Leiah Bowden of Schenectady painted her first picture when she was 5 years old.
“My parents had put up a blackboard on the wall across from my bed and I still remember the pleasure I got from making things pretty on the blackboard with yellow, blue and green chalk,” Bowden recalled. “I remember it felt good to do it. My hands, my arms, my whole body felt good. And I felt a sense of accomplishment. It did not feel new. It did not feel like a discovery. It just felt like me.”
For the past decade, Bowden, largely a self-taught artist, has concentrated on creating what she calls energy portraits or soul portraits.
She estimates she has done about 120 of the commissioned paintings so far.
She describes energy portraits as a form of healing art, a portrait based on her inner sight of the colors, movement and images emanating from her subject’s spiritual being.
‘An intuitive process’
“You have to allow yourself to acknowledge what color you think you might see if there were a color really there,” she explains. “It’s an intuitive process.”
In the energy portrait classes she teaches, Bowden, 63, tells her students it’s a matter of allowing yourself to have an idea that you perceive something.
“You put yourself in a state of meditation or visualization where you are allowing yourself to perceive, and you trust your body to pick up whatever crayon that feels right,” said Bowden, who admits the process is hard to believe for skeptics.
Still her paintings are bold and colorful, resembling shamanic art, though Bowden is quick to point out she does not consider herself a shaman — a healer, guru or magician.
Using soft pastels on black pastel paper, the finished portrait is sprayed with a workable nonglossy, matte fixative, which stops smudging.
Bowden said energy portraits depict the multi-dimensional, radiant beings we are beyond and beneath our outer selves.
“People use them to activate soul paths they thought lost or to find inspiration and renewed self-confidence, and to appreciate the greater depths and heights their souls reach,” she said.
Bowden said she does her energy portraits with an open heart.
“You let your mind go and let yourself float,” she explained. “Then you trust your body, because the body holds our real truth, to pick up whatever pastel feels right.”
Bowden said neither your beliefs and practices nor their absences will negatively affect the creation of an energy portrait.
“No matter what a person’s beliefs or personality is, everyone is created by the divine creator, and everyone is created with a divine spark,” she said.
When people see their energy portrait, Bowden said, she hopes it helps them to love and feel good about themselves.
She also gives people a tape recording that she records while she paints in which she sings, chants and gives information about the person.
Painting as prayer
“My paintings come from appreciation and joy,” she said. “They are prayers. Sometimes when I’m painting someone’s aura, I feel as if I’m in the presence of the divine. It’s so overwhelming.”
On a recent afternoon, Martha Weiskott, 37, of Schenectady, sat down in Bowden’s studio in her home to have her energy portrait drawn.
Holding her pad on her lap, Bowden explains that she will be painting Weiskitt’s chakras, or centers of energy.
As Bowden begins making squiggly lines of green near the top of the paper at the crown chakra, at the top of Weiskott’s head, Bowden says, as if in a trance, “Going strong, rising strong. Wherever you are, you are always going forward. This tells me you are going forward in your life with a sense of purpose and that’s the driving concept.”
Bowden says green is the color of healing, and it’s unusual to find a crown chakra that is so dark green.
Weiskott tells Bowden she recently began working as a registered nurse.
Next, Bowden places some white over the green and uses her fingers to blend the colors together.
“The reason I do energy portraits in pastels in that I can do this blending,” she explains. “It would take me a long time to achieve anything like this if I used any other medium.”
Next, she colors turquoise on top of the green, a color Bowden says denotes intense creativity.
“Moving down to the bottom of the crown chakra I see yellow,” says Bowden, “The color of strategic intelligence, an indication that you know what’s going on and you have an idea about how to do things. There is also a knowledge of a depth of sorrow and needing to be strong for others that allows you to express tremendous compassion for other people.”
“Boy, you hit that right on the head,” Weiskott tells Bowden. Weiskott says she is a divorced mother of two daughters who she has tried to be strong for.
The throat chakra is painted silver and blue, which Bowden said means Weiskott expresses ideas of what she wants in life.
“You don’t turn away from sadness and from horror,” she says. “You can look at it and hold it and use it as you go forward.”
Weiskott smiles and seems pleased.
Love and affection
The heart chakra is painted green and pink describing the love and affection Weiskott feels for other people and other people feel for her.
“You could not carry the horror and sadness with you without the balance of true happiness and affection. So make sure you are surrounded by people who feel it for you and about themselves and their lives, too,” said Bowden.
Bowden puts the finishing touches on the painting before spraying it and giving it to Weiskott.
“Wow,” says Weiskott. “A lot of this hits home. I am divorced and that was very hard, but I had two young children at the time. So I really had to push myself forward and show them they were going to be OK. I feel I have moved forward and I find the painting comforting. Like I am where I’m supposed to be.”