Leslie Peterson Sapp

I Paint What I Feel… and I Feel Noir

Noir, for better or worse (mostly worse, if you ask me) has too often become a meaningless catch phrase applied with equal inaccuracy to everything from perfume and lingerie to incredibly insipid crime fiction and straight-to-streaming neo-noirs full of chain-smoking men in ill-fitting fedoras who need a shave.

But real fans know that noir is more than just a few easily mimicked visual effects. Certainly real artists do. They know there’s more to the genre than a few shadows and some clever tricks of the light. They understand that there’s a story behind the facade—one of darkness and regret, reeking of bad choices and bad luck; a feeling that all is not right with the world and may never be again.

Certainly Leslie Peterson Sapp “gets” it. ”

It is the essence of film noir that I am after,” she confesses. “rather than the specific details. ”

She’s built a career of out of it, creating vivid, haunting and often-breathtaking art, clearly inspired by noir—and the stories they all.

As she puts it, “For a number of years now, my subject matter has been primarily based on classic film noir imagery, each image a story waiting to be told.” On her web site she actually links a gallery of her work in a loose narrative; a sort of fever dream of iconic images you’ve seen a million times, but somehow, rendered in bold swabs of sometimes surprising colour choices and Sapp’s distinctive brush work, they feel fresh and new, like an old friend in a new suit.

“As a narrative painter,” she explains, “I feel compelled to tell a story with my art, which is is more important to me than the trappings of time, place and characters.  It is the essence of film noir that I’m after, rather than the specific details.  Each piece is, in fact, a story without a plot. Imagination gives life richness and meaning, but it is in the unspoken story, the incomplete narrative where our imagination truly lies.  And so I use the elements of film noir to create my own, unique rendition.”

“I think people are most drawn to my work when they identify with a character or situation in the picture, or it sparks a fantasy in their minds. With my art I hope to inspire emotion and memory in people, and help them get in touch with their own longing.”

That longing, mind you, is not self-conscious. The character’s in Leslie’s work would never in a million years refer to themselves as “noir”—they’re too busy living their lives and hoping to just survive to indulge in such ironic self-reflection. Although it does pose a question for the viewer. As Leslie puts it, “If we could walk through the picture frame and become part of the action, what would we see, who would be there and who would we be?”

 • • • • •

“I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and as a kid, I loved to draw,” the artist recalls. “I drew ladies and castles and swans in ponds with cattails, and what I imagined heaven looked like. Streets of gold, that sort of thing. Later on, I drew a horses. A lot of horses. And I loved Bugs Bunny cartoons. The art in them can be amazing!”

She also liked to read. She wasn’t a huge reader, although she admits reading a book about Annie Oakley over and over and over again, allowing she can get a “bit” obsessive sometimes. 

“Like, when MTV came along, I was in my early teens, and I was pretty much glued to the tube. I love music—I come from a musical family. My dad was an engineer and a jazz musician, so there was always a large range of music that was played around the house. When I was younger, I was really into The Beatles, but as a teen, I loved The Police and The Clash.”

Leslie moved to New York for college, and attended The Parsons School of Design and The Art Students League, eventually receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting, Cum Laude from Queens College, The City University. She returned to Oregon, ready to set the world on fire.

Except… she wasn’t satisfied with the work she’d been doing, so she went back to to basics and began experimenting, taking classes from Mark Andres, a well-respected figurative and landscape artist based in the Pacific Northwest. Assigned by Andres to render a film still in the style of a painter of her choice, she chose a shot from The Bad and the Beautiful, a 1952 noir  directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan and Gloria Grahame, and decided to do it in the style of German Expressionist Max Beckmann.

“Many of the films noir I love were made by European émigrés escaping the Nazis. They brought with them a grounding in what is called “ That unique and sophisticated aesthetic wasn’t really appreciated at the time; and crime movies rarely received any critical praise—or even attention. But the superior film making techniques have made them gain popularity over the decades.

The result,the cheekily titled “Lana Turner Lost in the Land of Beckmann,” was a revelation for the young artist. The drama of the subject and the wide open freedom of Expressionism was a game changer.

“I was hooked,” she admits.

• • • • 

At first, she recreated scenes from films—altered, of course—but gradually, as the alterations became more and more significant, she started to create her own scenes, her own stories.  Anticipate, which began as a recreation of a scene from The Killers, a 1946 noir starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Robert Siodmak, was so altered by the time she was done that only “trace elements,”as she puts it, remained.

Anticipate (16×20, collage on panel)

“Tthere would be no way to identify it as coming from that movie,”she says with a laugh.

Blue Room (40×40, collage on panel)

Which lead to Blue Room, Sapp’s “first absolute original. ”

“I dressed myself up in costumes and took pictures of myself. From those pictures, I stitched together a scene with multiple figures, creating my own movie, as it were.”

Leslie works mostly with drawing, acrylic paint and paper collage on wood panel, and also does some woodcut and etching.

I used to really wrestle with my brush work,” she cheerfully admits, “especially because acrylic paint dries so fast it wreaks havoc on brushes. Then a teacher of mine told me he uses the cheapest brushes he can find, the kind you buy in sets, and he is right, they work a lot better! I use mostly flats, between ½ inch and 1 ½ wide.”

“My process? It’s mult-step. First, I come up with a general idea. The idea may be inspired by a photograph or a scene from a movie, or straight from my imagination. Then I do a small thumbnail sketch. Then I will often pose myself in costume and take pictures of myself for reference. I draw from the photographs, but I change them a lot, I don’t copy them. When I am satisfied, I transfer the drawing to a panel and start to paint. Some paintings take a long time, others less.”

“I often begin the day listening to classical music, then move onto jazz or alt rock later in the day. By the time 2 or 3pm rolls around, I often switch to a podcast or the news.” 

Sticking to her noir guns, she adds  that her favourite color is something called  Paynes Grey. “It’s a black-blue-grey,” she explains, “and has a dark luminosity when used thinly. When you mix it with other colors, it can bring real richness and depth.” Nor is she hide-bound in her choices of material. “I received a box of ephemera from my dad, and in it I found an old press pass for a sporting event, a little bluish ticket. I collaged it into a painting called “Free Pass.” 

It’s certainly paid off for her. An artist to watch, she’s currently represented by the RiverSea Gallery, in Astoria, Oregon, and through her own web site, lesliepetersonsapp.com. Meanwhile, she has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the Pacific Northwest over the last decade, as demand for her work increases.

And noir continues to weave its spell…

In fact, there’s a whole section on the artist’s web site, entitled “Why Noir?,” where she muses at length on all things noir: its definition, its appeal, its history, fatales both femme and homme, and of course her attraction to it. It’s also loaded with samples of her work.

“I love Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley on TCM on Saturday nights, although he’s also exposed me to some truly stink-o noirs. That’s because—to his credit– he shows them all, not just the “good” ones. I think one that was really awful was  Tight Spot with Ginger Rodgers. It was a wreck. Fortunately he also shows the good ones. Like, I think my favorite movie of all time is Vertigo, though not everyone thinks it is a noir. I also love Out of the Past, Touch of Evil, and Shadow of a Doubt.”

Tempted, I asked her about what she considers the most noir thing she’s done.

“Wow, you mean in my work? I think that may be in the eye of the beholder. What does noir’ mean to that person? Because there are certain tropes that can indicate noir to someone–so are you looking for one of those, like, um, a fedora? Or are you looking for how people are interacting? Are you looking for a mood?  Because some of the pieces Ive done that seem the most noir to me are Look Out (which I chose as for our 25th anniversary “cover”), Exit, Circle Mirror, and Pursuit.”

“Or do you mean in my life? That’s different. Of course I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you…”



Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


One thought on “Leslie Peterson Sapp

  1. I am a huge fan of Leslie’s artwork, as well as film noir (accentuated even more since following her). I loved this interview and learned a lot more about her inspirations. I have an original piece of hers and absolutely love it.

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