Lesley Giles is a painter with a fondness for color and lines. She’s exhibited all over the world and is currently based in Cambridge. She’s originally from London and describes a bit of the reaction her colorful paintings received there:
“Bit bright, isn’t it?”
“You’re not really English, are you?”
She recalls such statements in good humor and absolutely no apology for the type of art she enjoys creating. She says her paintings are post-cubism and landscape pop-art.
“I love white,” Giles said, “That’s probably the most obvious thing about my work; the use of white.”
On a gray afternoon with a mild thread of rain, Giles apologized for the lack of light as she flicked on a few lamps. Had it been a sunny day, the light would have flooded through the wall-to-wall windows.
A partially complete canvas sat propped on an easel. Her vibrant art covered the walls — a chaos of color arranged in tidy stripes on canvas.
“I like the formalism of stripes.” Giles said.
According to her website, Giles, who is from England, identified as a hippy in her adolescent years. Her art was influenced by psychedelic bands, French existentialist writers, and Avant-Garde art in the London art galleries. She spent most of her time drawing and went on to attend Goldsmiths’ College of Art, London, where she learned to paint.
She won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where she met international artists, such as American artist Robert Motherwell and Chilean-born artist Roberto Matta. She was tutored by British artist Ken Kiff. And after she graduated with her MFA, Giles spent a great deal of time living and working in London.
She describes traveling, rumbling around Greece in her Volkswagen van and other parts of Europe sketching and painting. She considers her old VW one of her studios, although long lost in her journey through life.
In the far corner of her Dorchester County studio (she moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 2012) is a small collection of cat paintings.
“My cat died. She was twenty-three. It was two years ago. She came with us from England. She lived in Florida and here. I got her when I was forty and it was weird; you look at what you’ve done the last twenty years. It was a lot to take in,” Giles said.
She reflected on time with her cat; she likened her to a child because she and her husband had no human babies.
She lifted a mostly finished canvas of her cat and said, “I should finish this. I started it when my cat was alive, but I was afraid I’d jinx her and she’d die if I did. We were surprised she made it past fifteen years.”
As Giles talked about the color and the blinds in the cat paintings, she interrupted herself: “You put a cat in something, and it doesn’t matter what the picture is about. Everyone relates to the cat.”
She pointed up to a canvas from her series on hurricanes. She has been through three hurricanes herself. The colors are purple and gray, and the painting has captured in a still medium the movement of violent weather.
The canvas next to that one is of the bridge she can view from her house. At sunset, a bright orange glow casts over the white bridge. The painted sky is gray, and she said the sunset glow on the bridge might best be captured by a skilled photographer. That is certainly one way to capture it but the contrast of the vibrant orange bridge and the painted gray sky and choppy waters on her canvas are striking.
Another of her paintings in her home is of the original landing for the Baltimore Ferry.
“The reason I did the painting was because there’s something about this dilapidated imagery that inspires me,” she said.
She gestured towards the bird in the sky of the painting.
“All my paintings have ospreys. This is the birth basket of the osprey. It’s my favorite bird.”
Giles approaches each painting differently.
“It depends. The smaller pictures work with the gallery wrap,” she said and gestured toward two small canvases on the table. On these, the paint wrapped around the edges of the canvas.
“It’s a difficult decision. Anything to do with framing is a nightmare for artists. To us—it’s the image—and when you sell work you get all this yak-yak about the frame,” she said. “It’s fashion. When I was trained you would never use black frames because you used it for photography. That was the rule. And then everyone wanted black frames but now everyone wants white frames.”
For a few months in the mid-1990s, Lesley taught watercolor in China. It was a three-day, two-night trip on the Iron Horse Train to the main city from where she was teaching. There was no phone or fax machine, and no Internet connection.
Teachers had to be a member of the Communist party to teach, although an exception was made for Lesley. She and her students didn’t speak a common language, so a self-taught interpreter aided communication.
Her husband gifted the school a fax machine, so they could send faxes back and forth.
In 2003, her husband’s job moved them to the U.S. They made it to Florida safely, but none of their possessions did, lost during the trans-Atlantic crossing.
Nearly a decade later, some of her wayward paintings made their way back into her life. These included the portfolios of her paintings from her time in China.
She pulled out one of the portfolios and flipped through the pages of art, a collection of buildings and people using ink and gouache on watercolor paper. The lines are straight with splatters of ink. They’re mostly black and white with a pop of red ink.
“The whole point of watercolor painting is that you leave the paper white,” Giles said. “Once you touch the paper, you’ll never get rid of that stain, and it’s the white paper that makes the dynamic watercolor.”
Because they were lost for so long, she has never had the chance to exhibit these paintings.
“You’re working backwards [with watercolor]. You have to know in advance. Because once you touch it, you have to know. With oils or acrylic, I’m adding white. The thing with working on paper is that it’s so much more direct because the hand is that much closer,” she said.