By Gina Malone
John Cleaveland was living abroad when he discovered that he was a landscape painter. After graduating in 1986 with a degree in art from the University of Georgia (UGA), he got the chance to act as a graduate assistant in the UGA study abroad program. When he found himself blocked creatively one autumn day in Cortona, Italy, a friend suggested that he paint some landscapes for inspiration.
“I went outside the next day and discovered how much I love sitting and painting landscapes,” he says. “I feel like it took about 20 years before I really mastered the form and another 15 to understand deeper nuances of the subject.” He never took a class on landscape painting specifically, “one of the reasons I think my paintings are different in appearance than a lot of paintings I see,” he says.
Through the years Cleaveland has let himself be guided intuitively in what and where to paint, and his travels have taken him from his own backyard, to Civil War battlefields in the US and World War I battlefields in France and, most recently, to Vietnam. “Many of my older friends and some of my teachers served overseas,” he says, “and I wanted to find the connection I had to that place and to them through what they had experienced. Along the way I also realized what a beautiful country it is and that the people there are just as beautiful and friendly as any I have ever met.”
Paintings from that trip will be on display at Momentum Gallery in an exhibition titled Vietnam, opening Thursday, November 16, and running through February 3, 2024. Cleaveland plans to return to Vietnam to create a larger body of work of the region.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with John Cleaveland for the better part of the past 25 years,” says Jordan Ahlers, owner and director of Momentum Gallery. “A keen observer of the natural world, John captures light, mood and place in a way unlike anyone else I’ve seen. Technically, his oil landscapes are incredible, at once highly detailed and painterly—but even more than that is the emotive quality he conveys in his work.”
He paints, Cleaveland says, “with patience for the subject, patience for myself, and trying to attain a new eye every day that I might be able to communicate what I feel, and see with my audience, followed by attention to the conversation that is created.” He is not one to spend time talking about process. “I sit down and I paint,” he says. “I try to do it every day and I try to pay attention to what I’m painting and how I feel about it.”
Cleaveland spends a lot of time outdoors. “One of the things I do to keep things in perspective is cutting and splitting firewood,” he says. “I often laugh and tell people I belong to the ‘chop-wood-carry-water’ school of landscape painting. It also helps keep the studio warm in the winter as it’s the primary source of heat for me.”
His studio/home, in Farmington, GA, is an early 20th-century building that once served as a central store in the community. “One of the things I’ve done in life is almost always live in my studio as opposed to painting in my home,” he says.
Recent paintings reflect a concern with what is happening to our natural world. “I’d like to draw attention to the diminishing landscapes and habitats,” he says. “We share this earth with so many living creatures that are not considered relative to our daily existence. I hope that my paintings bring people closer to an understanding about how connected we all are with the natural world, and how dependent we are on it for our survival, and how all the other parts of it are dependent on us not to destroy it. ”
An opening reception for Vietnam will be held Thursday, November 16, from 5–8 p.m. at Momentum Gallery, located at 52 Broadway, in downtown Asheville. See more of John Cleaveland’s work at MomentumGallery.com. Learn more about the artist at JohnCleaveland.com, or follow on Facebook and Instagram.