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Artist Kelly Leahy Radding paints Oswegatchie Hills

Kelly Leahy Radding has always created art. Whether it was her toddler scribbles on her mother’s Social Security card, her childhood drawings of apple orchards in South Glastonbury or the rocks, trees and wildlife in the Meshomasic State Forest behind her home, or the endangered birds she sketched last year in the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, Hawaii, she’s always been drawing. And observing.

Radding, an award-winning wildlife and botanical artist whose works have been shown in juried international botanical society shows in Europe and the United Kingdom, defines herself as a contemporary wildlife and natural history artist. The mission of her work is part educational, part aesthetic.

“It’s a small piece of the bigger picture. I’m not just painting pretty pictures of animals and birds; they have a bigger meaning and message,” says Radding, who likes to work in old-world mediums and techniques, tempera, animal skins, gouache and silver point. “My career is natural history; my paintings tell a story about ecosystems and nature at this point in time.”

Two years ago, Radding discovered the Oswegatchie Hills and Niantic River in southeastern Connecticut as both the source of inspiration for nature studies and an environmental cause she could support through her art.

“I had been looking for a conservation-minded project that would have a more personal meaning to me than, say, saving the rhinoceros, which is, of course, a monumentally important cause, but I wanted to find something closer to home and heart,” she says.

For more than 15 years, two grassroots organizations have been fighting a developer who wants to construct high-density housing on the northern third of the Oswegatchie Hills on the western bank of the Niantic River between East Lyme and Waterford. While the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve has focused on acquiring almost 460 acres of adjoining undeveloped forest and protecting it in the neighboring Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, Save the River-Save the Hills has been advocating measures to reduce nitrogen runoff into the Niantic River, the tidal estuary at the base of the Hills, which flows directly into Long Island Sound. The two organizations are legal intervenors on environmental grounds in ongoing court cases involving the Town of East Lyme and Landmark Development, LLC.

“When you get into Oswegatchie Hills and the Niantic River, it does encompass it all,” says Radding. “The coastal forest reminds me of the Meshomasic, the steep ridges and rock formations, granite ridges and outcrops, and you’re part of Long Island Sound ecosystem.”

Denise Thompson, owner of Artisan Framing and Gallery, which moved from Hebron to Niantic in 2009, urged Radding to take on a multi-season artist’s study of the hills and the coastal shoreline after they donated artwork to STR-STH’s annual December fundraiser in 2014. Radding’s works are featured in Thompson’s gallery.

The artist’s tribute to saving the coastal forest and tidal estuary from development and pollution runoff is “Impressions of Oswegatchie Hills.” The two-week showing of Radding’s drawings, paintings and photographs of wildlife, flora and fauna opens Friday at Artisan Framing and Gallery in Niantic. A reception and artist talk is on Friday evening, and Saturday activities include a birds of prey program by Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, children’s activities and an artist’s demonstration by Radding. A portion of the proceeds will benefit STR-STH.

Taking to the Hills

The show includes Radding’s initial sketches and photographs in the field and about two dozen quick studies and 10 framed studio paintings. Her goal is to reflect the way she approaches her art, from quick sketches in the plein-air style and detailed studies of flora and fauna that lead to finished paintings on vellum, or calf skin, which can take many days to complete.

Two signature pieces of the show, large framed paintings done in casein on vellum, focus on birds that she observed in the preserve and on the river.

“The great blue heron, even though it is a shore bird, is what I keep seeing in Clark Pond in the preserve, so it’s the ‘save the hills’ part, and the osprey, the river bird, is the shore and water part,” says Radding.

Historic records and photos indicate that the man-made Clark Pond, near the southern and main entrance of the preserve, was a source of ice to preserve the local fishing haul; blocks of ice were chopped out and pulled by horse sledges down to the fishing docks.

Radding first hiked the preserve in January 2015 and mapped out her plans for regular visits throughout 2016. She has made the hour-long trip from her home in Columbia, Conn., at least monthly, with sketch book, notebook and camera in hand.

“My eternal struggle, because I love to photograph and I love to walk, is do I stop and sketch for a while, or do I walk with my camera?” she says. “Walking with my camera usually wins out. I always want to see around the next bend. But when I sit and sketch, I love it; it’s a totally different experience.”

Radding’s artist’s journal and natural history list, noting birds and wildlife, plants and the weather, will be part of the opening display.

A graphic illustrator by training and trade, the Connecticut artist has attracted an international following after completing her certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration at New York Botanical Garden in 2002. Her works have been shown by the Horticultural Society of New York, the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society’s Botanical Images Scotia in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens in London, and she’s a regular at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland. Radding teaches at New York Botanical Garden and has taught botanical art at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and schools in Virginia, Maryland and Denver.

“My aesthetic is a little different from what’s in the United States; it’s more of a natural history look, it’s more accepted in the UK and Europe,” she says. Her ultimate goal is to have gallery representation in Europe.

Radding also will have several pieces in the Cooley Gallery’s 30th annual holiday exhibition “All Paintings Great and Small,” from Nov. 17 through the holidays.

In 2016, Radding was invited to be a member of the inaugural Florilegium Society of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai, Hawaii, and traveled there to document the tropical flora and fauna. She is looking forward to a March 2017 trip to Kauai to continue her work.

“I’m going to be long gone, but my work will be part of a living collection; 300 to 400 years from now, someone can say, ‘Look at that plant that was here back then,’” she says.

IF YOU GO

What: Exhibit: “Impressions of Oswegatchie Hills Drawings, Paintings and Photographs” by Kelly Leahy Radding

Where: Artisan Framing and Gallery, 293 Main St., Niantic

When: An opening reception will take place Friday, Oct. 21, from 5 to 9 p.m. The show runs until Nov. 5. On Saturday, Oct. 22, the gallery will host related activities from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Info: www.leahyraddingart.com

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