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NIH and Art Careers Blossom Late for Leighty

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

There are probably a lot of people laboring away at unanticipated NIH careers; people who never expected to have to earn a paycheck, but who were forced by circumstance to forge livelihoods. There probably aren't that many, however, whose careers and avocations have blossomed at a comparatively late stage; NIAID's Karen Leighty knows she is among the lucky few. When life handed her rocks, she began chiseling.


"I couldn't imagine why a woman would choose to take on a career. I wanted to live simply. I always planned on being a kept woman," she says with a laugh, and for her early married years, she lived a rustic idyll: a house so far into the exurban Pennsylvania woods that a car couldn't reach the front door, a husband who was a community planner and was prominent in civil rights in the days before it garnered liberal cachet, two daughters, an Irish wolfhound, and something more — a talent of hand and eye that permitted her to speak deeply through sculpture.

NIAID's Karen Leighty sits amid some of her sculptures.

"We weren't hippies, though the romantic side of me wishes we were," she continues, recalling her pre-employment era when her family was too settled and responsible for true hippiedom. "We had this idyllic, sixties sort of lifestyle, which we absolutely loved. We ground our own flour from 75-pound sacks of wheat for bread. We picked our own peaches and made jam." Her husband — "a rising star in the early civil rights movement" — sometimes hosted civil rights activists for dinner before he became director of planning for the Pennsylvania department of public welfare. Karen encouraged her daughters' interests in the arts, helped run the local Girl Scout troop, volunteered as a reading aid in her kids' school, and applied her art to activities of everyday living.

Then, not long after the family relocated to suburban Washington, her husband's health failed and Karen found herself looking for a job. "I hadn't planned to work, but I realized I had become the head of the family." She first came to NIH in 1979 as a secretary at NIDDK. Four years later, her husband died of a heart attack. "The women in my family supported their husband's careers. I hadn't planned to be the sole support of my family. That was the bumpy stage of my life."

"Esperanza" from 1995 is a cubist female. "She has a very hopeful, chin-up look, and is playful," Leighty says. "Like something wonderful is going to happen. She reflects a very sincere feeling about optimism."

She rose through a progression of editing jobs that took advantage of her "solid background in English," though she had majored in art at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. After maxing out at the editorial assistant level, Leighty managed, through fortuitous guidance from NIAID mentors, to rise to public affairs specialist within the institute, and then last fall to peak at a position — visual communications specialist — that really had its origins on the walls of an outhouse nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

"I think it all began with the blue fairies," she explains with a wink. Though born in Jefferson, Wisc., Leighty moved at age 4 to Boulder, Colo. "I spent summers and vacations up in the mountains in a town called Gold Hill. There was an outhouse at our cabin there, and I drew blue fairies on the walls of the outhouse with a crayon, as kids will do. There were not that many other kids up there, so I entertained myself. I took long walks with a stray dog and a homeless burro — they were my friends. I am quite convinced they are the tie-ins with my interest in animal sculpture."

Long rid of the notion that she hails from anywhere other than Colorado, Leighty said she was deeply influenced by "the color of the natural material in the rocks, the glint of iron pyrite in gold ore. I was fascinated with those colors and shapes. I love bronze patinas because they reflect those colors."

"Mr. King and Mrs. King" is a 1993 work in bronze.

At age 10, she relocated with her family to Philadelphia; her dad became comptroller of the company that invented the Univac computer. "I took as many art courses as I could in high school," she recalls, "and I won a scholarship to take Saturday classes at Moore School of Design in Philadelphia." Art so consumed her that she considered no other way of life. "I didn't think about a career or making money or supporting myself. It just never entered my mind." She painted in oils and watercolors, drew with pen and pencil, welded metal, threw pottery. "I experimented with everything. But the things that felt the most powerful to me were the sculptures. Even working with papier-mâché, I found I could create things with a lot more impact than painting or drawing. They expressed me better. For an artist, it's all about communication — you hope that you have spoken well."

Asked what use art was when she found herself widowed, Leighty says the tragedy blocked her completely. "I couldn't do art, so I turned to physical projects. There was a depression in the yard at our house. I set about to fill it in and put plantings there. Art was not a part of my reality."

It dawns on her in the retelling that she was literally filling in her "depression. I guess I was sculpting the earth."

Leighty, who goes by Leigh in the art world ("People just don't remember the name Leighty"), says certain key people in both her art and NIH lives have played crucial roles in her success.

"Lascaux" is a three-dimensional representation of the famous cave drawings from Lascaux, France. It is executed in bronze and sandstone.

"My life has been full of inspiring characters," she says. One legendary instructor in Philadelphia gave her class a simple assignment — make an egg. Reviewing the anonymous creations, he settled on hers. "I like the sound of this one," he said, turning it rhythmically and holding it to his ear. The class laughed, but Leighty says "it felt lovely that something so simple reached somebody."

Later on in life, her husband gone and her kids grown up, Leighty found herself home alone, with evenings free, so she enrolled in art classes at Montgomery College.

"Sarah Silberman, an elderly artist who used the college studio, was a great inspiration to me. She was 84, with hands gnarled by arthritis, but she produced exquisite work. She made me a tool with my name on it: she took a bamboo stick, broke it, cut it with a band saw to the right size, and sanded it so that I could use it for shaping clay. I was so impressed by how totally comfortable she was with these big power tools. She was like a fairy godmother, encouraging me. She was the first in a series of fairy godmothers and godfathers who took me by the shoulders and got me working and showing my work."

Leighty labors on "Lascaux" at Montgomery College art studio in 1996.

Leighty would spend three hours a night in art class after working a full day at NIH. "It was a really stimulating, challenging time for me and I loved it. I started really producing. I did my first bronze castings."

She describes the origins and inspirations for early pieces with an enthusiasm that underscores an admission she had made earlier: "Inside, I really feel like I'm still 15."

She has shocked herself by becoming what she never foresaw as an art student — a teacher. Each Wednesday night, she teaches animal sculpture at the Art League in Alexandria, Va.

"I had so many good mentors," she recalls. "A good one becomes a thorn in your side. Sort of like a football coach, you know, 'Up and at 'em — go out there and kill!' They kept my momentum up. It's incredibly gratifying how many people have gone out of their way to show me that it's all possible. I'm just incredibly grateful."

A recent project has brought her art and medical lives, her Leigh and her Leighty, together. Under a commission as a gift to the National Library of Medicine, she has created bronze portrait busts of medical luminaries Moses Maimonides, Louis Pasteur and Edward Jenner for an exhibit that debuts this fall. She has also had a solo show at the Clinical Center gallery, and has work on view there now.

A bronze portrait bust of ancient healer Moses Maimonides is one of three busts that Leighty created for an NLM show that debuts this fall.

"I never thought I'd be launching a career at 60 years of age, or see my career at NIH blossoming at a time when I could be retiring," she said. "For the first time in my life, I'm earning my living as an artist. But I'm very much looking forward to eventually retiring and doing (sculpture) full time — it will be great fun."

Anticipating a new market for her work in the American southwest, where she visits regularly, Leighty is currently at work on a flying horse for a show. "I've decided I'm an expert in flying horses," she declares. No one who has seen her work, or heard her talk about the life she has shaped from bumpy circumstance, would dispute it.

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