Cape Town artist Leonie Brown, a former winner of the Volkskas (now Absa) Atelier award, has turned her back on her dark side which once inspired her art to showcase the light of God within her.
But although she wouldn’t turn back to her pre-Christian style her artistic choice has been at a cost. She says while many people admire her current work, it is difficult to get it into commercial galleries that generally want to exhibit paintings reflecting raw emotions with shock value.
“Being a Christian artist is difficult; selling paintings based on my darker emotions was much easier.”
Brown has a degree in fine arts and a diploma in teaching and studied fine art in Potchefstroom. Today she lives and works in Cape Town. She has been exhibiting and selling her art since 2004.
She is passionate about painting and experimenting with encaustics, a style of art, and her work focusses on the relationship between the human spirit, faith, touch and daily life.
She said that most artists who base their art on traumatic life experiences relive the trauma over and over again to reflect the pain the event caused. But she came to a point in her life where she did not want to relive the past anymore.
She wanted to find hope during the storm of negative emotions brewing inside her.
“We are the sum total of our past, but we don’t have to stay there,” she said.
Brown comes from an exceptionally traumatic background, and from the age of four up until her twenties, had to endure emotional and sexual abuse.
When she turned 18 she at least had the opportunity to study art. As she tried to find her feet as a young woman, expressing her emotions through her art she was soon overcome by despair, anger and hopelessness.
Her strong negative emotions were reflected in the way she chose colours, the material she used to create her paintings and the images she painted. The raw expression of the trauma she endured was admired by art critics and she was quickly recognised for it.
“I won respect and admiration for my talent. But I was also reliving the suffering and continually victimising myself, which ultimately dug the pit of hopelessness deeper.”
Brown said everyone can resonate negative visual language.
“We all drift towards it because it is a reflection of our imperfect selves. The Bible speaks of it in this way: Sin gives birth to sin, but Spirit gives birth to Spirit.”
She was repeatedly raped between the ages of 15 to 18, then fell pregnant and lost her baby. Years after the abuse she became pregnant again and it brought back intense emotions associated with her past.
“A psychologist at the time wrote a reference letter to my doctor explaining that an abortion would be the best option for me. The baby was between three to four months old. After having had the abortion, I came to the realisation that it actually amounted to murder. It came as such a shock that it changed my life forever.”
After several attempts to commit suicide, she finally reached a turning point when she turned 30.
“After trying New Age methods of healing, exploring other spiritual paths like Buddhism, I eventually turned to my [Christian] faith, which I had rejected along the way, for help and became part of a faith-filled family which is where I met and married my wonderful and loving husband, Rob. I never looked back.”
She became a victor instead of a victim.
“I saw light and wanted to speak this light in my visual language.”
She soon found comfort in Philippians 4:8 — Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.
“The more I began to see what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable through my walk of faith, the more I put it into practice – both in my personal life and in my artistic practice,” she said.
“I realised that the dark paintings I had painted before were not inspiring the viewers to a higher calling or glorifying the Creator, nor even showing what is good and lovely.”
She now enjoys applying bright colours in thick, multiple layers of paint on canvas to bring out messages of hope.
“It’s about living in the moment and enjoying that moment, sucking the marrow out of the bone and choosing to live by the Spirit, and not the mind. I believe our spirits and not our minds, define who we are and reflect a lot about humans and their behaviour towards themselves and others.”
She said blaming God for what happened to her, expressing her anger and letting her bad emotions control her, only made her become more isolated.
“If you don’t deal with your past and face it, you will become like the walking dead. The spirit of death will consume you. The enemy will try to destroy you either by driving you to commit suicide or by keeping you in a prison where you will live like an animal, only to survive from the one moment to the next, nothing else matters.”
Brown believes God uses her talent to deliver a specific message to a specific viewer.
“I see myself as a glorified postmaster.”
She said she is a different person now.
“It has been a long process but I am finally at a place where I create what I go through while still having hope. Even though there are times where we go through storms, God will always be there to give us hope and carry us through.”