Leslye Villaseñor is out of the shadows as artist in residence at Liberty Station
The painter often explores memories while moving from portraits and still lifes to the more shadowy, reflective nature of her current work.
Sitting in her studio inside Liberty Station in Point Loma, where she is the NTC Foundation’s 2023 artist in residence, Leslye Villaseñor points to a recent painting that was inspired by a photograph of her and her sister.
On the surface, there is a tender reminiscence to the piece, her careful, sweeping brushwork obscuring the faces and giving the painting the look of something barely perceptible and out of reach.
“Most of my works, I’m really interested in light and in shadow,” Villaseñor said. “When I think about shadow, I think about how it moves with the passage of time and affects color and everything else. So I really do want to create this illusion within the painting. They do look very dreamlike, with an illusion of movement.”
For Villaseñor, time and memory can be a tricky thing. If we’re to believe that “art is history’s nostalgia,” as playwright Derek Walcott once put it, Villaseñor bucks that idea by dwelling within the shadows, both literally and figuratively. Her work is dark and complex, touching on philosophical themes such as existentialism and fatalism.
“I love horror and I’m really interested in human perception and human nature,” she said. “So I like to explore all the ranges within these emotions and feelings. I always think of my paintings as having a very realistic quality, but they also lean toward magical realism or even surrealism in a sense. In most of them I’m trying to capture a moment in time, and perhaps that’s why they appear to be dreamlike or ethereal, but with dark undertones.”
The fact that the faces in her paintings are obscured give them an almost universality, perhaps allowing viewers to see themselves in Villaseñor’s pigmented memories.
Villaseñor, 28, was awarded the artist-in-residence space for one year by a three-member panel of the NTC Foundation in January. The nonprofit oversees the development of the Arts District at Liberty Station and started the program to “provide up-and-coming artists with the opportunity to grow their skill sets,” according to Lisa Johnson, the foundation’s president and chief executive.
“Having my own space has been a great experience. It’s great to have your own personal space without interruptions,” said Villaseñor, who was accustomed to painting in the backyard of her apartment in Imperial Beach before her Liberty Station residency. She opens her studio to the public the first Friday of every month as part of Friday Night Liberty art walks.
The quiet of her own space also has enabled Villaseñor to further reflect on the highly personal nature of her current work.
“I always think of my paintings as having a very realistic quality, but they also lean toward magical realism or even surrealism in a sense. In most of them I’m trying to capture a moment in time, and perhaps that’s why they appear to be dreamlike or ethereal, but with dark undertones.”
— Leslye Villaseñor
Villaseñor, who was born in Chula Vista and raised primarily in Tijuana, draws inspiration and experience from having lived on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Though her work doesn’t include what many would consider staples of “border” art, it is reflective of an artist whose creative spirit persevered despite a blue-collar upbringing.
“I think I knew since I was a little kid that I was an artist,” she said. “I was always drawing, and that pretty much never stopped, but being in Tijuana just kind of changed my perspective of art and how I understood it.”
When Villaseñor was a child, her father would cross into the United States every day for work and often would bring back “huge rolls” of leftover butcher paper for her to draw on. She credits him with helping her harness her early artistic inclinations.
“I do remember that so clearly because it made me really happy,” she said.
Get Point Loma-OB Monthly in your inbox every month
News and features about Point Loma and Ocean Beach every month for free
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Point Loma-OB Monthly.
Growing up loving anime and comics, Villaseñor had aspirations of being an illustrator — maybe a cartoonist or an animator. But she said she began to refocus on painting once she began attending Southwestern College and eventually UC San Diego. Until then, she was “a little afraid of color,” having done black-and-white illustration most of her life.
“When I took my first class, I fell in love with painting,” she recalled. “It was frustrating at the beginning. Oil painting can be very unforgiving and frustrating. I really enjoyed it though, and learning how color works, it changed the way I saw the world around me. ... You’re always seeing it as a painter, all these different shades.”
Her work moves from striking, albeit moody, portraits and still lifes to the more shadowy, reflective nature of her current work.
“I feel like they have these very beautiful qualities to them, but there are undertones of a bittersweet relationship with my upbringing,” Villaseñor said. “I grew up in a very happy family and my parents were great, but happy memories are really interesting things.”
She says her current work and much of what she’s producing in her Liberty Station studio are her attempts to “reinterpret” those memories. Even the most nostalgic of memories can be filtered and emulsified, resulting in something that’s not entirely accurate.
“Many of the pictures I have, it’s like I remember that but only because I have the picture. I don’t actually remember the memory itself,” she said.
“There are circumstances that surround me and my family. We were doing bad economically and had difficult relationships with other family members, with very direct experiences with mental health issues,” she said. “So my work is all of that mixed together, the different sides of what makes a happy memory and how it changed the way I am and how I was able to adapt and grow.”