painting, view of a suburban house through lawn chairs and umrebrela

Canvas of Calm: The Suburban Landscape Paintings of Leah Giberson

The suburbs, usually spoken of in disdain or blame, are home to about 70% of the US population.

Place attachment, nostalgia, and memory are important aspects of finding our way through life. Can the suburbs offer these things to the many people who are growing up or have grown up in them? I’ve been curious about what the icon of the suburban house represents for people, particularly, realist artists who have selected the suburban home as their subject matter. They spend considerable amounts of time creating realistic works of this taken-for-granted architecture and have found a market for it.

What do the suburbs and suburban houses mean for them, and us? Can we all develop more place attachment with our most common cultural landscape? (Besides, I love the genre and want to learn more about the concepts that drive the artists). See the whole series of interviews

The following is edited from an interview I had with Leah Giberson.

For many of us, the suburban landscape represents a safe haven, a place we feel protected within the supportive structure of our house. Our house and yard can represent a scene of order that we display externally, even if life inside never actually feels that tranquil.

It is this tension between fact and fiction that permeates the architectural paintings of Leah Giberson.

The perceived order and normalcy of the suburbs are etched into Giberson’s memory of childhood, in contrast to her rural upbringing.

Giberson explained “I’ve been intrigued by suburbia much of my life, but the only time I really wished that I lived there was when I was in middle school, was self-conscious and desperately wanted to “fit in”.”

At critical points in her adulthood, a suburban house was an icon of well-being. “Homeownership, itself, has definitely been something I’ve longed for, but it has always remained just out of reach for me in this very expensive part of the country.”

Leah Giberson “New Neighbors”, 12″x16″ 2010. Based on photo by Jenna Coray w/ permission. All images used with permission. ©Leah Giberson. Images and additional information can be found at https://www.leahgiberson.com/

The process

Giberson grew up in an artistic household. There was never a realization of “Oh, I think I’m an artist. …That was always there.” She has always been creating, using multiple mediums including fiber, paper, and paint.

She attended Oberlin as a Studio Art major and then Massachusetts College of Art as a Painting major, where she eventually received her BFA. Giberson recounted that almost all her work involved additional media (silkscreen, etching, collage, alternative photography, found imagery).

Giberson prefers to start her work with the foundation of a photographic image to respond to, rather than painting directly on a blank canvas. Some examples of her earlier work built up the spaces around the images with paint, or using sewing patterns, for example, to complement 50s iconography from advertisements.

Her work has almost always included representational imagery, however she feels she sort of “backed into” painting realistically. It was not what she set out to do. She hesitates to refer to her work as realism even as her paintings have become increasingly realistic.

She says “I understand why people would say [my work is] photorealism, but“my process is important to me … and it’s different from most photorealist painters.” Giberson explained that the image provides a foundation, but she changes it, “pushing and pulling paint” as she goes, “responding to the source image.”

“There’s such a big transformation that happens – changing the underlying ‘facts’. And that’s an important part of it for me.” It still has components of mixed media that might not be obvious at first glance when viewed digitally, but it is almost completely covered in paint.

painting of suburban house with neat landscaping
Leah Giberson “Calumet Slant” 8″x10″, 2009. Based on photo by Curtis Locke with permission.

A focus on the house

Giberson began painting architectural pieces around 2005. She was drawn to industrial buildings and humble homes – the places she thought no one else noticed. Giberson emphasized long shadows and contrast, the juxtaposition of abutting structures.

She was looking for clues to what the story might be. There was intrigue in the long shadows, a partially drawn curtain, or the space between houses that neighbors share.

Giberson was ending her first marriage at the time. It was difficult to see other people own homes and seemingly have their “life together” at a time Giberson felt she did not. She felt adrift and, though an oversimplification, she felt on the outside of the “American Dream”.

Parts of the houses looked perfect and tidy, the manicured hedges, the order. Much of it was very mundane and had a sense of “normality”.

She finds that “homes both reveal and conceal clues to the stories of our private lives.” The house represents structure, security, protection, but she’s also certain there are “more complicated underlying stories.” She is well aware that what the outside of the house communicates in its orderly nature doesn’t necessarily represent what is happening on the inside.

Oftentimes, Giberson is struck by the vulnerability in a house site and exposure to nature’s strength.

“I’m drawn to what we do to make a house feel like it is protection. … the efforts we undertake in an attempt to maintain that sense of security and order in an unpredictable and ultimately uncontrollable world.”

Turning the house into art

As a photo-based painter, Giberson adheres photographs and paints around them, embellishing and simplifying the environment as it resonates with her, extending the story to the sides of the board. She eventually enveloped the photos in her distorted and reinterpreted landscapes.

L. Giberson, “Covered”, Side view
Leah Giberson “Noe Valley” 12″x12″, 2010

She distills the surroundings and simplifies the content and shadows, often making the horizon line “uncomfortably low”, creating a flat field of “suffocatingly” blue sky. She positions the houses in an intense isolation, but then draws attention to the powerlines, the parts we often overlook, and emphasizes the length and geometry, a means of communication for the isolated family.

This is the “tension between fact and fiction” that inspires Giberson’s work. She said she was influenced by the open landscapes of Ohio while studying at Oberlin for several years. The big landscapes with little houses. She emphasizes the space around and in between houses which allows room to breathe and helps the light to be seen.

In doing so, Giberson said she unclutters the scene or tries to tame the chaos, where the original photograph might be overwhelming, a sensory overload. In this way Giberson creates for herself and the viewer a state of calm and focus.

space between suburban houses
Leah Giberson “Through Torrance” 12″x24″, 2018

Constructing meaning in our environment

Giberson explains that her process “echoes the way we each edit and reconstruct our memories, in an attempt to unearth and create meaning in our experiences.”

“I have found the suburbs an endlessly interesting subject matter not because I’m from there or ever want to live there, but because it’s so dramatically different from my own upbringing. It’s a place where my parents were raised and both vehemently rejected, a place that seems full of promises and contradictions, but also a place I’ve known only as an outsider.”

Living in Boston, she is less drawn to the New England built environment that she sees most often. Her old farmhouse growing up was rich in so many ways, but also could feel overgrown, cluttered with vegetation.

In her early paintings of New England, she opened up the sky and removed most of what would make the paintings geographically specific. She continues to construct a more isolated landscape. While her paintings become “not of a specific place”, she recognizes that the imagery remains very much American.

She often returns to the California suburbs of her paintings, which are worlds away from the rural house of her upbringing and the density of triple-deckers in Boston, where she has lived since college.

She is always on the lookout for the simple, shadow-inducing lines of mid-century houses. The appealing geometric structures, painted in attractive colors, have their own drama. In some ways, the foreign landscape of the West Coast reinforces the feeling of being an outsider looking in.

Importantly, the California structures play on the tension between protection and vulnerability for Giberson. She described building there as a sort of blind optimism. Houses deliberately built on steep slopes, in dry landscapes, and along fault lines, their security can be easily undermined by larger forces of nature, outside of the owner’s control.

Reinforcing our memories

Giberson’s content includes backyard pools, nylon woven lawn chairs, covered cars – the everyday aspects of the suburban scene that seem invisible, but still very much represent, invite, and create place attachment.

She has painted commissions for people of their childhood homes. Giberson explained that the people who appreciate her work find themselves paying more attention to what they had previously overlooked. They increase their appreciation of the everyday and mundane aspects of their environment that they might have passed, unconsciously, for years. Now they see more details.

Giberson said she feels an increased connection anytime she visits the spots she has painted. When she goes to Daly City or other areas she has spent endless hours painting, she feels that she knows them in some intimate way. She walks around and says, “I painted that house”. She thinks it’s her version of “homeownership”. It has made her “feel connected to so many different places and people in a deeply personal way”. And she joked it’s her way of living on the west coast.

Leah Giberson “House No. 70″ 8″x10” 2010

Her body of work also includes many campers, which she considers a form of small houses and an icon of the suburban everyday landscape. There is a freedom to the camper, but at the same time you are dragging all your things behind you. The endless optimism of mobility and then the reality of the burden. They force people to simplify their possessions and lives.

Giberson’s most recent work is tending towards reflection, “going deeper into the looking glass”, on windows, chrome campers, and the deep end of swimming pools. She explained that the cropped composition adds to the mystery of what is offstage. When she zooms in, she sees there is more to the photo. When she steps back from the process, she gets a feeling of “wow”. She sees it become something more than what was ever in the photo – which she said feels like magic.


See next artists to be featured Terry Leness, Michael Ward, and Ericka Sobrack

Shop Leah Giberson’s work at the links and shops below. (no affiliation)

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