Guiding Light: Leslie Pearson

artist Leslie Pearson. photo by Shane Booth

The official short bio of Leslie Pearson reads: a multimedia artist who utilizes many fiber based materials, processes and techniques to create sculptures, installations, encaustic paintings, and handmade books in which she explores themes of memory and identity. She pursues art as a studio artist, community arts advocate and educator. She has taught at various colleges and Universities and currently serves on the Board of Trustees at the Arts Council of Fayetteville, and is a member of the Surface Design Association. Pearson exhibits her work nationally and internationally. But that doesn’t scratch the surface of the long and varied path her artwork has taken her on, how she’s become a fixture in Fayetteville, or even touch on Fayetteville Pie Company or her forthcoming establishment, Curate Essentials. Pearson has traveled the world and embodies the idea that you can improve and be improved by your local community.

A portion of installation “Tell Me Your Secrets I’ll Tell You Mine” and her cat, Friday Noir.

What does success mean to you?

When I was younger, I used to dream of being an artist. I thought, “Well, how can I make money as an artist? How would that look as a success?” So I thought I would teach art; that was my limited knowledge of what I could do as a profession in the arts.

I pursued that and then switched from arts education to studio practice because I knew I needed to hone my skills as an artist. Then, I wanted to work at the arts council in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when I was taking my studio classes. That opened my knowledge of arts administration and being able to work in a gallery space, which led to pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies, in the hopes of working in an established museum. But when I got back to the States, that was when 9/11 happened and people were really holding onto their jobs. I realized, if I want to work in a museum, I need a PhD or I need to at least learn a foreign language, but it was really hard to even get a foot in the door in museums.

So there I was with debt, student loans, things like that. I was having meetings with professionals in the art world; I moved to Kansas City for a little while because I thought I would have a better connections. And I ended up working at Sonic and selling my plasma three times a week. That’s how hard up I was. I worked at a donut shop before Dawn and I was substitute teaching. I was like trying to do whatever I could to earn some money. I met this kid who said, “I’m going to join the army because I’ll use my GI bill. They’ll pay for my education after that.” And it just kind of clicked in my mind; I’d never thought about joining the army. And she said, “well, why don’t you just talk to my recruiter?” one thing led to another, and then I’m in the army as a photo journalist. That was the most creative thing I could think of to do for the army. From there, I started writing articles for the local newspaper in Augusta covering arts and entertainment. I realized after I got out of the army that I could get a master’s degree, which would then allow me to circle back and teach art at the college level.

After arriving back in Fayetteville with her husband, Pearson opened the Fayetteville Pie Company, which she credits to a childhood spent learning from her grandmother how to garden, can food, and bake pies for a crowd. Another childhood dream was to open a studio/coffeeshop-type place with her sister, who now also resides in Fayetteville and works closely with Pearson. They are currently renovating a Haymount building to achieve this dream.

To go from being artist-, writer-, teacher-brain to business owner was a big change for me. Through that, I’ve really learned a lot about running a business, which is now helping me as I’m developing Curate Essentials, which I think brings me full circle because with it, I’m able to take everything I learned from the pie shop and develop this store. All that I learned about teaching: I’m going to be able to teach workshops here. Everything I need in terms of travel to exhibit my work, this place is going to allow me the flexibility of that. I’m going to be able to use part of this space as a studio space to continue making work. I’m going to be able to show work. I’m going to be able to bring visiting artists. And so I’m going to be able to cultivate all of that interest in teaching and being with other artists.

So to answer your original question when I was younger, I used to think that being a famous artist was being someone featured in an art book. For me now, it’s just being able to constantly live in my natural, creative, passionate self, but also earn a living doing that because what I’m doing has a monetary value as well.

detail from “Canoe”, a commissioned piece co-created with Australian artist Kerrie Bedson, 2018

What changes in your audience do you seek to make with your art?

I am interested in autobiographical work and the idea of family and being in a community. At first it was very literal: my thesis work was called “Vignettes of a Family”, and I broke down each person who had a big impact on my life and started exploring their story. Then branching out to think about the people who had touched my life in some way, even if it was indirectly. Because embroidery pieces are extremely time-consuming, I’m still working on a series called “Trace Evidence”, which is a fingerprint embroidered over, in an abstract way, old family photos. I love to learn. I’m a lifelong learner. So I was taking some classes on forensic science at Methodist University, where we were learning about fingerprints, how to take fingerprints and about trace evidence and how every single person has trace evidence that they leave. There’s a part of you that you leave at a scene and you also pick up things and you take them with you. So you always are touching your environment and being touched by it. I was thinking about life and how we touch other people’s lives and how one person can be influenced by this person. And they’re influencing you as well.

Pearson’s visual work is complex, usually made up of smaller pieces that represent community, and they are enhanced with text of some kind, giving more depth and intricacy to draw in the viewer.

They just, they like it for the simple shapes, the forms, the colors, and possibly the materials. And then when asked deeper questions, I have answers for them, because people approach artwork differently: everybody who approaches art comes with their own perceived notion, their own background and how they think about things. But I think that idea of family is a very universal thing.

Now how I’m going to use that to change the world in some way. As an artist, I absorb all of my surroundings, all of my interactions with people, everything that comes my way. And then I translate that into my work as a way to get it out and then invite people to just experience it. They have been able to connect with it and maybe see their situation a little bit differently.

always learning something new

How have you constructed the bridges of your artistic career?

There’s a great book called Hinds Feet on High Places that always made me think when I’m going through hard times, God’s got a plan. This little character, she’s trusting that she’s going to the high places and to get there, she thinks she’s going to go straight up, but she has to be led down lower and lower into valleys and in dark times, she realizes that she’s learning to trust more in her guide and in herself and the pain that she goes through makes her stronger. So she actually is able to live in the place where she’s meant to be on the mountain top. There’s been times in my life where I’m just like, ah, I just really want to get to this place where I have this huge exhibit and but I’m still here with these little small exhibits and stuff like that. Well, now I understand that when I do get an opportunity to have a big exhibit, I needed to show in those smaller places. I needed to define my work. I needed to grow as an artist. I needed to know those things. I needed to go through grad school to learn more technique and how to be a professional. I needed to teach at a community college before I could teach at a university. So it has been very, very, very small steps along the way.

One of my biggest problems is I never have enough time to actually get to all the things I have or want to do. I keep a journal with sketches; sometimes, I’ll say, okay, I’m going to do a little sample piece, which I’ll set in my studio. It will remind me, even if it’s a year or two later: Oh yeah, that’s what I was going to do with that.

from Pearson’s latest show “eco prints”, 2021

Who do you consider your artistic cohort?

Firstly, my sister, Leigh, who is my studio assistant. She has been a big help to me. My husband, Justin, who never complains about the ongoing projects I’m involved in. My friends Jennifer and Ellen, who are always game to do something creative and both challenge me to be the best version of myself. Everyone who works at the Pie Shop: they work so hard and are so creative. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. And all of my Facebook friends who are always encouraging me. I also look to the other women business owners in Fayetteville who are in the trenches every day making their own dreams come true.

For me, also, is going to places and doing workshops. For instance, I’m going to be teaching at Arrowmont in Gatlinburg, Tennessee soon. I’ll be surrounded by other artists who are teaching classes, and also exhibiting their work, and all the students. Those are the times when I get pushed; there’s a synergy that happens. So I rely on those times.

I have another friend, MJ, she’s about 80 years old and she’s my best bestie: she’s an artist. When I’m around her, we just push each other and we’re constantly being creative and things like that. I always say, I want to be like her when I grow up. We used to be together at Acme Art Studios in Wilmington. There were 22 working artists there. That was such a highlight of my life to be there every day with people who were working as practicing artists for their living and teaching and doing commissioned work and things like that. That was a really sharpening time for me.

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