Natural history artist Kelly Leahy-Radding is a passionate woman of diverse talent. She is a painter of botanicals and wildlife, spinner and painter of home-grown yarn, farmer, graphic designer by trade, avid amateur wildlife photographer, and entrepreneur. Dismay is not in the mix.
Her botanicals feature birds and originate from her experiences in nature and gardens. Most are scenes she has photographed. For example, Radding recently photographed a grove of mountain laurel to paint from for an upcoming show.
“I didn’t know what kind of bird I would do – maybe a chickadee or just a regular old bird. I’m sitting there photographing and an American redstart, (I’ve never seen a male before) just flew in and perched on the branch in front of me. I said ‘OK, I guess you want to be in my oil painting.’ That’s how my paintings come to be.”
She photographed a flock of Mountain Bluebirds flying around in sage brush and rabbit brush while hiking in Yellowstone National Park on a blustery day and hummingbirds in Coast Rica at the break of dawn because they’re too chilled to fly yet. Those are the things that allure.
Critics consider her birds and botanicals not “botanical” art because, they feel, the work features the bird, not the botanical. “I paint where my heart is and what captures me at that time. I will continue to do paintings with birds because they’re very important to me.
“Brooklyn Botanic Garden Floralegium Society welcomes me to put birds in my paintings, which is apropos because it’s a depiction of their gardens and the birds as pollinators and the bugs and the moths and butterflies, I think, are just as important. If they weren’t there the plants wouldn’t be there and vice versa. As much as people are telling me they’re not strict botanicals, so what. To me they’re very important.”
Wildlife has been a difficult market for Radding to get into, although she loves it and is trying. It’s, again, the birds and also white backgrounds that the powers call “illustration,” not fine art. Her wildlife pieces with backgrounds do make it into shows.
“I’m a nature person,” she says. “I like going out and seeing birds. You can never do them the justice they deserve but you can try. My favorite artist is Monet. I took a trip around France and ended up in his garden. He said, ‘I wish I could paint the way a bird sings.’”
Her new thing is “Paintings from Nature’s Scrapbook,” miniatures of natures artifacts that she finds wandering the paths of untamed gardens.
Radding lives on a farm in Columbia, CT, with her husband, pygora goats, 34 llamas, sheep, and other assorted critters. She raises the goats for their cashmere down and the llamas because she fell in love with them after getting one to guard the goats against coyotes and fox. She spins their yarn, often hand-dyes it, and sells it in a shop she owns with a needle felting partner who also raises llamas for yarn.
So how does a jack-of-all trades handle the challenges?
“I have so many interests. For many years I fought it but I have finally learned you just have to do a little bit of each and satisfy all of the parts. Wildlife art is just as important to me as botanical. They all have a meaning to me.”
* All art copyright and images courtesy Kelly Leahy-Radding
Birds and botanicals: gauche on paper
Mostly all else: calfskin vellum with watercolor
Wildlife: egg tempera under oil on clay board
Member: American Society of Botanical Artists, New England Chapter; Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium Society
Training: Fine arts at Colorado College; Art Institute of Huston in advertising design and illustration; children’s illustration at Rhode Island School of Design; botanical art and illustration at New York Botanical Garden that put everything into focus for her. (“It was one of those ah ha! moments.”)
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published November 30, 2008