Leah Nixon

IMG_0104Artist Leah Nixon applies a layer of texturizing glass beads to the coat of Oliver Wolcott, one of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, who is part of the Founding Fathers project that will turn John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” painting  into life-size sculpture.

Leah Nixon brings a knowledge of lots of different artistic materials –  and that includes cake frosting – to the Founding Fathers project.

Nixon, 25, is a talented young painter and illustrator with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis. She’s already had several art shows to her credit and done numerous private commissions, including a four-piece landscape series she’s currently working on.

But Nixon also spent a year as a commercial baker and cake decorator, and she’s found that the frosting techniques mastered for that job are now part of her artist’s toolbox when it comes to turning John Trumbull’s iconic painting into a three-dimensional sculpture.

“My knowledge of, and my willingness to experiment with, materials has come in handy,” she said. “Even cake decorating came in handy … some of the techniques for frosting are similar to what these guys need.”

Those “guys” are the 47 men portrayed in James Van Nuys’ sculptural version of the “Declaration of Independence.”  Nixon joined the project as a head, face and hand painter in July 2013, just as sculptor James Mahrer began producing the original heads that would be mounted on the Founding Fathers figures.

“When James asked about coming to work here, it was just perfect timing,” she said. While she loves baking, even seeing it as an art form, she was ready for a job that involved more artistic expression and allowed her to use her art degree more directly.

Only two of the heads were finished when she came on board, and Nixon ended up repainting those, as well.

“My favorite thing is painting these guys. Everything else is sort of like building the canvas to paint on.  I really enjoy painting their clothing, too … taking this Trumbull painting and saying, “How would I do that three-dimensionally?” she said. “And I love doing the faces. It’s like doing portraiture, but I don’t even have to think about the form at all, because it’s already there.”

Instead, she and fellow artist Julie Farrell focus on creating various skin tones on molded plastic resin that has been painted gray to bring out the cool blue tones of  human skin. Using three or four layers of  acrylic paint that has been thinned with a matte medium gives the faces more translucence and disarmingly life-like skin tones.

Nixon even got some advice on how to make the painted eyeballs of each figure more lifelike from an unexpected source. Her father, Dr. Bob Nixon, is a Rapid City ophthalmologist who explained that the colored iris of a human eye is actually flatter than it appears, so Nixon was able to flatten the eyeballs, paint them and fill them in with a clear epoxy that mimics the cornea lens of a real eye.