A large bronze bird stands in Kiwanis Waterfront Park, next to the Guemes Island ferry terminal, its wings stretching skyward. The artist who created it, Leo Osborne, lives and works across the Channel on the Isle of Guemes.
Osborne, who moved to the area in the early 1990s after speaking with the late artist Philip McCracken, said he believed Fidalgo and Guemes Islands provided the perfect level of inspiration for artists.
“I love the natural world that exists here,” he said. “The old forest, the wildlife. It’s incredible.”
Osborne created sculptures, paintings, poetry and other writings inspired by the life around him.
“I can’t imagine having done anything else in my life,” he said.
Rita James, Creative Director of the Anacortes Arts Festival, called Osborne “a pillar of the Anacortes art scene”.
“Leo is one of those multi-talented artists who paints, sculpts and writes poetry,” she wrote in an email. “I would say that his work is sensitive to the world around him and anchored in the natural world… while having elements of simplicity and complexity. Leo is very community oriented and generous with his talents.
Katherine Khile, owner of the Scott Milo Gallery where Osborne’s work is often featured, agreed.
“He’s one of the most talented artists I know,” she said.
Khile said Osborne is one of those people who can see a big dirty piece of wood and know exactly what to do with it.
“He has a vision of art,” she said. “It is his creativity and his level of authority that appropriate each medium he uses. He goes all out.
The gallery showed paintings (with techniques Khile has never seen before) and sculptures of Obsorne, as well as poems written by Osborne that accompany the pieces.
Khile said Osborne is also in touch with the community, donates coins at auction and is a big supporter of the arts, Khile said.
Osborne grew up in Massachusetts before moving to Maine. In both states, he was immersed in artistic communities and discovered a love of art at a young age, in part thanks to his artist mother.
“As a kid, I drew all the time,” he says. “I was inspired by my mother, creativity was important.
Throughout his years, he was a designer, painter, sculptor and writer.
He said of his career: “I have reinvented myself at least five times.
In high school, which he said he didn’t enjoy, Osborne submitted work to the Minneapolis School of the Arts and began taking a correspondence course. He said it gave him a chance to focus on what he wanted to learn.
“I thought I could only take English and spend the rest of the day in the art room,” he said.
Osborne amassed a portfolio which he submitted to the New England School of Art in Boston.
He spent three and a half years studying there, traveling every day from his home in Pembroke, Massachusetts.
During these years, he formed a relationship with his neighbor David Caroll, a naturalist intrigued by turtles and animals.
“He instilled in me this desire to create things from the natural world,” Osborne said.
Caroll encouraged new ways of thinking, introduced Osborne to Irish poetry, and gave him his first hardcover sketchbook.
It was then that Osborne began to view life as a professional artist.
When he left school of fine arts, he knew he wanted to be a painter. For a while he did odd jobs paying the bills.
Then he opened a store and started creating business stores to support himself and his young family. He began by painting the signs, but special work changed everything.
After being commissioned to create a wooden sign, he set about making it using pine and a chisel, and his journey into wood carving began.
Osborne did this for many years and along the way befriended someone who carved duck decoys. One day Osborne decided to try and sculpt a little songbird. By the time he was done, it looked very realistic.
When he was hired by an auto company to paint a car, he brought the bird with him. The owner of the auto company bought the bird for $ 300.
Osborne started carving birds every evening, and when he was around six he would take them to a local art gallery. They quickly sold out and Osborne realized that the possibility of creating art full time was becoming more realistic.
He continued to carve signs but also worked on his wooden songbirds. He started to exhibit them and took part in a few exhibitions.
He stood out enough to be able to make a living from his bird sculptures. He traveled to various shows with his then wife and daughter.
In 1984, Osborne participated in the Birds in Art exhibition with the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wassau, Wisconsin, which exhibits only 100 pieces from around the world. He met artists from Italy, Africa, Europe and Canada.
This year he was accepted into the Birds in Art exhibition again, marking the 20th time he has been chosen by a jury to be part of it.
Joined the National Sculpture Society 40 years ago, Osborne said he has exhibited his work around the world and taken “incredible journeys.”
At one point, he had the opportunity to show a piece in Beijing, China, as part of a year-long exhibition.
As he prepared to send his sculpture to China, Sascha Rockefeller called and offered $ 14,000 for the piece. This left Osborne with a decision to make.
“It was the middle of winter in Maine, and the rent was due,” he said.
Osborne decided to send it to the show in China.
After a year of good reviews, the exhibition closed its doors and his sculpture sold for $ 20,000.
This leap of faith has worked like many others over the years, Osborne said.
A piece inspired by the Exxon Valdez oil spill traveled across the country for four years.
Over the years, Osborne has been featured in many local galleries including the Scott Milo Gallery and the Smith and Vallee Gallery in Edison.
He has exhibited works of art for over 35 years at the Howard / Mandville Gallery in Woodinville and has presented exhibitions at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner.
He sold 25 sculptures to the city of Wenatchee, which are on display throughout the city.
Osborne has lived on the Isle of Guemes since 2000 with his wife Jane, whom he met years ago in Anacortes at a store she owned.
When they got together they moved to Ellensburg for a while, but decided to come back to that area.
“I love it here,” Osborne said. “I love the environment, I love the artistic community. It’s so enriching, deep and powerful.
While visiting the area, they were on the ferry to the Isle of Guemes and discovered they were sitting next to a real estate agent. They ended up seeing a house and bought it within 24 hours.
Osborne’s studio space is Milkwood Studio, named after both the studio space he had in Ellensburg in a former Darigold dairy building and Dylan Thomas’ poem “Under Milk Wood”.
Osborne never had an agent or manager.
“I feel like it has been a wonderful experience,” he said. “I didn’t have to sell my soul to complete my life as an artist.”
Osborne offered some advice to emerging artists.
“You’re going to have to like what you do,” he said. “Chances are it won’t be easy.”
Self-discipline is a must, he said.
“There are times when you want to hang it up and you don’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “You have to keep this inspiration and keep following this path.”
Osborne doesn’t make much use of digital media, but encourages new artists to embrace the tech world as a useful tool.
Of course, art starts with the basics, he said.
No matter what artistic medium you are looking for, Osborne recommends learning to draw first.
His first year of art school was entirely devoted to drawing. He practiced so often that he could draw without looking at the paper.
“It was a way of binding our mind, our eye and our hand together,” he said.
Osborne is proof that an artist can explore many ways to express their creativity.
His interest in writing dates back to his teenage years, when David Caroll inspired him to write and create books.
But it was only recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that he published his first book of poetry “The Cat and the Coracle”. He wrote and illustrated the book himself.
“I am endlessly passionate about finally making a book,” Osborne said.