Janice Leonard finds a fairytale magic in the light and the land in the Annapolis Valley at Paradise, Nova Scotia. For years she has played on the double entendre of ‘paradise’ as heavenly and as the rural community where her great-great-great grandfather settled in the 1780s. Her latest series of Paradise landscapes, Storied Times, exhibited through June 1 at Studio 21 Fine Art, Halifax, continues her lifelong obsession with this particular place, its human history  and the expression of her personal feelings about it.

Leonard’s acrylic paintings are thrilling for their light, her exquisite and varied handling of paint, and the force of her mark-making. She can turn a flat surface into a rippling pond just with an energized, incised line or two. While she has moved to a softer palette over the years, Leonard has never strayed from the lemony-yellows and lime greens that ignite her paintings. Storied Times includes a field of searing yellow flowers against dark green vegetation, mossy-green swoops of paint in forest and on rock by Leonard Brook, the flare of sun on a field with a bruised thunder cloud rolling in. 

Leonard talks about magic hours when light turns a familiar landscape into an enchanted, spiritual place. “Along the brook I find lunchtime is the magic hour, and when the sun is starting to set and bathes the trees in gold. There are wonderful, foggy mornings in my field and these dark, dark clouds that come into the field. I’m not one for the perfectly blue sky.” Even as a student in the early 80s at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design she was looking at the Northern symbolists, the Hudson River School and Emily Carr whose landscapes she finds “incredibly spiritual.” 

She grew up with her mother’s Van Gogh prints all over the house and saw Van Gogh’s paintings in Amsterdam. “He was trying to work with different mark-making and put that feeling he had for a landscape on canvas. Some are so manic and interesting.” Leonard does not consider herself a realist. Her images are “romanticized landscapes,” she says. “I’m expressing how I feel about the place and the time.”

Since 2012 she has used an iPhone instead of drawings for reference. First she paints a small study; these “postcards” are on one wall in Storied Times, each stamped with the date and including an entry from the diary she keeps at her Paradise cottage, built on her grandparents’ former pasture land. For her larger works, “I use the study as the reference not the photo to use my memory and feelings more. It’s more magical in your memory. The realism disappears from the image.”

Paradise, March 15, 2020, 7:18 p.m., 2022, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 x1.5 (Courtesy Studio 21 Fine Art)

The painting, Paradise, March 15, 2020, 7:18 p.m., is full of foreboding and anxiety and is her one “pandemic painting.” A sunset glows yellow and orange in the distance of a rust forest and dull brown field, full of frenetic, vertical lines like urgent hand-writing. “I was in the Valley March 15, 2020, when the pandemic hit, and I was there for a meeting of the Paradise Historical Society.” She felt the sunset had an apocalyptic feel and her sky looks like it’s about to explode into flame.

The river paintings in Storied Times are based on photographs from a canoe trip she took on the Annapolis River with Studio 21 Fine Art owner Deborah Carver. “It was a time when a young woman had drowned and her body had not yet been found. Every time I looked into the water I thought about how many drownings had been in the river.” This painting, Paradise, September 13, 11:37 a.m., with acrylic thinned to act like watercolour, lacks her usual luminescence; the water looks murky and mysterious. 

Leonard likes the diaryesque quality of dating her paintings just as the 18th and 19th century romantic landscape painters did. Her quietly powerful images evoke a memory of a beloved, childhood geography and a longing for sublime, spiritual spaces within nature and within the soul –  places free of Joni Mitchell’s parking lot, clear cuts in the Annapolis Valley, the loss of natural habitat and the extinction of species.