photos by Zoe Rodriguez
Finding Leslie Thomas in her studio is akin to looking for Waldo in a rabbit warren. She and her artist husband, Mark Knudsen, are nestled in a back corner of the maze of studios, galleries, classrooms and frame shops cobbled together from three old buildings that comprise King’s Cottage in Sugar House. The couple has been there about a year now, and they both paint full time in the homey space they’ve created.
When Thomas and Knudsen first moved in, the studio had a dark, dirty subfloor left after the previous tenant removed some not-so-clean carpet, and one small window. Today it has three north facing windows, a couple of couches, lamps, plants, a small refrigerator and lots of books and personal memorabilia, including a big ceramic pig made by a friend. The floor has also been cheerfully revived à la Jackson Pollock. “We put four coats of Varathane on the floor,” Thomas says, “and then started throwing paint around, one color each day. When we were finished, we had to paint the walls, too, because they were pretty messy.”
Thomas’ journey to full time painter is every bit as convoluted as the twists and turns of King’s Cottage, though art has been a life long passion. “I always could and did draw,” Thomas says, “and I was fortunate to study under some wonderful teachers like Don Doxey, James McBeth and Tony Smith, but as I got older I made several missteps in life.” She started college in California as an art history major, but ended up acquiring a husband and two kids along the way, which derailed her education plans.
By the time she was 35, Thomas found herself back in Salt Lake as a single mother with no degree. “And that’s when I finally listened to my father’s advice,” she says ruefully. “He said there were only two areas that would allow me to make money immediately after graduation: accounting and computer engineering. I chose engineering so I would have a career that could pay for my children’s braces.”
“Before I die I would like to have a painting turn out like I see it in my mind’s eye. That would be nice . . .”
Thomas secured a job in the development department at the University of Utah and immediately began using her reduced tuition benefits to shore up her math skills. She was later accepted into the computer engineering program, one of 60 students chosen from a pool of 1,400. “Engineering is about as far from the art world as you can get,” she laughs, “but the great benefit of the American school system is that you get second chances.”
After graduation Thomas worked in robotics across three states. She smiles as she remembers her first job designing brains for little robots that scooted around the factory floor, “taking things out and putting them away, taking things out and putting them away. It was like having little dwarves running around,” she chuckles. “The job was hard, but it was glamorous. They called it AI (artificial intelligence) back then, and that was the hippest place to be in engineering.”
In 1997, Thomas moved back to Salt Lake and worked in the telecommunications industry. She met her future husband the next year. “An old friend of Mark’s saw me at a gallery stroll,” she recalls, “and set us up. On our first date we saw the worst movie ever made, but we had a really good dinner.” They continued to date over the next several years and finally tied the knot in 2004, after a literal sign from above.
“Get the picture, Mark!” Thomas exclaims suddenly, and then continues the story. “We were driving to Bellevue and I looked up to see these contrails in the sky. I asked Mark what they looked like, and he agreed with me that they formed the Roman numeral XII. So I took that as a sign that we should get married on the 12th of the month and we did!”
Knudsen chimes in to say, “You should have seen Leslie driving through Southern Idaho. She was so intense because she didn’t know when the courthouse was going to close and she wanted to get to Winnemucca in time.”
“Yep,” agrees Thomas. “We got married in this courthouse with pencil drawings of Elvis on the walls. They were having a high school art show of some kind.”
And then shortly after they were married, Thomas was laid off and Knudsen took early retirement after 35 years at the Tribune. “Mark wanted to make a run at fine art painting full time,” Thomas says, “and I decided I wanted to paint a lot more, too. We had gone out on weekends to do some plein air painting, but this was a chance for us to get a real studio and paint full-time, and Mark has always been one of my best teachers.”
Thomas and Knudsen subsequently developed their current painting technique, which is to take road trips through Utah, Arizona and Nevada shooting hundreds of digital photos of the arid landscape. “We don’t compose our photos,” says Thomas. “We just take tons of them and turn them into panoramic shots on the computer. Then we take those pictures back to the studio and paint from them.” Asked why she focuses on this particular geography, Thomas replies, “I was born here and took this landscape as a given, but then I came to treasure it after I moved away and came back.”
Even though the two artists sometimes paint from the same photo, there are marked differences in their styles. Knudsen is known for his stretched horizontal views of the landscape and Thomas paints in a more traditional size. Knudsen also tends to include more man-made items in his paintings – fences, vehicles, etc. — while Thomas usually sticks to pure landscape. “That way I don’t have to do such straight lines,” she laughs. They also use different materials; Knudsen uses acrylic and Thomas paints with oil.
Thomas says she’s made a lot of progress as a painter in the last few years and specifically notes two influential forces. First was the chance in 2009 to exhibit at the Utah Arts Festival as an invited artist with Knudsen. “All I did was paint for the six months that led up to the Festival,” she says. “I only moved forward because I didn’t have time to look back and worry about my painting. I had to make it all count.”
The second reason she feels she’s a better painter is due to yoga. “I first started doing yoga at Artspace to support the program, but then I started noticing that my back didn’t bother me as much. I had always painted sitting down so my back wouldn’t seize up, but now I can stand up all day and paint. As a result, I can paint better and larger.”
Thomas is enthusiastic about her upcoming exhibit, but notes that she and Knudsen were thrown into disarray a few weeks ago when their studio was systematically burglarized. The art thief targeted hundreds of dollars in brushes, paints, palette knives, expensive solvents, and a pad of canvas. He even walked off with their stocks of Diet Coke and garbage bags. “Now that’s low,” Knudsen interjects.
Thomas and Knudsen have since installed security and are negotiating with their insurance company, but each day they still feel victimized when they reach for something that turns out to be missing. Towards the end of this interview, for example, Knudsen exclaims, “Man, that guy took my cerulean blue! And I need it right now!”
As Knudsen trundles off to the art store for more paint, I ask Thomas what her future goals are for painting. “Well,” she replies hopefully, “before I die I would like to have a painting turn out like I see it in my mind’s eye. That would be nice.”
And then she adds fervently, “This is the best chance I’ve had of my second chances.”
received her B.A. in Psychology from Lewis and Clark College, and Masters in both Social Services and Law and Social Policy from Bryn Mawr College. She is an award-winning quilt artist and the Executive Director for Art Access.