The artist’s lifeFeb 16, 2015 12:11AM ● By Kerigan Butt
Courtesy photo Leathrum has always considered herself to be an artist.
By Steven Hoffman
Dragonfly Leathrum readily admits that, when it comes to her artwork, she is happily directionless. On any given day at the Dragonfly Art Studios in Newark, she might be involved in one of a dozen different interests -- photography, jewelry design, printmaking, oil or acrylic painting, stained glass, mosaics, clothing design, knitting, cake decorating, mural painting, or cartooning.
Her home studio is located at Camp Whistle Pig, on the edge of Newark near the Maryland and Pennsylvania borders. Here, she finds ample inspiration for her artwork.
“It’s a tiny house surrounded by the White Clay Creek Park and the Karanz CSA farm,” she explained. “I live and work in the space, and the studio takes up a lot of it. The main studio has two big tables where I make stained glass windows and teach. There is an easel, my idea and quote board, and a tiny office area. The studio has a lot of natural light, friends’ artwork on the walls, and a great view of the deer, birds, foxes, and whistle pigs in the yard.”
Leathrum seemed destined to lead the artist’s life from a very early age. She can remember creating art by the time she was five years old, and her mother, in particular, offered encouragement.
“My mother had an elementary art education background. Instead of giving us coloring books, she would cut up brown, paper shopping bags and let us color and draw on the blank paper, encouraging us to create our own images,” she recalled. “There was usually a craft project happening at home.”
Leathrum demonstrated early artistic ability so by the time she was in grade school she was taking weekend art classes at the Absalom Jones Community Center in Marshallton, Del. Later on, she studied painting, drawing, ceramics, and photography at Caravel Academy and Newark High School. She also participated in a summer art workshop between her junior and senior year at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.
By the time Leathrum entered college she was determined to explore various artistic directions. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and printmaking from the University of Delaware, but also broadened her horizons by participating in workshops at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina, as well as studying at LaGrange College and Wolverhampton University in Wolverhampton, England.
“I don’t think college influenced my artistic direction that much. It gave me time to experiment and push my limits, but I’ve always been happily directionless in art. College encouraged me to find a main medium and a theme, but I wanted to experiment with many mediums. I began college in the photography department then moved on to painting and printmaking. The year I graduated I moved to Dover, Delaware to help my grandmother. That’s where I became interested in sewing. I began making my own clothes and started a clothing line.”
Leathrum has always had the courage to follow her creative instincts. One day in 1990, when she was still an art major at the University of Delaware, she walked into the Bit O’ Scotland Bakery in Newark one day and told the owner, “I’m an art major, I can decorate cakes.”
“They laughed at me, and gave the job anyway,” Leathrum explained. “Thank goodness they did because that job skill allowed me to move around the country, buy a house, and kept me in art supplies for over twenty years.”
Today, in addition to running Dragonfly Art Studios, Leathrum handles several different duties at Layton Preparatory School—she’s an art instructor, the director of marketing and publications, and the community service and outreach coordinator for the school. It is this job, she said, that she is best-suited for.
“The job that I have now suits my personality best, thank goodness. I love teaching high school students. Preparing their lessons improves my art as well because I’m revisiting art history, preparing demonstrations, and taking them on fun field trips to meet artists or tour museums. I also like the challenges of marketing and, again, the training I receive benefits my business as well.”
As could be expected for someone who follows the creative muses, Leathrum has worn many professional hats through the years. At various times she has been a bus driver, a tie-dye factory supervisor, a foreign student home-stay mother, a car salesperson, a wedding cake decorator.
“Sometimes, I would burn out and try other things,” she explained. “In 2006, I wanted to learn how to be a better salesperson to help my art business so I sold cars for a year. I received great sales training, made some good money, and learned a lot of good people skills. When I came back to the bakery that I was working for at that time, I was a lot more confident with my wedding clients.”
Another way that Leathrum has broadened her artistic horizons is through several different apprenticeships.
“I have apprenticed in stained glass at Glass Crafters in Lewes, Delaware and at Timeless Tiffany in North East, Maryland,” she explained. “I apprenticed briefly in jewelry design with Caryn Hetherston, a jewelry artist in Landenberg, Pennsylvania. When I decided to try stained glass, I couldn’t afford to go back to school and it was difficult to find a school that offered it. By apprenticing, I was able to see the business side of the medium as well as the technical—which you don’t always learn in school. By apprenticing with Caryn Hetherston, I was exposed to high-end craft shows and the business practices of an accomplished artist.”
As an artist who enjoys moving from one project to the next, Leathrum seldom lacks inspiration. She explained the sources for her inspiration. “I get inspiration from photographs that I take, things that I read, commissions and whatever the Newark Arts Alliance Gallery Committee comes up with for a show idea. I keep an idea notebook that has quotes and ideas for t-shirts, bumper stickers, paintings, etcetera. I keep it around when I’m watching movies on the computer or reading. Sometimes, I dream about a cool art project and I add that to the book.”
The various sources for inspiration keep her very busy. At the time Leathrum was interviewed for this article in early April, she was hard at work finishing three stained-glass windows for Special Olympics Delaware, preparing for a mosaic workshop for Camp Whistle Pig, and painting a portrait in acrylic to submit to the Newark Arts Alliance’s members’ show.
The Newark Arts Alliance is a huge asset for artists in the area, Leathrum said.
“I think that Newark has become a good place to become an artist and I credit the Newark Arts Alliance for providing opportunities to show, teach, and perform. The Arts Alliance has provided me with jobs, shows, commissions, and mural-painting opportunities. I might have moved away a long time ago without that support. A large university in town helps as well. The Newark art scene, from my experience, is full of some very talented and generous people. If you attend an opening at the Newark Arts Alliance, you’ll meet artists of all ages from a lot of different backgrounds. It’s a friendly, inclusive group.”
An artist never stops learning and growing. Leathrum said that one of her current goals is to become a better portrait painter.
“I’m also switching back to oils from acrylics and focusing a lot of time on relearning methods and materials to be successful,” she explained.
Beyond that, Leathrum’s not going to limit herself to specific goals. When it comes to her artwork, she will remain happily directionless.To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected]