An exhibit of “Keepers of the Tradition” portraits by Blacksburg artist Leslie Roberts Gregg will be hosted by the Lewis Miller Gallery at the Montgomery Museum,
The opening reception for Gregg and writer Michael Abraham will be held Thursday, Jan.11 from 5-7 p.m. at the Montgomery Museum (300 S. Pepper Street, Christiansburg).
The “Keepers of the Tradition” is a collaboration between portrait artist Gregg and author Michael Abraham who, for a year, collected the stories and portraits of contemporary Appalachian people who are pursuing the avocations and occupations of their parents and grandparents.
Gregg’s portraits capture Southwest Virginia artisans -–a quilter, a violin maker, a preacher – 13 people keeping rural Appalachian traditions alive.
First unveiled in 2015, Gregg is extremely thrilled to see “Keepers” brought back to this area as a result of numerous requests.
The exhibit is a collaborative effort with author Michael Abraham.
“Both Michael and I grew up in this area and share a passion for the people and culture of our part of Appalachia. The purpose of creating these portraits and documenting these stories is to celebrate these special individuals who have worked hard to preserve the old-style traditions,” artist Gregg said.
The book lists twelve “Keepers” under the table of contents, but, in the end, most readers will recognize there is actually a thirteenth.
This exhibit springs from a strong sense of place with a likely connection to Gregg’s self-described upbringing as a “military brat”.
“My father joined the armed services at a very early age and ended up becoming a fighter pilot in the Air Force. Our family relocated many times both abroad and in the states,” Gregg said. “At one point Dad was stationed in Blacksburg with the ROTC program at Virginia Tech and loved the area. Upon retirement he moved our family to a farm in Longshop. At age eleven I finally had a place to call home.”
It is a region she continues to call home, now living in the beautiful Catawba valley where she keeps miniature horses.
Her father’s beliefs regarding his daughter’s future were unconventional for that time.
“He encouraged me to fly and at age 19, I acquired my pilot’s license. However, my maternal grandfather was a commercial artist and was very influential in my life as well. I knew at that time I wanted a career in the field of art,” she said.
After earning her degree, Gregg worked in a print shop, then as a bio-medical illustrator at Virginia Tech. After the birth of her son, she chose to remain at home, but continued free-lance work in bio-medical illustration.
Eventually she reached an epiphany.
“I was always drawn to paint the human form. Even in college I stuck with portraits and realism. I knew all these wonderful people in Blacksburg and decided to put together a show called, ‘The Faces of Blacksburg’. It was a natural transition from bio-medical illustration back to my true love of portraiture. Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea agreed to host the exhibit and the success of that show launched my career as a professional portrait artist,” she said.
Today, with the help of her website, she focuses more of her time in the studio and less time with business aspects.
“I have always believed in the philosophy, summed up by author Malcolm Gladwell, that you have to practice 10,000 hours to become a master at your trade. I am continuing to log those hours. I don’t believe that artists are ever finished with education. I will always continue to study, attend courses and practice to constantly improve. I feel much of the success I have experienced has simply been due to perseverance and honoring deadlines. I have been working to improve for the last 46 years and will continue to do so.”
The success of Gregg’s career brings her clients from all over the country. That success is what allowed her to take the 15 month-long sabbatical that was required to complete the large-scale fine art pastels that illustrate the “Keepers” project.
Now that the project is finished she wants it to gain as much exposure as possible, stating, “We have already lost one of the ‘Keepers’; Ada Sherman. I want their stories to be told while they are still here.
Since its unveiling the “Keepers of the Tradition” exhibit has traveled to venues throughout southwest Virginia and coming home to the Montgomery Museum, this will make the seventh.
In addition, individual portraits from the show have placed in national and international competitions.
As traditions go, painting is as integral to the Appalachians as any, from Andrew Wyeth in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania to our own Lewis Miller. Indeed, based on cave art dating back 40,000 years ago, it could be said painting is a tradition that may well define us as human beings. It is a tradition Gregg masterfully weaves throughout the book and places her, justifiably, among the others as the thirteenth “Keeper”.
A reception for “Keepers of the Tradition” will be held January 11th from 5 to 7 PM at the Montgomery Museum located at 300 Pepper Street, Christiansburg, VA. Light refreshments will be served. Several of the “Keepers”, the artist, and the writer will be on hand to answer questions and sign the show’s accompanying book, “Keepers of the Tradition.
— Ken Jones