Water, earth, clay, light, life, history, environmental awareness and sustainability all find voice in the work of artist Courtney Leonard, and all join to create indelible sensations in her two Long Island exhibitions "Courtney M. Leonard: Logbook 2004-2023" at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington and "Breach: Logbook 23 | Root" at Planting Fields Foundation in Oyster Bay.
The exhibitions, both of which open June 10, check off a list of firsts. It's the first time concurrent, coordinated exhibitions are being presented by the Heckscher Museum and Planting Fields. It's the 42-year-old member of the Shinnecock nation's first retrospective, her first outdoor installation and her first major shows on Long Island. "I am honored to have the exhibitions close to home and my community," Leonard said.
Sculptor, ceramist, painter, filmmaker, installation artist and writer with advanced degrees in museum studies and fine art, Leonard is known for creating immersive installations that transform spaces while evoking memories. Though she's exhibited across the globe, "all of her work is about Long Island," said Heckscher curator Karli Wurzelbacher.
Still, one piece stands out. The museum commissioned and has just acquired "Contact 2,023," a large map of the island decorated with dangling ceramic thumbprints.
WHAT "Courtney M. Leonard: Logbook 2004–2023"
WHEN | WHERE June 10-Nov. 12, 12-5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, (1-3 p.m. June 10), The Heckscher Museum of Art, 2 Prime Ave.nue, Huntington
INFO $5 suggested admission, free age 12 and younger; 631-380-3230; heckscher.org
WHAT "Breach: Logbook 23 | Root"
WHEN | WHERE June 10 through summer 2024, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, opening reception 11 a.m.-2 p.m. June 10, Planting Fields Foundation, 1395 Planting Fields Rd., Oyster Bay
INFO Free with $8 parking fee (registration required); 516-922-9210, plantingfields.org
"She's talking about her own contact with clay, but also contact with indigenous people and colonizers," noted Wurzelbacher. Peruse the marks and you'll find colors of shells, portraits of Shinnecock elders, Long Island's Big Duck and references to movies and pop culture. "Culture is everything," Leonard explained, adding "a lot of it has to do with what brings you joy."
'BREACH' AND ITS REACH
Leonard's "Logbook 2004–2023" installation transports viewers to an underwater realm through purple pools of color and light, paintings, and sculptures depicting sea life, shells, whales' teeth and fishing baskets. Two videos introduce the artist's journey, starting with a beached finback whale on the East End in 2005 and evolving into Leonard's multiyear body of work titled "Breach." It references whales breaching, but also breached boundaries, breaches of faith, and how they affect living communities. Through art grounded in historic and scientific research, she poses questions and hopes to elicit responses.
"My whole heart is in 'Breach,'" she said. "When you create an installation, you're creating an environment of memory. I hope people can come into that space and have some sort of relationship to their environment and their memories and hold space with it. Everybody journeys differently."
At Planting Fields, "Root," another newly commissioned site-specific work, brings layers of meaning while addressing land use, traditional Shinnecock agricultural practices and, again, whales. A full-sized shipping container has been "planted" in the ground, covered by a hilly mound surrounded with medicinal wildflowers.
"Her interest is in the concept of a root cellar, which was a natural refrigeration system and means of food sovereignty for indigenous people," explained Planting Fields' president and CEO Gina Wouters, who tapped Leonard for the arboretum's fourth "Catalyst" exhibition. "She compounded that with the idea of a shipping container, because shipping containers are the cause of a lot of deaths of whales."
A key question in all of Leonard's work is: “Can a culture sustain itself when it no longer has access to the environment that fashions that culture?” She suggests, "We can, with a lot of care and a lot of heart and a lot of resiliency," adding, "I do think that the Shinnecock people are an example of that."
The June 10 opening of both exhibitions offers an encompassing vision of Leonard's work. At Planting Fields, said Wouters, "It's open to the public, and we really want as many people as possible to come and enjoy it. Courtney will do an artist-led tour of her installation." At the Heckscher Museum, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., get the first glimpse of the largest group of Leonard's work to be presented in one venue.
Though labeled by some as an environmental artist, it's a title Leonard eschews. "The minute you hold onto one definition, you may not be paying attention to the other layers of who you are and what your actions and responsibilities are," she noted.
And what does she hope people will take away from the exhibit? "I hope they stay in touch," she says. "Whether it's with me, or with themselves, or with their relationship to place. Just stay in touch."