by Rona Mann / photos by Caryn B. Davis

“I play.” 

That was the immediate response voiced by artist, Leif Nilsson when asked, “What’s your story? What do you do?”

And although the remark may seem a bit flip, there is an almost childlike honesty about it that is thoroughly refreshing, indeed much like the artist himself.

While those who love and appreciate great art regard Leif Nilsson as an enormous and unique talent, the man behind the canvas is a kind of aw-shucks down to earth guy who’s just as happy playing his banjo in a rockabilly band as he is recreating the beauty of the outdoors with oils and paint knife in hand.

Centuries ago the great French playwright, Moliere penned a famous comedy, “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” Simply change “doctor” to “artist,” and you have Leif Nilsson, a man who seems very much at peace with himself, not in any way the stereotyped portrait of a brooding artist with tortured soul and permanent scowl. This artist is first and foremost a man making his way through life; he’s just found a wonderful way to navigate the journey. Nilsson will readily tell you that art is merely what he does for a living, much like a bricklayer lays bricks or a salesman sells. While the colors, the images, and the canvasses define him in part, they neither envelop nor overwhelm him.

But it is a passion, and one which has coursed through Leif Nilsson’s veins for most of his life. As a little boy growing up in Old Lyme, Nilsson’s parents and grandparents would cut open paper bags, providing him a “canvas” on which to draw, delighting him. “Not long after that I got an erector set with nuts and bolts and was fascinated with how things worked.” The metal construction set with its pulleys, gears, and wheels fascinated the young boy, awakening an interest in form, detail, and figuring out what goes into what.

However the “ah-hah moment” of Nilsson’s youth came at age 10 when his parents took him to  Bill Steeves’ gallery and art store, a fixture for many years on Lyme Street.  Steeves not only sold art supplies to the locals but was a watercolor artist in his own right. “It was the first time I had ever met an artist,” Leif recalled.  “Someone who actually made a living that way.” It was from Steeves’ store that Nilsson got his first watercolor set – not a toy, but a professional set with “colors in tubes and real brushes.” The young boy was hooked.

“My brothers always played baseball or soccer, and I was just fiddling around with something. It’s not that I didn’t like sports, but once I dove for the ball and got it, I didn’t really care who won or lost after that,” he said with a devilish upturn of his mouth,  characteristic of the artist’s whimsical nature.

So he wasn’t going to be the next Derek Jeter or Pele, but he was headed elsewhere down life’s path. Leif remembers with great fondness a boy in his sixth grade class, Randy Bellucci, who chided him for having been out sick for a few days. “Where were you, man?” Bellucci bellowed upon Leif’s return. “We needed to draw a donkey, and nobody knew how. You coulda done it.” It was at that point that Leif realized “not everyone can draw, but I could.”

His parents likewise recognized that their son had both a keen eye and an emerging talent that needed to be pursued and enrolled him in Hammanossett High School in Madison for his last two years of school. Within this alternative school, Leif happily found himself in a creative atmosphere with open classrooms and less rules. “It opened me up to more possibilities.”

One of those possibilities was the open road, beckoning the freshly minted high school graduate to hitchhike to California where he admits, “I was going to live in a tree. It was my hippie phase.”

But as often happens, Nilsson took a turn on the way to the west coast and wound up in  South Dakota at the International Survival Gathering, where against a background of peace and serenity in the Black Hills, he met an old Native American man who pointedly told Leif, “You don’t know where you come from. Indians know our roots back hundreds of years. Go find your roots. Go to Europe, then come back.”

Nilsson calls this chance meeting “a pivotal event in my life” and heeded the old man’s advice. Suddenly the tree in California did not mean as much as finding out where he came from, so he headed to Europe to trace his Swedish roots. That was the first of many trips Leif would make over the years; today he still travels, painting as he goes.

“That trip anchored me,” Nilsson offers. “I cut trees in the forest, did any kind of menial work to make money, and one day sitting on a stump, I looked out at a field and realized, ‘I can be an artist. I am an artist.'”

But it wasn’t all drawing donkeys and traveling.  Nilsson enrolled at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts immersing himself in every phase of classical art while being mentored by Deane Keller, a teacher with contagious passion who had a profound effect on his life.  While his work appears quite complex created with painstaking detail, Leif’s technique and outlook are actually quite basic (“I mostly work with primary colors, and I paint from life. When I start painting, after the first three marks, it’s essentially done”). This was noted was in Galway when a small Irish boy stood transfixed, watching the little chunks of paint Leif was putting on his canvas, creating a heavily textured mosaic. “I like the way you paint,” the boy said. “You paint clumsy like I do.” The artist laughs at the memory, but the “clumsiness” has become more or less Nilsson’s trademark, and he is well paid for his unique creations that cause the viewer to look deeply within them.

Nilsson occasionally teaches, and this summer will lead a workshop for people of every level who want to draw. “The only thing I can teach is to squint.  If you close one eye and squint the other, you will see more than less. It flattens things out. Try it…I still work that way.”

He has been called an American Impressionist, and from his body of work that is probably a most accurate description; but Leif Nilsson seems to eschew labels and being pigeon-holed.  At nearly age 53 he is still very much the young boy from Old Lyme, fascinated with the world outside his front door.  He loves to paint outdoors, but does not love the term “plen air.”  He loves to toil in his sprawling gardens, losing himself in their creative beauty and then sharing it with others by hosting weekly outdoor concerts.  He loves “sitting in” with bands, strumming his banjo, getting lost in the music.  His interests are diverse, yet basic, just like the primary colors he favors in his work.  And although he has indeed realized his dream of making a living as an artist, one senses he has so much more to do as he continues along life’s path with one eye closed and the other firmly squinted.

The gallery is open weekends Noon to 6PM, or by chance or appointment.

Please call first (860) 526-2077

For more information, to see Leif’s work, to register for the summer workshop, or to find out about the Concerts in the Garden, visit: