Alissa Leigh Cahillane was panicking.
“We were flying home from a summer vacation to Yosemite in 2019,” Cahillane, who goes by Alissa Leigh professionally, remembers. “Suddenly, I was on the plane, and my arms were numb, my face was numb. The internal dialogue in my head was terrifying me, but I didn’t say a word. Do I tell them to land the plane? Am I having a heart attack? Am I going to die on this plane?”
After that flight, the panic attacks continued.
“I had anxiety for months, snowballing until I could barely get out of bed in the morning to get my kids on the bus,” Leigh adds. “I had breakdowns every day; I questioned who I was, and whether I should’ve had kids. I had lost all sense of identity and wondered where I was going. I had given up all of my own interests to take care of them. I was a stay-at-home mom for eleven years, which I was told you’re supposed to love. But I really felt like I was stuck in a horrible job that I couldn’t quit.”
She didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the start of a new chapter in her life: Alissa Leigh the artist. It can be said that an artist finds her voice when she needs to. Leigh found hers at just the right time.
She tried what she could to pull herself out of her slump. Exercise didn’t help, Zoloft did. But still, there was something missing. It wasn’t until she bought her first set of paints and canvases seven months later that things fell into place.
“Painting for me was like a light switch,” says Leigh. “I immediately started feeling better, and not a day has gone by over the last three years that I haven’t painted.”
Her basement-turned-studio is now filled with her bright, abstract mixed-media art hanging on the walls, stacked in racks, leaning against themselves – some are complete, many are in progress and others, well, she’s not sure if she’s done. Almost every available space is filled with these canvases, swathed in vivid splashes of color, tagged with graffiti, and covered in painted circles, squares and basic forms. Hanging on the wall next to her art table is a neon pink sign depicting her trademark signature, which brightens the space and has become a well-known feature on her Instagram.
In March, Leigh began preparing for two major events: a solo show at Chroma Fine Art Gallery in Katonah and her own booth at this fall’s Armonk Outdoor Art Show. She needs to make close to 75 paintings for these shows, which are happening three weeks apart in October.
In the meantime, homeowners and businesses continue to buy her work, which has already been hung on over 200 walls over the past few years. Thanks to her unique style and her savvy social media skills, “Alissa Leigh” has quickly become a well-known name.
It can take years or even decades for an artist to find her voice. For Leigh, it has all come rather quickly and surprisingly.
Light, color and movement
Leigh is fascinated by color and form. Her work is abstract and, by her own account, isn’t driven by movements or political messages. For her, it’s purely emotional.
“There’s a lot of gestural movements in my art, a lot of energy,” says Leigh. “I also really love shapes. I love circles and squares and the balance between the two. Impressionism also has a big influence on me. I paint a lot of colors interacting with light. I’m not consciously thinking about it when I’m working, but it comes out later.”
She works on stretched canvases, using acrylic paints and markers, pens, spray paint, charcoal – whatever is around. Her average size is 36” x 36”, but she’ll go as large as 48” x 82” and as small as 10” x 10.” Each painting takes a few weeks to complete, although she admittedly leaves them for a time and returns later, as she enjoys working on multiple pieces at once.
“I start each painting by picking three colors,” she explains. “I get them on a canvas in the beginning and then start scribbling with a China marker, just to get marks down. Things sort of develop from there.”
Leigh thrives from the movement in her artwork. Art isn’t a stationary experience for her, and she strongly resists formal work.
“I’m not into drawing,” she explains. “I find it too finite and meticulous. It’s very stressful and takes a lot out of me because it’s much more controlled.”
Leigh grew up in South Salem. Her father worked in cosmetics packaging, designing labels for beauty and perfume packaging. By Leigh’s own account, her mother was the true creative in the family, having gone to art school. But once she had children, art became something she did on the side, whether it was interior design or accessorizing clothing.
“We never had white walls in my house,” Leigh recalls. “My mother would always paint them peach or lime green with blue trim. Lots of bright colors. She always did something funky.”
But Leigh’s early passion was photography.
“My father bought me my first camera,” she says. “I got really into taking pictures when I attended John Jay and then St. Luke’s, which was much smaller and more focused on the arts. However, once I graduated, my parents informed me that I couldn’t go to art school because I’d never make a living as an artist.”
Following high school, Leigh attended Roanoke College for one year, hated her classes and transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where she majored in fashion buying and merchandising.
“I loved the fashion side of things there, along with the artistic influence,” she says. “Roanoke was only full of frat parties, but F.I.T. was much more creative.”
Leigh briefly worked in fashion before taking a job in sales with Hilton Hotels and Resorts.
“Somehow I wound up at Hilton,” she explains. “I took a corporate job where I negotiated rates with companies that needed an extended stay at a hotel. It was terrible. I hated every moment of it. Then I had two babies and that was pretty much it. I didn’t do anything creative after that.”
The breaking point
“My mom died in 2015,” remembers Leigh. “Unfortunately, I never really felt I had the chance to grieve for her. We talked on the phone every day, every time I was in the car or going to work, I would call her. Then I spent two years taking care of her and watching her die, taking her to chemo with my two little kids. It was a nightmare. I just had to keep going. I didn’t have time to stop and take care of myself.”
That’s when the anxiety began to take hold, but she persevered, continuing to wrestle with her identity while managing her family.
“The resentment was building,” recalls Leigh. “My husband would come home from work, and I would hand him the kids just to get an hour to myself. I would ask my mother for a sign of what I should be doing. My husband and friends seemed to know what they wanted. They had activities they enjoyed. I didn’t have any of that. I had no identity.”
In the summer of 2019, she boarded that fateful flight home from Yosemite, and the panic attacks began. She started medication in October, but then COVID hit, which didn’t help. She knew she had to change something.
“When the pandemic started, I decided to order some cheap canvases,” says Leigh. “From the day I started painting on those canvases, I haven’t stopped. It was the first time that I ever felt such a strong pull to something. I couldn’t get enough. I would paint, do other errands while I waited for the paint to dry, then get right back to it. It really made me feel more connected to my mom and her love of creativity. It was a piece of her that I was missing. I fell in love with it, and haven’t looked back.”
When she began selling her work, she chose the name Alissa Leigh because that’s what her mom called her.
Count the hours not the years
To say that an artist found her voice over the course of three years is remarkable. And yet Leigh seems to have done just that. Since the start of the pandemic, art has been her focus, and she spends several hours each day working on her craft.
“I immediately started posting pictures of my paintings on Instagram,” remembers Leigh. “People would see them and actually ask me if I would sell any of them. I was truly floored by this, that people would pay me money for my paintings. So I started selling 12” x 12” canvases, just charging enough to cover my expenses. Then I started selling a lot of work, so I created a website and an LLC, and it actually took off.”
Leigh also began educating herself, first taking an online course through Manhattan’s Art Students League and then an in-person one at Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan. She also rented studio space at RPAC Art Center and Academy in Ridgefield.
“RPAC ended up being one of the best things that’s happened to me so far,” she says. “After COVID, I was home and isolated. When you’re painting alone, you don’t speak to anybody, but my time there allowed me to be around other artists who could serve as a sounding board when I was stuck. It allowed me to connect with an artistic community. My time there was invaluable.”
Additionally, Leigh joined numerous local artistic organizations and found the Katonah Museum Artists’ Association to be the best fit; she’s still an active member.
A big moment for Leigh came in November 2021 when Rita Baunok of Chroma Fine Art Gallery included Leigh in a group exhibition.
“I still, to this day, don’t know how she heard about me,” remarks Leigh. “But I’ve now had the chance to have a few shows at Chroma, which was a big goal for me at that time.”
The following year, the stakes increased further for Leigh when she asked Baunok to help her create a portfolio so she could apply for solo shows. Baunok responded by offering Leigh her first solo show that October.
“Rita told me she would need 75 pieces in three months, which seemed crazy,” recalls Leigh. “Yet somehow, I got it done.”
Leigh’s first solo show was a powerful experience for her.
“The solo show was very nerve wracking for me,” she remembers. “As excited and grateful as I was, I also felt very exposed. This was my heart on paper and canvas. This was me. You can hide in a group show because there are other artists and other people to see them, but when it’s just you, you can’t help but have that bit of fear in your head of whether anyone will show up or buy anything. However, the event was fantastic. We had 300 – 400 people show up, and I sold twenty-seven pieces in three weeks, which is unheard of for an artist.”
No end in sight
Since she started selling her work, Leigh has participated in eighteen exhibitions between Westchester and Connecticut, including recent shows at Chroma, Yellow Studio and The ONE Show (by this very publication), along with two solo shows
However, the biggest news arrived earlier this year when Leigh was accepted to the renowned Armonk Outdoor Art Show, one of the country’s top art shows.
“We were fortunate to have over 600 applications to our 2023 show, and we were able to extend invitations to about 140 of those artists,” says Liz Green, chair of artist relations for the Armonk Outdoor Art Show. “Alissa Leigh’s work has a vibrancy and playfulness that will resonate with so many of our visitors. We are thrilled when we can feature another local artist and really look forward to the energy she’ll bring to the show.”
Leigh’s working hard to prepare, and she says she’s trying not to “overthink it.”
“I’m going to do what I love,” she says. “I’ll bring my street graffiti vibe to the event and just see what happens.”
Yes you can
Leigh recently finished a painting. The signs of her voice are all over the canvas in the bright neon pinks and blues, splatters of yellow and streaks of red. In the center of the painting is a prominent rose-colored heart, a symbol frequently found in her work. Words trace the heart in a thick black stroke: Follow your dreams. Go for it. Don’t give up.
She no longer has panic attacks; art is very meditative for her. Plus, she’s now able to fulfill a personal goal she’s had for years – she owns a business that allows her to donate to charity fundraisers for organizations that are meaningful to her.
“My life is night and day from where it was,” she describes. “I feel great today. My husband has been so supportive. He’s my biggest fan. As for my kids, they’re teenagers, so there’s that. But they’re amazing.”
Several of her paintings contain words of motivation: Keep going. Yes you can. Messages like these are often found in Leigh’s work. She includes them for her and many other people, including her own family.
“I thought it was really important for my kids to see that you can totally reinvent yourself in your forties,” she says. “You can change the direction of your life and find what makes you happy. It doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes, you just have to push through life in order to eventually find what you’re looking for, but it’s never too late to find your voice.”
Leigh’s work will be on display at the Armonk Outdoor Art Show on September 30 and October 1, and at Chroma Fine Art Gallery in Katonah on October 17 – November 5.
This article was published in the September/October 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.