallery, framed paintings showcase the students' work. There are landscapes depicting mountains, a study of three paintings showing Foys Lake under different lighting, flowers, wildlife, portraits and urban landscapes.
While observation is learned in the sketchbooks, the larger works of art provide the lessons from creating the art on paper to displaying it properly with a frame.
Recalling the saying of one of her students, Leigh says the goal is to make sure the art doesn’t become gozunda, as in “goes under the bed” for no one to see.
Students are encouraged to create art that interests them. One student used colored pencils to create a detailed drawing of a historic cabin, while another student created a mixed-media piece that includes fabric from a trip abroad.
Cogliati appreciates the freedom to take an assignment in her own direction. Sometimes students are asked to create a painting with a poem or piece of writing given as the prompt.
“She lets us use our own interests in paintings,” Cogliati said. “We can do whatever we gravitate to — for me that’s animals, but some students prefer landscapes. You paint things differently when you’re asked to paint from an idea rather than just asked to sit there and paint.”
Some art instructors teach by asking students to copy a painting, but Leigh would rather they create for themselves.
“I don’t want them to paint like me,” she says. “I’m not that great.”
Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
An exhibition honoring Flathead Valley Community College art instructor Karen Leigh is on display at the Wanda Hollensteiner Art Gallery at the Wachholz College Center. It is available for viewing during the gallery’s operating hours of noon to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and to patrons with tickets to WCC performances during show times.