Complex Works of Symbol and Narrative
Kansas-born Jean LeCluyse has a fine eye for detail in her drawings and mixed media pieces, honed by years of working as a freelance scientific illustrator, among other jobs. “My drawings are richly detailed windows into ‘secret’ narratives,” LeCluyse explains. “The most successful images are ones that people can relate to and that remind them of some story in their own lives.”
Her representational drawing uses personal symbols to illustrate an idea, experience or memory. “I’ve been thinking a lot about family lately,” says LeCluyse, “so most of my work has to do with personal interactions - universal stuff in the end. While objects are recognizable, the context is not anything you would see in real life. There is a surreal or dream-like quality [in the work].”
When asked what memorable responses she’s had to her work, LeCluyse lets us in on a secret: “a child found a hidden object in a tree drawing,” she says. “I had been putting hidden objects in my work for a long time. No one ever noticed, and I never talked about it. It’s just a gift for the people who are willing to take a real look at my work.”
Her work comprises mixed media as well as graphite drawings. Says LeCluyse, “my mixed media pieces are most often acrylic, colored pencil, collaged elements and graphite over randomly textured surfaces that seem to serendipitously play into and enhance the imagery. The fun is the sense of adventure and discovery inherent in the process.
“My most detailed works are done in graphite. My background in scientific illustration really takes over when I am working on a graphite drawing. The mixed media pieces require constant decision-making and moment-to-moment engagement. The graphite drawings are a break from this. They are more meditative and relaxing to do.”
The daughter of a nurse and a police officer, LeCluyse and her older sister spent a lot of time with nearby paternal grandparents because of their parents’ work schedules. The birth of her drawing life dawned “under grandmother’s dining room table. Typical of a little girl,” she recalls, “I was drawing ballerinas and horses over and over again on a little pad of paper. I guess under grandma’s dining room table was my first studio,” LeCluyse chuckles.
Though her journey as an artist took some detours, LeCluyse notes that all of her experiences have in some way influenced her work. At different times she supported herself as a farm laborer de-tasseling corn and as a cannery worker “putting the pork in the pork-n-beans.” She earned a BFA in printmaking at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and followed her interest in printmaking during her time as a printer’s apprentice at a lithography workshop. She honed observation and drawing skills during her years as a freelance scientific illustrator. She eventually obtained a BSN and became a nurse, primarily as a means to help support her family.
Over time, LeCluyse’s work shifted from abstraction to representation. “When I was studying printmaking as an undergraduate, my work was all abstract, but I can’t do that anymore,” LeCluyse emphasizes, adding that she really learned to draw when she was a scientific illustrator. “I took a class from a herpetologist at the University of Kansas’ natural history museum. I don’t know how many hours of my life I spent drawing the human figure from life, but I didn’t really learn basic principles of drawing until I drew a frog under the tutelage of a professor of herpetology. That is when I switched from abstraction to representational art, which was just more interesting to do. I love amphibians to this day.”
LeCluyse’s work is richly symbolic, with recurring images of ropes, barbed wire, gloves, crows and jacks. “I use ropes, branches, vines and barbed wire in my work most of the time,” LeCluyse explains. “These represent the entanglements of family. They can represent binding up, ensnaring, tangling, or they can be seen to be coming undone, releasing and setting something free. I’m constantly playing with these ideas and trying to figure out how to use them in effective, powerful ways in my images.
“I used gloves in this series of drawings to represent family members. Some of the gloves are empty and some seem to be animated by invisible hands. The crow is in most of my work lately. The crow is usually me or about me. Crows are potent symbols: They are spirit guides, symbols of wisdom or symbols of bad luck or death. For me, though, they animate my drawings with ideas of flight, intelligence, curiosity and persistence. They also have a strong presence in a drawing simply because they are large and black, and the beak is big enough to carry objects so they can engage with a rope or a ball, for example. The jacks represent a vehicle for people to interact and be together in a fun way. The child’s game invites us to remember the wonderland of childhood; it’s nostalgic for me and maybe for others.”
What drives her? “I draw to learn how to draw, to get better and better at it, LeCluyse explains. “I like drawing because I like the precision and energy of it. I like the flow in the process of making a drawing - first the struggle with the blank page, then the hesitation in the beginning stages and finally, it’s just a fight, erasing or covering whole sections, sometimes even sanding the surface. The process is predictable, but the emotion and struggle are just as intense with every drawing.
“If it’s a good drawing, I finally get to the polishing stage, my favorite part. I start by going a couple days without looking at the drawing. Then I go and sit in front of it for a good while with fresh eyes. I find the relatively small things I can do to make it better. I go back into the drawing and balance the darks and lights, making the darks darker and adjusting the grays. I clean up edges, add detail, play with things a bit. I often use the rule of thirds in my work, so when that is operating in a drawing, I make sure those points of interest stand out by intensifying the contrast or putting a highlight on an object or increasing the amount of detail in that spot.”
As to what keeps her going, LeCluyse says she simply enjoys doing the work. “It’s a meditation; it keeps me thinking; it brings me interesting friends and acquaintances, and it is purposeful work. As with all creative work, it is an expression of what is essential to being human. I like being involved in ‘holding space’ for future artists.
“I love being inspired to do art, but you can’t rely on inspiration. It comes down to spending time doing it even when it’s hard, even when you are discouraged, even when you think your work isn’t any good. You just keep doing it.”