During a recent lunch break with her students at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center (BBAC), Leslie Masters was the star, decked out in her favorite look — shocking-pink round glasses, a fuchsia sweater, brightly colored pants, and pink tennis shoes.
She had just hung the final painting for her new show, a 50-year retrospective of her work. After two years of planning, which included creating a scale model of the space to map out where all of her pieces would go, she was thrilled to see it come together.
A few nights later, the BBAC gallery was filled with art lovers who’d come to take it all in. “It was exciting,” the artist says. “The opening was mobbed. I saw so many people I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
At a hard-to-believe 83 years, the sprightly artist’s upbeat personality is as vibrant as her acrylic paintings. Her large-scale works, many inspired by trips to the American West, reverberate with the sparkling light of the cliffs and canyons of Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, making an observer feel like they’re inside the painting.
With a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (magna cum laude) from Indiana University and a Master of Arts (summa cum laude) from the University of Michigan, Masters spent years developing her knowledge of color theory. One of her discoveries was that scientifically correct color relationships aren’t visually accurate and, therefore, most accepted theories were of little help to painters. Colored light and colored pigments are two different systems, she says.
Masters experimented with various pigment mixtures to find paint that made the brightest colors, leading to her development of a three-dimensional, visually correct color wheel painted on Plexiglas, which she uses as a basis for her teaching, along with her book, How to Paint a Rainbow: The Complete Artist’s Workbook for Acrylics, Oils, and Watercolors, published in 1993 and now in its second printing (the book is available at the BBAC).
For Masters, her retrospective represents a lifetime of chasing the light, perfecting the hues, and collecting great stories along the way. She has painted in southern France, “where the light is very bright,” and Italy, “where the light is golden.” She has brought her students to paint with her in those countries many times. In the U.S., she says she sketched scenes from photos she took during a harrowing Colorado rafting trip (not while paddling, of course).
“I like to paint places I’ve been,” Masters says, “but I’m also happy just to see the colors when they’re put next to each other. I want to get my colors as bright as they can be, at the same value. They get that shimmer, that dazzle. It makes them vibrate against each other.”
Over the years, the Ypsilanti resident has taught painting and color theory at the College for Creative Studies, the University of Michigan–Dearborn, and Mercy College (now the University of Detroit Mercy). Since 1968, she has been a faculty member at the BBAC, including serving an 11-year stint as assistant director. She also teaches and paints in her Ypsilanti studio, which features a whole wall of windows through which Masters can gain inspiration as she watches glorious sunsets over Ford Lake.
When she paints, Masters gets lost in Bach or other romantic classical music. Just for fun, the artist — also an accomplished flutist — plays with an 18- to 20-member musical group, the Brain Plasticity Ukulele Collective, which performs for the senior living community at Glacier Hills in Ann Arbor once a month (and sometimes they’re hired for paying gigs, Masters adds).
“I keep learning new things. I play by ear and do improv. I live every day and enjoy as much as I can. A long time ago, I made up my mind I would be happy and always look for the joy.”