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    Acclaimed Quilter, Playwright and Artist Leonard Pinna Continues to Expand Creative Horizons

    When members of our team first met talented Bay Area-based artist Leonard Pinna some years ago, he was working on several paintings and fine-tuning a few new plays that he had written. More recently, we were admiring images of winning quilts highlighted by the San Francisco Quilters Guild. A particularly beautiful one, Jazz City Rhapsody, caught our eye, as it did that of others who gave it a coveted “Viewer’s Choice” award. Pinna’s name was under the quilt. Could it be the same person, we wondered?

    The artist indeed turned out to be Pinna, who is continuing to gain accolades for his elegant, striking quilts and other works. We love that quilting, in particular, continues to attract members of our LGBTQ community, who are drawn to its healing beauty, potential for collaboration and much more.

    Quilts evoke warmth and security—what we are craving now at this wintry time of year, and during a period of political uncertainty. It was therefore a pleasure for us to recently catch up with Pinna, and to learn more about his experiences as an artist seeking authentic creative expression. He has had quite a life! We invite you to cozy up in your favorite chair, perhaps with your own favorite quilt and hot beverage, to slow down and savor Pinna’s life story through his evocative words and images.

    San Francisco Bay Times: You are such a creative, talented person. We’re curious to know what your upbringing was like, and who some of your early mentors and sources of inspiration were.

    Leonard Pinna: I’ve been a naturally creative person since I was very young. Recognizing that I had an aptitude and appetite for learning, my mother began teaching me how to write the alphabet in cursive when I was about four. I remember sitting in the attic going through reams of paper, practicing my cursive handwriting by focusing on one letter per page, striving for perfection.  Catholic school nuns really influenced my cursive handwriting in first and second grade by teaching the Palmer Method. The exercises focused on the continuous repetition of o’s and /’s across the page, which ended up looking like spiral tunnels—like a slinky—or dense patches of waving wheat. As I think about it now, I’d say my spiral paintings definitely have their root in the Palmer Method of handwriting, where I begin with broad circular motions followed by layered thin hatchet marks. My very first attempt at a large-scale painting as an undergraduate in college was painting my name in cursive all over the canvas.

    I credit my single, career-working aunt, who lived down the street, for training my eye for color. Back in the sixties, seventies and eighties, she had tons of clothing in every shade imaginable. She organized her several closets like painter swatches. She didn’t have one green or blue pantsuit; she had five or six shades of pant suits in every hue, gradating from light to dark. And even when talking about a new outfit she had seen, she would walk around the house, pointing at colors in the wallpaper or furniture or anything she could spot. She’d say, “It was similar to this mint green here, only it had a little more blue in it, not as much as turquoise, but more like seafoam green.”

    My favorite creative activities as a child were coloring books, making Spirograph designs, paint-by-number landscapes, and coloring the little girl for periodic Sunbeam bread coloring contests. And it was my maternal grandmother who first taught me how to sew when I was about seven or eight years old. She would give me two paper towels with a needle and thread, and while she was cooking dinner, I would sit on her back porch near the kitchen and sew the paper towels together around the outside perimeter using ½ inch basting stitches. Again, I worked on perfect spacing of the stitches.

    I also exhibited thespian tendencies quite early, for I was able to memorize a lot of lines. In kindergarten, I played Santa Claus for the Christmas play. I had all the lines of the show—a half hour monologue, while the other kids acted out all of the parts—as toys, dolls, spinning tops, etc. My mother, of course, helped me to learn my lines, and she said that while she was in the audience mouthing the monologue with me, I knew it word-for-word.

    I also liked to sing—loudly—in Catholic church, and I had singing parts in the school plays and recitals. In a second-grade recital, we were singing a song about a shoe cobbler, and we were supposed to bring a shoe for a prop. I, of course, brought my mother’s black patent leather spiked heels! Already, I was starting to reveal publicly my secret desire for transvestism. I did often sneak up to the attic to try on my mother’s turquoise touile charity ball gown. Eventually, I tried on her huge hooped, wedding gown as well. This was a precursor to my gender-bending drag performing persona, Lenya.

    I grew up dancing at a lot of Italian weddings, watching my grandfather start off the traditional “Tarantella” with the neighbor Maggie. They would each put the end of a cloth napkin between their teeth to start off the dance. I danced with my aunts, and girl cousins. I was reprimanded for once trying to dance with my best friend, Philip. I, of course, couldn’t understand why two little girls were allowed to dance together, but not two little boys. Incidentally, for many of these family weddings, I would always help the brides-to-be to make pleated tissue flowers that would then be puffed out like carnations for decorating the wedding party cars.

    In Junior high school, I really took to, and excelled in, mechanical drafting. By the 10th grade, I was an architecture major at a full-time Vocational-Technical High School in Johnstown, PA. I was most enthusiastic about the aesthetic designs and the elevations and perspective renderings; I really didn’t care much about the engineering part—using the slide rule to figure out stress weights of the joists and beams. My teacher would say, “How do you expect to hold this up?” I thought, “Why can’t someone else figure out the technical engineering parts? I just care about what it looks like.”

    San Francisco Bay Times: Please share more about your past and present work in the theatre arts.

    Leonard Pinna: As an undergraduate theatre major, I worked both on stage as an actor, and off-stage as a set and props painter; I even designed the posters for the shows. For Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, I painted an orchard scene in Monet’s impressionist style as the background for the poster. When I was hired as a summer intern at a dinner theatre, I was put in charge of painting and texturing, as well as being an actor. I had to mix colors that would match the colors of previous sets that were pulled out of stock, so that we could touch up and refresh the sets.  

    It was in my senior year while directing three Edward Albee one-acts that my theatre director informed me that if I was going to make it in theatre, I had to focus on one area of expertise—that my eclectic talents were not going to serve me in my approach to theatre as a career. He told me that I had to specialize. I tried to focus on acting only when I went to New York to break into the theatrical business. It wasn’t long before I joined a group for playwrights, directors and actors, and began writing my first play

    Without a lot of auditions coming my way, I began to focus more and more on playwriting and wrote several one-acts plays and a couple of full-length plays. When I went back to school for graduate study, I entered a newly developing field, dramaturgy, which seemed to synthesize my varying interests. In grad school, I experienced cultural exchange work with Indian Sanskrit dramatists from Kerala, India, and studied the actor movement method of Tadashi Suzuki of Japan, via his disciple, Yuki Goto. Post-graduate work, I became a theatre professor of Acting and Directing at Kent State University, and began directing main stage shows at school and semi-professional productions in the Cleveland Area. 

    After I became acquainted with the artistic director of The National Puppetry Conference, housed at the O’Neill Theatre in Connecticut, he hired me as the dramaturg for the conference as a need to push for more puppet theatre to enter mainstream theatre by developing more original and dramatic narratives. I worked with prominent puppeteers from around the country including Heather Henson, daughter of the late Jim Henson, to help develop more substantial work for the mainstream theatre at large. This predated Julie Taymor and The Lion King by several years.  

    At this time, I began my own theatre company, Ecclesia, housed at Lake Erie College near Cleveland. I directed classics, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, along with plays of Tennessee Williams. I directed new plays, and edgier works such as Doug Holsclaw’s The Baddest of Boys, which had originally premiered at Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco, and some new puppet theatre work such as The Whaling Wife, by Bonnie Remsberg. It was at this time that I was burning out from non-stop rehearsals along with teaching theatre. Post 9/11, things changed for me in Cleveland, spurred by economic decline. I then decided to move to the Bay Area and to take a hiatus from the theatre world, which exacted a price to high. 

    San Francisco Bay Times: What did you do then, once you were in the Bay Area?     

    Leonard Pinna: No longer engaged in collaborative work, I needed to find new creative expression, so I began painting with acrylics and palette knives. I realized that I had built up some skills from set painting that I thought I could now try on canvas.  Having not really been trained as a painting artist, my first paintings seemed quite surprising to me, as well as to others. Friends wondered, “Where is this coming from?” I began to take commissions for personal and customized paintings, and found that my dramaturgical analysis, and my directorial love for shaping of movement and tableau, led to really interesting works on canvas that I never would have imagined myself doing. I recognized that most of the influence in my aesthetic probably stems from the French impressionists of late 1800s and early 1900s. Using a palette knife, I do a lot of little slashes of paint, combined with some thick impastos that, at times, I feel relate to Monet, or Van Gogh, and with the cuts and slashes that I have developed in my work, I can see a bit of Klimt. 

    Inspired by natural elements—such as rock, wood, metals and environmental/philosophical connections to the sun, moon, stars and the universe—I find mostly that abstraction and sense of movement can express my feelings, emotions, passions, and sense of sacred connection to everything. I am drawn to texture, and fascinated by aged or weathered appearance. If I could, I would spend most of my time in natural environs such as Point Lobos near Carmel, or the Redwoods near Guerneville, or the dramatic terrain of Yosemite. Abroad it would be the ruins of Palatine Hill and the Colosseum in Rome, or the Greco-Roman amphitheaters in Sicily or the waters of the Mediterranean near the cliffs and grottos of Sardinia. These are the places where I feel most at home and connected to everything. I would live in a structure like the Roman Baths in Bath, England, with a terraced view from Boboli Gardens in Florence. I would have my formal dinner/functions at a long wooden table under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and my outdoor functions at a farmhouse overlooking Tomales Bay.

    San Francisco Bay Times: What first attracted you to quilting?

    Leonard Pinna: As I approached the age of 50, I wished to have a quilt made to mark the occasion. Inspired by the weave of a fabric of one of my couch pillows, I decided to design a quilt that captured the colors and feel of that fabric. After trying for about 10 months to find someone to sew the quilt, my son introduced me to his friend who was studying textiles at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco. I asked her if there would be anyone at the school I could hire to sew my quilt. She said that she could do it, and that she would have time between semesters to work on it. After we spent a day looking at fabrics at several places in Berkeley, I told her that I would go back and buy the various ones we had seen and bring them to her. After buying $500 worth of fabric, I called her to set up a time for meeting. After no response to my repeated calling for about 4–5 days, I realized that she had flaked on me. I went to the fabric store to speak to the very first salesperson I had met, Julie Banfield, who responded by clapping her hands, and saying, “Yay, Leonard, you can make it yourself.” Despite not really knowing how to sew and not having a sewing machine, I deep down knew it was true. I was destined to make the quilt. 

    Julie offered to give me a one-hour lesson on how to pin and seam rows of pieces. But first I would have to create two of my rows of 20 pieces in order for her to show me. At work, a male colleague overheard me telling my story of how I lost my seamstress, and my not knowing how to begin my quilt, for I didn’t even have a sewing machine. He chimed in, “My mother just gave my girlfriend her extra sewing machine and she’s not using it at the moment. I’ll ask her if you can borrow it.” Indeed, that’s what came to pass. The girlfriend gave me a half-hour lesson on how to use the machine, thread a bobbin, sew a straight line, etc. And I was off. After figuring out how to cut and sew 40 small rectangular pieces together in two rows, I met with Julie for my one-hour lesson on pinning corners, sewing seams, and “ironing.” I had no idea that precise ironing was so important to sewing.  So, ten months later, I completed a 2200-piece quilt top and took it to Julie. She and the other women were in awe. They said, “No one ever does such an ambitious quilt for their first quilt!” Julie recommended a long-arm quilter, Sue Fox, to do the actual quilt stitching of the top and bottom panels together. When Sue Fox saw my quilt top she said, “If this is your first quilt, you have entered at university level!” And thus, I realized that I had some talent for this process, and I was now hooked. A few years later, my quilt Jazz City Rhapsody won the top Viewers’ Choice Award at the 2013 San Francisco Quilt Show.

    I decided to make my mother a couch quilt, and so then I had to make my single aunt a couch quilt, both for artistic and familial reasons. Then I chose to make my close friend a couch quilt. In each of these cases, I designed quilts that would blend into their everyday surroundings, evoking their colors, patterns, personalities. 

    San Francisco Bay Times: Jazz City Rhapsody is such a stunning piece. We love how it has a retro Gershwin-type energy that brings to mind New York’s great jazz clubs, yet also is quite modern with its bold shapes. It is additionally very masculine in feel to us, given the menswear patterns and textures. Please tell us what inspired you to create this striking quilt. 

    I decided it was time to make my son, Matthew, a quilt. He would soon be 25 years old. I thought I could commemorate his first quarter century with a quilt that would reflect that period of time in his life. So, I took him to my favorite fabric store and told him to walk around and pick out some fabrics that spoke to him, while I perused my favorite section of woven fabrics.  He came back to me with a beautiful fabric in black and grey and almost sepia tones depicting a crowd of people dressed in period clothing from what appeared to be from the 1920s or 30s. I was immediately captured by the fabric as well as immediately impressed with my son’s taste.

    I told him to pick some other fabrics. He came back with a sepia weathered-looking fabric, which depicted columns from a 1927 news print that even included a headline: “Ideas for quilts come from everywhere.” Right there, while holding the two fabrics, side by side, I sensed what his quilt would be about: 1920’s Jazz, Art Deco, and Hollywood film strip (for Matthew was presently a film-studies major who had a fine eye and ear for a film’s music design) and NYC buildings and street grid, and texturally men’s clothing from that early era. The color palette would be dominated by the “crowd” fabric’s black, grey and sepia tones.  The irregular rectangles present in the newsprint fabric would inspire the varying heights of tall buildings. Music would find visual expression through depictions of piano keys, both realistic and over-sized, and staffs of musical notes would travel through the quilt—even as tiny as the mortar between a wall of bricks. Most prominent would be the crowd scenes, which would appear around the quilt via an over-scaled film strip, on the front page of a newspaper and in framed photographs. My background in theatre probably assisted the overall aesthetic of the quilt to seem as if it could become the backdrop scenery for a bare-boards song and dance revue. I knew the quilt was artistically a unique expression, but there was no way I would have dreamed that the quilt would capture the attention of the crowds at the San Francisco Quilt Show 2013 to win the coveted overall Viewer’s Choice Award! And to think that this quilt covers my son’s bed and extends my care of him through the comfort of the enveloping fabrics, knowing he inspired the quilt; for I never would have conceived of such a project on my own.

    San Francisco Bay Times: We’ve noticed that you collaborate with others at times when creating your quilts, such as for the Like a Prayer Wall, and for commissioned paintings. Please tell us a bit about those collaborations—both with clients for commissioned works and with other artists in creating quilts. How can creative minds come together for projects such as these?

    Leonard Pinna: Having spent the first half of my adult life in theatre arts, collaboration was the essential process in creating any work. Post-theatre, collaborations in conjunction with my visual/material arts forms occurred in both similar and varying ways. After breaking into a new medium, painting with palette knives, I was fortunate to have immediate work as a commissioned artist. Upon my request, my closest friends in Cleveland (where I was living at the time) helped me through a financially difficult period by commissioning me to create personal paintings for them. I approached each painting as a distinct endeavor as would a theatre director when approaching vastly different dramatic material. One would direct and design a Tennessee Williams production quite differently from a Shakespearean production or a classical Greek theatre production. A director would research and determine the intention and sensibility of each playwright, as well as the time period or culture of the world of each play.   Analysis of their inherent qualities, dramatic properties and potential visualization would be approached by a director and a team of designers in order to devise an interpretation, which conveyed the most immediate themes. 

    Thus, I approached my friends’ lives, living spaces, tastes in color, and aesthetic patterns in décor, clothing or personal items to get a sense of what themes or motifs manifested or dominated their physical world and personal sensibilities. I would get an energetic sense of the movement and shape of a potential rendering, and would quickly begin to sketch an abstract or simple representation of that feeling. I would share these sketches with the client, getting their feedback on the approach or initial images. With their reactions and feedback, I would begin to get an overall vision of the work. My dramaturgical skills would help me to create their narrative, theme, shape, color, movement and texture of the piece. I would then create a quickly painted sketch to capture the feel. Again, I would show the client for their feedback and approval of approach. I asked them to supply me with a CD (of that time period) of their favorite music. When beginning each of their personal paintings, I lit a candle, put on their favorite music and ritualized the moment by beginning the painting with the most essential color or colors of the painting and would streak or swirl the paint using the first strokes of the palette knife to mark the predominant focal point(s) of the painting.  After broad stroke painting the entire foundation of the work, I then would begin to add detail layer by layer. Somewhere between a quarter done and half done, I would show the painting-in-process to the client for their reaction. They might say something like, “It seems brighter than I thought it would be. I thought it would be darker, more moody.” And so, I would adjust the approach to their liking and gain their continued approval. Then I would nearly finish the painting before showing it to the client again. Usually their enthusiasm for the result would feed me the energy to add the last refining touches to the painting.

    Collaborating on a quilt works much differently than a commissioned painting. For the most part, I do all of the designing and piecing of a quilt top. Then I take the pieced-together quilt top along with a designed back panel to professional quilters, who use long-arm machines to stitch the quilt designs into the top and bottom panels, which now have cotton batting, etc., stuffed between them to add the puffy, tufted quilted affect to the work. Having established relationships with several quilters, I take the work to the quilter who I think best serves the work, for each of the quilters has unique styles or skills. I have worked with two or even three quilters on the same project, if the quilt stitching varies in the piece. If I determine that much of the quilting will be stitching “in-the-ditch” (between the seams), I take it to a particular quilter, Rebecca Rohrkaste, who is an expert at this type of quilt stitching. Rebecca was the solo quilter for the award-winning quilt Sakura at the San Francisco Quilt Show, 2013. 

    If I have lyrical designs, I know I can take my quilt to Melissa Quilter (yes, that’s her name!) who has a lovely lyrical style to her work and a warm, supportive disposition. She has quilted a number of my couch quilts and kid’s quilts. And when I have a highly ambitious or challenging quilt design that requires varying or irregular patterns throughout the quilt, I know exactly who I’m going to approach to work on the piece—Sue Fox, a quilter who also has a background in the theatre as a costume designer and who not only has technical skill, but she also has the artistic and spiritual sensibilities that can understand my work and beautifully achieve the effect I envision. I trust her to make suggestions for improving certain aspects of the design, and I also have a strong enough vision of the work that she will ask me to precisely sketch out the design or will video record my poetic or imagistic descriptions of what I am envisioning and where I what it placed. And then she will come up with the “how.” And I’m thrilled!  We enjoy our collaboration and tackling challenges, because we sharpen each other’s work. She usually enthusiastically welcomes my new work with the half-joking/half-serious comment, “You know you’re crazy, don’t you?” And then we go on to discuss the precise details of the design. Sue was the solo quilter for my award-winning Jazz City Rhapsody

    Because my quilts are original designs, neither traditional nor country home style, the precise stitching of the long-arm quilting machine seems to match the precision or polish of my aesthetic. To compliment and complete the look of my quilts, I now collaborate with Robin Whitlock to design individual labels, which she beautifully machine embroiders. 

    San Francisco Bay Times: We recently read that you do “photographic nature paintings.” Please explain what these are.

    In October of 2015, I took a three-week solo trip down the coast of California, traveling Highway 1 from Pacifica to San Diego.  It was a completely unstructured and unplugged journey through some personally unchartered territory. My first stop, of course, was near Carmel, beginning my personal odyssey with a hike around my favorite sacred and ceremonial places at Point Lobos.  During this adventure, I entered into a deep intimacy with the environment and found myself photographing specific areas of rocks, trees, and cliffs in ways I had not before. I framed natural elements in ways that transcended the elements themselves—edges where the content of the images began to abstract in pattern, colors, and textures. I felt as if I were searching for naturally occurring “paintings” in these various micro-environs around the Point Lobos coast. The images and textures seem to correspond to the one’s I usually paint. These “natural” paintings, though, seemed to capture images in ways far beyond what I could achieve by attempting to paint them. I felt an instinctual urge to capture the image in the lens perfectly.


    I knew there would be no manipulation of the photo, no filters, and no Photoshopped effects. Equipped only with my iPhone 5S, I knew that a new form of creative expression was emerging within me, for it felt to be the same kind of mysterious opening of my senses akin to when I began my first major painting and subsequently my first major quilt. Later in my journey down the coast, I had a major mishap with my phone as it accidentally drowned in a container of liquid. Aside from feeling rather unnerved by the loss of my phone, my more serious fear was that I had lost all of my pictures from Point Lobos—the ones that I thought were to become a new artistic expression for me. Finding an Apple store south of Long Beach, I was able to replace my phone, but it was clear that I would be losing some information and data due to my general technological ignorance and lack of foresight. As the service person searched for my info in foreign places I knew not of, it was clear that I probably lost all of the pictures from the trip up to that point. 

    Miraculously, the only pictures that were recovered were the very ones I had most feared were gone—the artistically shot images from Point Lobos! Hence, I have printed a series of these photos on canvas and they have become the genesis of what I am calling “nature’s paintings.” To my surprise and delight, these new photographic paintings received a lot of favorable attention and enthusiastic support at my recent Home Gallery Art show. Additional experimentation continued as I attempted to add painting textures to some of these photos. Subsequently the mixed media technique I used seems to have created some unusually mysterious, impressionistic landscapes—ones that captured more attention than I expected. 

    As always, I continue to expand my creative horizons. I’m already beginning to project that, at some time in my later years, I will probably be sitting at a wheel with wet clay and forming pottery dishes and bowls with my aging hands. A friend amusingly suggested that I return to handwriting and take up calligraphy next. Perhaps. However, until such time, I will continue to express my creativity through painting, quilting, and photographing nature.

    Leonard Pinna is available for collaborative commissions as either a painter for personal inner journey expression, or as a customized quilt designer. For further information or queries about commissioned works, please write to him ( and visit his web gallery at