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.

Guiding Light: Dwight Smith

Smith with portrait done by Angela Stout, 2019.

Sometimes you meet someone in one context and then rediscover them in a different one and it’s almost as if the Heaven’s part and light shines down on them. I met Dwight Smith through his impeccable volunteer work with the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra, which goes to show how deeply he cares about his chosen community of Fayetteville, since his hometown is Detroit. But in researching and talking with him about his painting, teaching at Fayetteville State University, and curation for Ellington-White Contemporary Art Gallery, it became much clearer why Smith is such a Guiding Light for his students, his audience, and all of us lucky enough to be blessed by his art and his wisdom.


What does success mean to you? “I’m the kind of person that always makes a plan. I always tell my students that you’ll never be successful if you don’t have a plan and then you implement those plans. And once complete that plan, that’s success. Then I make another plan for myself. I think that in making those plans, I’m moderately successful because I simply have enjoyed all the things that have happened to me in this creative journey.” Smith has traveled the world thanks to his art–trips to France, Senegal, Surinam, and China are especially memorable–and been able to meet and work with many of the artists he admires.

“I think I have a relatively successful career in life and I think it will just get even better. You never, never stop. You just keep working. You keep planning, you keep setting goals and you keep implementing and trying to make things happen that you want to see happen. Sometimes you have to do it for yourself. And sometimes there are other people who will see that you’re moving in a positive direction and they will help you do the kinds of things that you want to do.”

How have you constructed the bridges of your career? A successful career in Detroit, a myriad of solo or group shows, a well-respected gallery, an assistant professor-ship, even being a guest at a White House reception to honor ten Black American Art Masters: are some of the high points of Smith’s career. He jokes, “I never thought that my artworks would be in some of the collections that they’re in, so I’m very humbled about that, and I’m just very surprised. I’ll be honest: I’m surprised. Wait, how did I get here?”

“When you make a plan, you have to also say, okay, what do I need to accomplish to get to this goal, achieve the success. Sometimes those successes come to you because you’ve already done the preparation and you can then handle whatever comes. I belong to an organization called the National Conference of Artists, which is a national African-American art organization that I’m trying to get a chapter started here in North Carolina, and working with them and doing conferences and projects and planning, I have met so many artists, the people that I read about in books: David Driscoll, Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthe, Samella Lewis, all these artists that we all look up to, I’ve met them all, sat down and had conversations with them. So it’s being prepared and being the kind of person that you understand your craft or learning about your craft, developing your craft, and you’re open to experiencing and receiving the information from those artists you look up to.”

Homage to Al Loving“, watercolor collage

Who is in your artistic cohort?
Smith looked up to and learned from several mentors, other artists who “when they see you in a crowd, they point to you and say, hey, how are you doing, what’s going on and catching up. Sometimes you may not see them for a year, and then you’ve not lost the beat when you see them again.” Black art history legend Shirley Woodson Reid who was just named the 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist. Jon Onye Lockard, who Smith said was “the kind of mentor that would tell you “That’s really good. Or Dwight don’t tell that to anybody else anymore.” Jon was very special to me.” Willis Bing Davis in Dayton, Ohio. Dr. David Driscoll, who passed away in 2020. Then there are artists he still wants to meet, like Mark Bradford, “who is just phenomenal in his abstraction and the work that he’s doing. So I have those people that I really like and have those people that I’d like to meet. Hopefully the universe will take me in that direction.”

Smith curated an exhibition currently at the Arts Council and at Ellington-White Contemporary Art Gallery called Roots of Change, featuring 60 works by twenty-nine artists from a group he’s a member of called the National Alliance of Artists from HBCUs. “My ability to be able to create this exhibition with all of those wonderful artists is about being involved in these organizations. Becoming an associate professor at Fayetteville State University opened up avenues to these other historically black colleges and universities to continue to build my career and to help them build their careers. I am the kind of person where I will build you up while I’m building me up too. I never liked to do anything by myself. I like to take a group.”

My Soul Captures the Night Light and ignites the trail”, mixed media on canvas

What change do you seek to make with your art, and how has that changed over time, if it has? “Well, when I started out, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I just had the desire to make art. While I was at Wayne State University, it was steeped in German Abstract Expressionism, very popular at that time period. I really liked the abstract, because that’s a broad term that allows me to do a lot of different things, spread my wings a lot of different ways and use a lot of different materials.” Besides painting, Smith does drawings, collage, and has even worked in bronze casting. “Over the years, my work has developed into being work that deals with families, celebrations of artists, the whole sense of being a black male in America, a black artist in America.”

As a teacher, both at University and in summer camps and classes, Smith carries specific principles he imparts to his students. “Your voice is what’s important. You need to be the new voice that we hear, that has something to say. You have the artist statements that you will write and those will evolve over time because your work will evolve over time. You may stay in the same lane, but the work becomes mature because you’ve worked out a lot of the technical aspects in it, the ideology, all the information that goes with it. So, I’m always evaluating my work and trying to improve my work and see what’s missing in my work, what holes do I need to fill to keep me being excited about making art. Although there are times that as an artist, that sometime you just have to make art, your brain will go: If I don’t get into the studio, I’m going to explode. You have to get to that studio and you have to work. It’s just who you are.”

Guiding Light: Neil Donnell Ray

At Paddy’s Pub, 2017. photo credit: Tony Murnahan

In planning for 2021, I had an idea to (for now metaphorically) sit at the knee of our local artistic wise ones and learn from their processes and experiences. They are truly Guiding Lights for our community.

You can’t be in the Fayetteville art scene for very long and not hear the name “Neil Ray.” I wasn’t in town two weeks before witnessing his brilliance at Java Expressions, the open mic night he created and has hosted for 22 years at The Coffee Scene on Morganton Road. He serves as MC, recites poetry both pre-written and improvised, and jumps on the cajon to accompany many of the singer-songwriters. Somehow, he both exudes warmth to his audience and artists and is the epitome of cool at the exact same time.

What does success look like for you? “Accomplishing a particular purpose,” he said, which in Ray’s case is not only pursuing his art of poetry and music, but also encouraging the artists around him to “see they’re stars in their own right.” He’s candid about the ups and downs he’s witnessed or experienced, which builds trust with his audiences and artists.

What change do you seek to make with your art? “I want to inspire others in the community.” Ray shares a story about a young person who attended a Java Expressions one night, then came back the next week and braved the mic to share a poem that started as a suicide note but then wound up being a life-saving piece of art. There is literal truth in his catchphrase: “If no one else will listen–the page will.”

How have you constructed the bridges of your practice? “I find every day life inspirational: the people and the action around me.” Ray became smitten with writing poetry in elementary school. He wrote while serving in the military, created custom pieces while working as a flower salesman, helped students as a teaching artist, and all the while works to make a community more inclusive using his art. “Practicing gives you a better understanding of your craft.” Getting up on stage or getting away to an artists’ retreat to write and record music both contribute to Ray’s continued longevity and growth.

Who is in your artistic cohort? “I look at [my community] like a buffet: my eyes get wide and I take all I can now.” Ray is not one to shy away from naming names. He pulls dozens of people into his art network: from early mentors Lt. Colonel Bill Bailey and poet Glen Carter to musicians Erik Smallwood (with whom he toured all over the Southeastern USA) and Puncho Forrest to next generation hyphenates like poet/performer/coach El’Ja Bowens, author/musician/teacher Shane Wilson, and poet/coach/designer Yolanda “Yogii with 2 iis” Barnes. He talks about theaters, poetry groups, the Writers Ink Guild, drum circles, jazz bands, Southeastern Regional NC Poetry Festival, and more.

It is one thing to watch Ray give away more ideas and inspiration than he keeps, encouraging poets, songwriters, musicians, and authors to work through creative concepts and build new shows, albums, books, or organizations. But the real blessing is to watch the love come pouring back. Over and over I’ve watched and listened to artists give credit, give adoration, even give money to help cover medical costs after Ray had a stroke in 2019. Ray’s generosity in both word and deed is truly an act of wisdom. May we all continue to be blessed by this elder.