ARIPEKA — The brilliant greens of saltmeadow and marsh hay cordgrass, melt into cabbage palm fronds and the earthy gray-brown tones of black needle rush and the pneumatophores of black mangroves springing from a sandy shore. Hovering above is a brilliant blue sky filled with roiling clouds.
Amidst the vibrant soup of oil paint and bee’s wax applied to Masonite board, leap the yellow-orange flames of a marsh fire—at once horrifying and beautiful in the eyes of Aripeka’s own Leslie Neumann, renowned Encaustic landscape artists and conservationist. Things floating in the scene, mysterious orbs or speckles she refers to as “fairy dust,” evoke the mystical nature of life.
The scene, like many on her studio walls, is inspired by Neumann’s own back yard, which from her third-story studio perch stretches east and north across wild salt marsh and palm hammocks to Hammock Creek and beyond. It’s “paradise,” she says. “I’ll never leave Aripeka.”
Neumann is the last artist standing in the little fishing village straddling the Pasco-Hernando county line on the Gulf. It once had all the signs of becoming an art colony, but her longtime friend, world-renowned pop artist James Rosenquist, or just “Aripeka Jim” to locals, passed away in 2017. Other artists — Steve McCallum, Arline Erdrich, Tony Caparello and Daniel Stack, a Rosenquist assistant and Neumann’s husband of 20 years before they divorced — have moved or passed away.
Neumann came to Aripeka from New York City in 1989. She alternated her time between the two diametrically opposed worlds until the pull of Aripeka was too much to resist. She sold her New York loft in 1996, moving fulltime to the Hernando side of town near Rosenquist. She would later build a new home off Hammock Creek on the Pasco side, this time elevated to avoid troublesome little things like the 1993 “Storm of the Century,” which left 4 feet of water in her earlier ground-level home. She now lives high and dry on stilt pilings with her “scientist husband” Mike.
“My life is perfect,” she said smiling.
Looking back, the influence of Aripeka not only changed Neumann’s life but also her art.
“I used to do figures, people,” she said, but the beauty of the Nature Coast stole her attention, so she began experimenting with landscapes. She discovered oil painting on synthetic wood Masonite panels after someone gave her some of the material. Another artist friend gave her some colored wax, and now oil and Encaustic, a mix of pigment and hot wax, on board is her only method.
Neumann’s work would generally be described as impressionistic or interpretive. It doesn’t record the literal world as captured by a realist, but rather the feelings nature evokes, which she achieves by sidestepping reality to discover the essence of nature itself in the wax she deftly works with heat guns, propane torches and a hot iron.
“I try to include things people recognize and they are familiar with, but also a little of the unexpected,” said Neumann of her landscapes.
Those unexpected elements often come unexpected even for Neumann. It is the nature of melting, flowing wax that what develops isn’t always what she expects. She goes with the flow, Neumann jokes, waiting for that “eureka, or epiphany” moment when the wax reveals its truth.
She finds the fluid nature of her medium keeps her engaged, and she no longer searches for her “voice” or place in art. She’s found it in wax. She particularly likes the textured, three-dimensional aspect of wax as it builds up during creation. It would take days and weeks for oil paints with so much texture to dry, she said.
“The texture is thick (with wax) and it dries instantly,” she said, adding that it is easy to modify the look by simply reheating the wax.
She also likes the freedom landscapes allow. When she was doing figure painting there were expectations she found restrictive.
“When you are doing people, a hand must look like a hand,” or at least reasonably like a hand, Neumann lamented. “Those expectations aren’t the same with landscapes.”
Many of Neumann’s landscapes include fire. It’s a legacy of her early days in Aripeka, when an arsonist was on the loose, starting many fires in the local marshes. The bright flames amidst the green were “magical” and “moderately horrifying,” Neumann recalled.
She never forgot those images, and frequently adds flames for contrasting colors and their destruction but mesmerizing beauty.
In the years that followed, Neumann would help preserve some of those scorched marshlands. She was one of the pioneering members of the Gulf Coast Conservancy beginning in 1992, which worked with private owners and government officials to buy up and preserved natural wetlands. She calls it some of the most important work of her life.
Neumann said she plans to keep supporting conservation causes while continuing to paint. Her personal goal is a simple one shared by all artists.
“I want to do the best art I can as often as I can,” Neumann said.
Neumann’s website is www.leslieneumann.com.