Suburban home in a desert landscape with palms trees and a prominent garage

The Experience of a Better Suburbia: The Suburban Landscape Paintings of Terry Leness

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 (currently under construction).

The following is edited from an interview I had with Terry Leness.

Terry Leness remembers her favorite Christmas gift ever. It was a boardgame size box of Crayola crayons. Always a doodler, she loved coloring books. She jokes that today she is basically creating her own coloring books.

Leness’ photorealistic suburban houses have left viewers convinced that they are photographs. One critic stated that other photorealistic work just doesn’t have the same “pedantic snap”. But, she loves the way they look on canvas, even if she doesn’t think suburbia is “terribly wonderful.”

wide gable style ranch suburban home with car port
Terry Leness Fissure 2014. All images used with permission. ©Terry Leness

Primarily a self-taught artist, Leness has a degree in Art History, Islamic Architecture specifically. It took her a few years to decide to take the plunge into full-time painting, balancing life with children. She ultimately found her voice and it felt like a more natural fit.

She found herself repeatedly drawn to architectural subjects for her paintings. She was living in Port Townsend, WA in 2006, painting what she saw on the streets. But not the elaborate confection Victorians present in town. Rather, the bungalows from the 40s and 50s, the eclectic sheds, the out-buildings are what caught her eye. They were her everyday surroundings. She says she likes “run down things”. These are the buildings that time has left behind. “I find that if you’ve gussied it up too much, you’ve taken the soul out of it.”

She has always been drawn to representational art over abstract. “That’s who I am”.

If you had to pigeonhole her style, she would say it is Photorealist. She doesn’t consider herself a landscape painter, though that is often what her work is labeled.

Her process

She works from photos she takes mainly walking around towns. Her early work was more painterly, with broader strokes, less detail, cropped in for a smaller canvas. She has a tighter style now. Additionally, with the help of digital images, she is able to zoom into her photos and really see the details. She has become more specific.

She starts with very elaborate drawings, blowing up the scene to work through the composition, depicting it first on tracing paper and transfer paper, and then onto the canvas. She likes to have a very organized and methodical process. Her style – these intricate and planned out drawings, reflects her personality, she says.

Leness admits it takes a lot of time. She enjoys the element of time that she invests in the painting. Houses, with their layers of siding, even trailers with metal detailing, give her the sense of involvement, that she has put enough time into the painting.

She can’t usually work from other people’s photos. “The way something is set up on the canvas, that’s important to me. If I can’t get the composition to work, even if it’s a wonderful house, I just can’t do it.”

She doesn’t think the critical art world particularly likes photorealism. Her work has been called seriously uptight. Leness has been asked “don’t you ever stand in front of a blank canvas and just create”, rather than painstakingly working from a photograph. She thinks there might be a difference in “what people consider to be artistic vs just draftsmanship.” 

two small pink houses
Terry Leness Joined at the Hip 2014

Selecting houses as subject

Leness is often asked “Why that house?”, which she has trouble answering. There is just something about the compositions and structures that catch her eye and that she ultimately selects for her paintings. Shadows and interesting plants are important criteria for her selection.

She is drawn to the intrigue of the people living there. While at the same time, she finds that people clutter up the scene.

There are many landscapes, periods, and types of buildings she doesn’t paint. She admits that she doesn’t think suburbia is terribly wonderful. It’s rare, “almost impossible” for her to want to paint newer construction. The built environment of today is not aesthetically pleasing. “The sprawl. It’s soul killing. I would never find material there. The buildings don’t make me want to put the time in.” 

Leness describes that she is stuck in the 1930’s through 1960s, – 1960s primarily. She thinks it is reminiscent of her childhood. She grew up around Miami in a subdivision. She didn’t love the suburban sprawl then. She describes its contrast as a beautiful colonial house, in a gorgeous historic neighborhood with hills, in some other state. “But that wasn’t our kind of luck.”

She has memories of tract housing, row after row, baking in the sun. “It’s evocative of my childhood. I find them architecturally interesting. There was a simplicity” to the small repetitive houses of that era.

Terry Leness Palm Shadow 2018

On what resonates with viewers

Early on, while taking part in local art festivals in Port Townsend, Leness heard viewers’ comments “Oh, I know that house. I grew up in that house! Why would she paint that funny old garage? Does Joe know that she painted his house?”

But in galleries, there is more distance between artist and buyer and it makes it harder to know why it resonates with people.

Leness thinks it’s not “subject matter that most people would necessarily like. ..I think people are much more responsive to a very highly detailed landscape than to, you know, somebody’s suburban house”.

Perhaps for this reason, Leness imbues her titles with humor and irony. It is an important aspect and she thinks it triggers a connection with people. A patron bought one of her paintings (Where’s the Doggy in the Window) because the house and the title made him think of his childhood. Her painting titled The Ushers, of a tree-lined funeral home entrance, was purchased by someone who appreciated the imagery in connection with the title.

trees in front of a funeral home entrance
Terry Leness The Ushers 2017

Others have noted that they love the beautiful color combinations and light even in bleak desert landscapes. The subject matter might resonate differently with them than with Leness. Some just like the reality in them.

Place attachment and comfort might also add to the personal connection. She found that the California galleries preferred California specific subject matter.

However, she says it can be difficult to do commissions because people might have a different sense of what they want to convey with their house. Some don’t want to show the power lines or the ADT security signs. And it might be a house that she wasn’t interested in painting.

Leness recalls the story of a 1939 commission by Edward Hopper, Pretty Penny. Hopper really wasn’t interested in doing it. It was a large Italianate mansion in Nyack, NY – worlds away from the vernacular structures he normally painted there. He didn’t care for the house. It had no light and no air, he was quoted as saying. He fought off requests to paint-in the daughter on the porch with her poodle. He was never happy about it.

Leness can find herself procrastinating with commissions when the house doesn’t speak to her, when it wasn’t an experience she found on her own, with the right light.

 amid century suburban home in a desert landscape with large palm
Terry Leness Silver Palm 2020

What she is conveying with suburban landscapes

Leness says she is “not necessarily looking for a better suburbia.” She is looking for the “life experience” that it reflects. “I like to think about the people living there.” Leness explains “there was a house I passed every day, with a light reflecting in the kitchen, with the lamp shade over the table, and I felt ‘Oh, my God, I remember we had one of those.’ You wonder if the appliances are avocado green or harvest gold. There is a poignancy to it. It feels like you know it.”

Leness says that she’s “sad to see some of this disappear, and it is disappearing. In Port Townsend, I painted a bunch of things that have been torn down.” (See John Baeder for more on painting old buildings as a form of documentary preservation)

With the loss of older houses, we also lose memory of the place – an iconic era in California or the shared point of interest among art festival visitors in Port Townsend (“I grew up in that house.”). We lose forms and details that remind us of childhood experiences at the dinner table. Leness’ paintings skillfully capture that era – reveling in the composition, simplicity, lines, and shadows.

Terry Leness will be showing her work in the Cityscape show at Billis Williams in Los Angeles, July – August 2024. She will have a solo show there in February 2025, titled Affordable Housing in which she will show her mobile home paintings from Palm Springs and communities around the Salten Sea.

New American Paintings

See next artists to be featured Ericka Sobrack, Michael Ward, and Leah Giberson

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