After the "slippery bachelor" broke her heart by dumping her for a former flame, Leslie Ehrin, mortified, took a break from her job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she ran the art sales and rental gallery, and fled to Europe.
In Tuscany, she rented a scooter and rode on the back roads of hill towns, absorbing the countryside. She hiked and stayed in farmhouses and convents, and took photographs and painted.
She fell in love with the vivid, quiltlike landscape, the brilliant fields of poppies, the lavender sky. "It agreed with my soul and spirit," she says.
In time, her anger toward her former lover softened. In fact, she became grateful: "He helped me find my métier and my subject."
It has not been easy, the life of an artist. But as she joins another artist - her mother - in creating an imaginative children's book, she is comforted by an abiding conviction: She is her "true self."
She grew up in Rydal in an artistic family, and life as an artist seemed ordained. Her late father, Mel, was a concert pianist and photographer; her mother, Lois, taught art and ran the art program in the Abington schools.
When she was 16 months old, Leslie showed her bent by drawing on freshly hung wallpaper with crayons. Her mother wisely channeled that energy: She filled baby-food jars with tempera paints, stuck a brush in each one, taped newsprint to the tile above the bathtub, and let Leslie make a polychromatic mess. When Leslie turned 7, she asked to celebrate her birthday in the Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art.
Early on, Leslie realized that the artist's life was difficult. Her mother's teaching duties left her little time to paint. Her father, classically trained, took the advice of Leonard Bernstein and incorporated humor and popular music into his repertoire, à la Victor Borge and Mark Russell, to survive on the concert circuit.
"I did everything I could to not be a painter and artist, because I didn't want the life," Leslie says.
From ages 8 to 25, she didn't paint at all. At the University of Pennsylvania, she majored in art history and English literature, and her ambition was to become a writer. A foray into publishing, selling computer textbooks for Prentice-Hall, was an eye-opener.
"I hated it," Leslie says. "I was traveling constantly. I was totally miscast."
So she bailed out and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her parents were flabbergasted, horrified.
"They thought I was throwing away a good corporate career and that I'd end up eating cat food." But Leslie recalled the counsel of her architect grandfather: "Insist upon yourself."
At the academy, she underwent four years of classical training: nude figures, still lifes, cast drawings. Later, while working at the Art Museum, she'd rise at 4 a.m. to paint; soon she was making more money selling her own art than she was in her job. In 1999, a year after the big jilt and the seminal trip to Tuscany, she quit to become an artist full time.
Her principal subject is Tuscany, which she has depicted on more than 130 canvases. (A retrospective of her work is now on exhibit at Penn's Burrison Gallery through June 25.) Many of her vistas feature the towers of the medieval town of San Gimignano. Her style is impressionistic and shows the influence of such 19th-century painters as Cezanne, Monet, and Pierre Bonnard.
Her palette burns, her paintings burst with color. She is fond of impasto, applying paint so thickly it becomes sculptural, enriching the sense of dimension and perspective.
"I scrape off as much as I put down," she says. "I'm trying to capture the texture and color and light of the land. I'm trying to tell a story."
One art critic paid her this compliment: "She paints Tuscany the way it feels."
"I paint from the gut," Leslie says. "I'm classically trained, but I paint like a primitive."
She found a ready market for her work in Florida, where wealthy owners of Mediterranean-style houses eagerly bought her sunny Italian landscapes. Until the real estate bust, a winter ritual was peddling her wares there on the art-show circuit. Leslie also paints local pastoral scenes - meadows with horses and cattle - inspired by the five years she lived in a cottage at Ardrossan, the splendid Scott estate in Radnor.
Today, Leslie, 52, and her mother, Lois, 83, share a house outside Skippack. It is not as grand as the homestead in Rydal where they once lived, but it's open, airy, and bright, and the walls are adorned by their art, making it as much gallery as domicile. Lois' watercolor landscapes of scenes and sights in England, Scotland, and France are more realistic, precise, and architectonic than her daughter's paintings, but they are equally colorful and evocative.
The life of an artist remains a struggle, and Leslie has had to employ all her promotional and entrepreneurial skills to earn a livelihood. She and her mother are now collaborating, creating a book about the seasons for children, Just About a Year: All About Time. Leslie is supplying the words; Lois, the images - animals and natural tableaux bordered by whimsical, mythical creatures.
"I'm trying to teach children how to observe and see," says Lois, who practiced art as a child in a program for the gifted in Pittsburgh with Andy Warhol. "I'm trying to encourage a sense of curiosity, creativity, and imagination. In kindergarten, when you ask children, 'How many of you are artists?' everyone raises their hand. By fourth grade, children are more reserved. A lot of creativity has been lost, because imagination must be nurtured."
The purpose of the self-published book, Leslie adds, is not only to teach the seasons, but also to foster "visual literacy."
Her friends on the Main Line sometimes chide Leslie when she complains about how much she and other artists must hustle. "You chose to be an artist," they tell her.
Leslie corrects them: "I have to paint. That's who I am."