Artist in the Galapagos

After visiting the Galapagos, Leila Daw discusses her work and the influence of her trip to the islands.

January 28, 2009

Leila Daw, a sculptor, painter, and sailor, joined the Cruising World Adventure Charter trip to the Galapagos in 2008 with her husband, Nigel. Several months later, CW’s Editor John Burnham looked back at the Enchanted Isles with the Connecticut-based Daw, who often features different map-style images in her work.

Cruising World: Which came first, your sailing or your interest in maps?

Leila Daw: One certainly influences the other. I was making map and chart based images before we started cruising. Back when we used to race Lightnings on a lake in the Midwest, I made work with diagrams of triangles and wind directions in enclosed bodies of water-after the race of course! I also make art about “maps” and drawings and such, of ancient sites, like Machu Picchu, and ruins in Turkey, where we chartered. Also, places that don’t exist but should!


CW: How has sailing and cruising in New England influenced your art?

LD: It influences it a lot, and not just my professional art. I do sketches in my notebook of harbors we stay in-like Three Mile Harbor and Hamburg Cove, last summer, where there were some particularly lovely boats at the time. While we’re sailing, I’m mostly busy, but often thinking/imagining the glaciers and floods that created the waterways we know and love-and that comes out in the professional work. The charts of the New England coastline are really great visually, and bits and pieces also appear in a lot of the work. The fact that we often sail in familiar waters makes me imagine them as exotic and foreign, and I’ll create charts and artifacts from these related, but imaginary journeys. Sometimes I’ll take a perfectly ordinary set of waypoints from a sail in Long Island Sound and create a fantasy sea & terrain around them. Unpredictable New England weather also helps to fuel the fantasy. Odysseus has nothing on us!

CW: Specific to the Galapagos, how inspiring were the visuals there to you as an artist and what did you focus on in particular in the journal drawings you did?


LD: The structure of the land-the underpinnings of everything, the geology-inspired me most. Volcanic activity! Wave action eating into the land! It was just amazing, and, of course, the reason that life developed there as it did. That said, I also thought the fish were incredible, in retrospect they were even more interesting than the animals, maybe because they were so colorful, and nestled so organically into the rocks and coral.

CW: How frustrating was the pace of our hikes when you wanted to keep sketching?

LD: Very frustrating! Could you tell? I can sketch pretty fast, and my visual memory is OK, but even so I couldn’t get all the details. Of course, I couldn’t draw underwater either; that’s why all the fish are just disembodied from their surroundings. I remembered the fish, but not their contexts.


CW: Did you take photos as well for future use in your art?

LD: I tell myself at the time I’m taking the photos for future use, but mostly the art comes out of what I sketch, or remember, or conflate with other things I remember. I think the act of taking the photo, the framing of the view at the time, the visual memory, is what begins to develop an idea for an artwork. But I do look at the photos afterward, and the ones I took and thought I’d work from aren’t always the ones I actually use. Nigel takes better photos than I do!

CW: In the last 8 months since we were there, have you already put Galapagos visuals to work in your professional work?


LD: I think I have to digest experiences for a while before they come out as art, and that incredible experience isn’t yet completely digested. However, the rugged verticality of some of the islands has translated into some images of very vertical terrain, like the work in the MassMoCA show, Badlands. (Which, by the way, is up until the end of April.) And, I’m getting there: I’ve been doing some work based on our experience of the Nasca lines in Peru, which was at the beginning of the same trip. And I’m starting to dream about the Galapagos, often a first step.

CW: Do you have any new work on exhibit?

LD: In addition to the Mass MOCA show, there’s the catalog, Badlands, available through MIT Press. It has an extensive article and illustrations of my work. This “catalog” is actually a whole soft cover book with essays on the environment & such in addition to info about the art. My next show is called “Seduced/Conned: the Relevance of Landscape in the 21st Century”. It runs March 13 to May 8 at the Guilford Art Center, in Guilford, Connecticut.

Eds Note: Leila and Nigel Daw recently sold their Bristol 29.9 and bought a Sabre 362, Libertas. The artist’s website is


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