Exhibit features the many faces of women

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 30, 2005

Until Aug. 19, visitors to the Suffolk Museum can see some of the faces of women that have touched Rieneke Leenders’ life over the past few decades-but they’re only a minuscule selection of the group.

&uot;During years of travels around the world, I came to the conclusion that it is not the sites of those faraway places that fascinated me most,&uot; says the Netherlands native and Virginia Beach resident. &uot;It was the people.&uot;

Her journey to &uot;arthood&uot; began long before her trip around the world.

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&uot;I went to art school in Holland,&uot; Leenders recalls of her youth. &uot;I wanted to be a drawer or painter, but I didn’t like the way she taught.&uot;

That’s why she went into a new area of artistic creation; gold-and silversmithing.

&uot;Goldsmith is making jewelry,&uot; she explains. &uot;Silversmithing is silverware; spoons, chalices, those kinds of things. I liked anything that had to do with hands.&uot;

In 1974, she journeyed to Toronto to perform an internship at a workshop. Then she went back to Holland, married, and began preparing for the trip that would change her life.

&uot;We always dreamed of being able to travel to all the places we had heard of,&uot; she says. &uot;We knew we’d go there someday, and we did.&uot;

In 1976, they began their venture by driving their camper south to Spain and Morocco, and traipsed across the Sahara desert. They went to Nigeria, to Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda, and down to Zambia, spending a year in Africa.

That’s where the couple sold their camper-and where Leenders’ enthrallment with worldwide culture began.

&uot;Africa is a country of people that are warm and welcoming,&uot; she says. &uot;If you stop in a village, half the village surrounds you. They want to talk to you, they want to feel your mattress, they want to feel your hair. They want to see your kitchen and they want to show you theirs.

&uot;You get an opportunity to see different ways of living that have nothing to do with money. From (Africa) on, that was my fascination.&uot;

Eventually, the couple flew to Russia and over to London, and made their way to Germany and Barbados, soon taking a boat to British Ghana. Soon they headed to Brazil and boated on the Amazon River before taking a bus to Sao Paulo, where they bought a car.

&uot;We lived with people that didn’t have the money to go to four-star hotels,&uot; she remembers. &uot;When we were on the boat, we ate lunch served at big tables. When we had been in Surinam, we spent days visiting a policeman whose home was in the jungle. We took every opportunity of connection we could get in Brazil.&uot;

Soon, it was on to Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru and other South American countries.

&uot;Everything was fascinating there!&uot; she smiles. &uot;Everything was good!&uot;

After selling their car, the pair flew to Miami, Leenders’ first venture into the United States since around the time of her internship. After driving their new pickup truck down to Mexico and spending a summer in Guatemala, they went back up the West Coast through California, Washington and all the way to Alaska, coming back to San Francisco before selling their truck.

&uot;Three countries stand out for their hospitality,&uot; she says. &uot;They are Brazil, Chile and the United States. In those countries, people come up to you and invite you to their homes. A lot of them approach you out of curiosity.&uot;

The trip went to Hawaii, through Hong Kong and Singapore, and up the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. They island-hopped through Indonesia and spent four months in India, then went through Pakistan and Iran.

&uot;Then it was Turkey, Greece, Italy, home!&uot; she remembers.

In 1981, she settled back in Holland and had two children, freelancing as a goldsmith and occasionally joining her husband for African safari trips. After moving to Virginia Beach in 1986, she began to paint.

&uot;The first thing on my mind was memories of my travel,&uot; she said. &uot;I got a lot of support from fellow artists and joined several organizations.&uot;

Over the next few years, she became the president of the Virginia Watercolor Society and the Tidewater Arts Association, and helped found the Multi-Cultural Alliance.

&uot;That is to promote ethnic culture,&uot; she says of the Alliance, &uot;through painting, dancing, clothing, everything.&uot;

All the while, she began creating portraits of women from across the world, often from photo references from her trip. Through working with the Old Dominion University Women’s Studies Art program, she was able to meet many women from around the world.

&uot;I became less and less interested in how they looked,&uot; she says. &uot;They didn’t have to look gorgeous. The less gorgeous they were, the more interesting. The story is more important than the faces, for the story can put character in their faces.&uot;

Over the next few years, she created portraits of women from across the globe, including some from the United States.

Women from across Africa and South America were painted, as was Leenders’ neighbor, Virginia Beach mayor Meyera Oberndorf.

&uot;When a major ethnic group was lacking or a continent underrepresented,&uot; Leenders explains, &uot;I would search among foreigners in my surroundings to find the missing links.&uot;

In 2000, she got a studio at the d’Art Center in Norfolk. Last year, the World Bank Headquarters in Washington D.C. exhibited her work, and enjoyed it so much that they ended up purchasing 11 portraits. Last year, she won first prize at the Suffolk Art League’s 2004 Annual Juried Exhibition, which won her a chance to show her work in a full exhibition at the Bosely Street museum. It’s called &uot;Women of the World.&uot;

&uot;I want to show triumphant women who overcame obstacles to find success,&uot; she says. &uot;My extensive travels around the world have created in me a loving fascination for people, places and cultures of the world, and I feel compelled to paint that.&uot;