Idyllwild artist Karla Leopold is modest. She creates edgy art in a variety of mediums — evocative art suffused and deepened through her work as an art therapist treating mental illness and childhood trauma. Leopold exhibits in prestigious galleries and teaches in leading universities. And although her art is strikingly original, and her skill as an art therapist is widely acknowledged, Leopold is still surprised when her art receives major recognition and accolades.
She was recently notified that she had won one of the most prestigious awards in sculpting, the Margo Harris Hammerschlag Biennial National Direct Carving competition — “Womanly Splendor” and “Small Twist.” A competition sponsored the National Association of Women Artists (www.thenawa.org) sponsors.
Friends and family had to coax her to enter the competition. “I was reluctant,” she said. “As an artist, you always question your own work. And I’m not a specialist in this area specifically.” The area, direct carving, is one in which the artist “discovers” the piece as they are carving it. The process of carving suggests the final form rather than working from a preliminary model to create a piece.
Leopold confided that she had only sculpted about 20 direct-carved pieces prior to entering the direct-carving competition. To enter she had to submit 10 examples of her work in this category. “The 10th piece was on top of my husband’s refrigerator, and that is one of the two that won,” she said. “My stone carving is feminist, strong, hard, but fluid and beautiful. Stone has such a deep connection with the earth. When you carve stone, you can’t go in with an agenda. When I thought I knew what I was doing, it would break off.”
To walk through Leopold’s Idyllwild studio is to experience the breadth of her talent — art in many forms — pastel painting for which she is best known; mixed media rooted in trauma and suffering, using a broad swath of materials and textures; and illustrations, a specialty for which she was trained at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Her mixed media piece, “Woman on a Journey,” won the President’s Award, NAWA Gallery in New York City in 2014; her “Child of Trauma” won second place at Pennsylvania State University’s Hub-Robertson Gallery, also in 2014.
“I do so many things,” she said. “It’s not that I’m unfocused. It’s just that I have so many interests, pushing to the edges and then on to the next subject or form.” Leopold recalled how she became an art therapist. “I’d always been fascinated by therapy and at a certain point in my life I felt I was unfocused, not knowing what to do.” She said she then went on a Los Angeles TV show Psychiatrist Dr. David Viscott hosted. “He said he did not see me as unfocused. He advised that my children, who were older, no longer needed as much from me, but that the world did. I asked, ‘Is there such a thing as an art therapist?’ He told me I ‘was’ an art therapist. When I asked what that meant, he said I’d figure it out.”
And she did, going to graduate school at Loyola Marymount University to be formally trained in art therapy. She has helped guide many suffering from life-altering losses work though their loss using art as the healing agent. In the fall of 2005, Rosie O’Donnell’s foundation, “For All Kids,” asked Leopold to lead a team of California therapists to work in an evacuation camp in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with children traumatized by Hurricane Katrina. O’Donnell’s foundation fully funded the team’s work.
When talking about her art, Leopold talks process. “My art is my process,” she stressed. “All I have experienced, in treating pain and loss, has flowed through my work. I keep saying, It’s not me, it’s all those with whom I have worked.’”
Of the Hammerschlag award, Leopold said, “It’s such a validation of my hard work.”
Leopold said she is preparing a comprehensive exhibit of her work, including the winning Hammerschlag sculptures, for exhibition this fall in a gallery near Idyllwild.
In addition to being catalogued and archived at the Smithsonian, Leopold’s award-winning sculptures also will be on file with the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City as well as the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. For more about Leopold, visit www.karlaleopold.com.