It’s leaf-peeping season in colorful Colorado, and while hordes of people head to the mountains for our state’s annual glow up, you don’t have to. This year, mixed media painter Kristen Abbott is putting the beauty of the Front Range’s foliage on full display in downtown Boulder—no driving or hiking required.

In her solo exhibition The Language of Leaves, which opened at the New Local’s Annex earlier this month, the Boulder artist pays homage to the Centennial State’s flora with more than 24 cyanotypes—a photographic printing process that creates images in a striking shade of cyan blue with the help of ultraviolet light. Abbott chose specific native plants for this exhibit based on their symbolic meaning to spotlight the balance and rhythm of the changing seasons and capture the unpredictability of life itself.

“I’ve loved diving into the symbolism that’s associated with leaves,” Abbott says, “and how those symbols have attached themselves over the centuries and grown with the trees to where they can symbolize everything from sadness and mourning to connection, tolerance, and beauty.”

Photo by Lindsey Mazzaferro Photo

From ivy leaves that represent fidelity and long-term relationships to willow leaves that are often associated with grief, Abbott’s pieces evoke a rich spectrum of emotions. “I love how I get to infuse these paintings with deeper meaning than just the shapes and the beauty of the leaves themselves,” Abbott says. “They hold this deep symbolism that speaks to the human experience.”

In the summer of 2020, Abbott—an abstract painter—ordered a cyanotype kit to tinker with alongside her two daughters. The pandemic activity sparked a passion for a new medium, leading Abbott to outfit her garage with a dark room.

Her process involves coating canvases of her choice—typically linen, silk, or cotton—with cyanotype emulsion (a mixture of chemicals sensitive to UV light), transferring them outside, and swiftly arranging gathered leaves and stems onto the surface. Once they’re laying to her liking, Abbot places cut glass on the top and lets the pieces cook in the Colorado sun, which acts as a sort of secondary artist. The end result is a cyanotype shaped by the intensity of the rays.

After the sun has done its work, Abbott sometimes accents her cyanotypes with water-based inks and pastel colors, using earthy shades of emerald, cerulean and rust to form a soothing color palette.

While she sources some leaves straight from her South Boulder yard or along South Boulder Creek, Abbott also cherishes venturing out of her neighborhood to track down an array of greenery—especially when they’re turning sumptuous shades of gold. “Sunshine Canyon is always a really special spot for me that I’ve gone to each October,” Abbott says. “I’ve done a plein-air painting session there two years in a row.”

Kristen Abbott paints at Sunshine Canyon. Photo by Mber Creative

The final product of Abbott’s art is just as soothing as the creative process itself, which is likely why her work remains in high demand among collectors within the U.S. and internationally. “A lot of my art journey started out with me creating work for my own home that I wanted to live with,” Abbott says. “So my hope is that when people choose or connect with my work that it brings a sense of calm, respite, and beauty to their homes, and that it’s something they can sit with and find new things in every time—that it continues to reveal itself to the viewer.”

After Abbott’s solo exhibition closes on October 8, collectors will still be able to find many of her pieces for sale just a few doors down at the New Local’s main outpost on 741 Pearl Street. The all-female nonprofit houses work from more than 60 local women artists, offers studio space, and hosts workshops for the public.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of being a part of The New Local is the creative energy,” Abbott says. “You show up and you just know other creative women are out there doing their thing as well. It’s contagious, even though we’re all doing different things.”

The Language of Leaves is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., at the New Local’s Annex, 713 Pearl St., in Boulder. You can also purchase pieces on the nonprofit’s website.

Kalene McCort
Kalene McCort
Kalene McCort is the former features reporter for the Boulder Daily Camera and is working on her first novel. Follow her on Instagram @Kalenemccort.