Millie Palmer had always wanted to learn watercolor painting, and when she saw Sonserae Leese’s watercolors as part of an art exhibit in Newport Beach last fall, she was inspired.
Leese’s paintings didn’t look like traditional watercolors. When Palmer approached Leese and learned that she taught art to children on a one-to-one basis, she asked if she would be willing to teach her to paint as well.
Until then, Palmer had felt lost trying to learn in a classroom setting. “I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. ”I also didn’t feel like I was getting any instruction or feedback.”
Leese accepted the job and began tutoring in Palmer’s Newport Beach home in December. They meet weekly.
“She shows me what to do step by step, beginning with teaching me basic drawing,” Palmer said. “If I’m doing something wrong, then she’s there to give me constant feedback, and if I don’t know, she tells me, for example, to make it darker or lighter. She’s very positive.”
For Leese, who has worked for more than 30 years as a professional artist, one-on-one tutoring for kids and adults has become a fulfilling and joyful experience.
After living in Los Angeles during her 15-year career as a visual artist in films and TV, she recently moved to the city of Orange. Her tutoring clients live mostly in Newport Beach and surrounding areas.
But for a year and a half before her new start in Orange County, her world was upside down. Her marriage ended and she left her million-dollar home.
Soon she was without a home at all.
She stayed briefly at a shelter in Los Angeles, “but all women’s shelters have a 30- to 40-day maximum,” she said. “No one can get back on their feet in 30 days.”
Her years of camping and mountain biking, starting at a young age, prepared her for wilderness survival.
“I camped in tents and campers in the mountains, beach camp sites and in the middle of nowhere,” she wrote on her website. “I cooked food on park grills and campfire pits. I wasn’t scared of the dark or any animals.”
“If it hadn’t been for me learning everything about camping and surviving, I never would have survived being homeless,” she added.
The things she kept, like her art supplies, brought her work, and she supplemented her income with delivery and other small jobs.
Things began to turn around when she advertised her services on Wyzant.com, a tutoring referral website, and started getting some clients. She conducted a few art workshops and moved to Orange County to begin tutoring in earnest.
Leese believes everyone has a treasure chest of resources, and her goal is to help others realize their gifts. She recently founded a nonprofit, Sophie’s Dream, which aims to use the arts to help people heal from traumas and “fully restore someone physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially.”
“What I’ve been through myself and suffered the same trauma enables me to help others,” Leese said.
Leese believes that creating art is a learned skill and not necessarily only for people with natural talent.
“I teach using constructive feedback and not constructive criticism,” she said. “For example, I might say, ‘You know what would improve this’ instead of ‘This looks terrible.’ I care about the person and steer them in the direction that’s going to help them by being positive yet truthful.”
Palmer, who didn’t know how to draw at all, first learned the fundamentals, incorporating simple exercises such as drawing shapes (circles, cones and rectangles) and writing her name over and over until she filled a page, followed by shading and studying light and shadows. She has progressed to using colored chalk.
Costa Mesa resident Jennifer Holm found Leese through Wyzant.com for her 12-year-old daughter, Millie Hamel. Holm wanted her daughter, who loves drawing, to learn more about art than she was being taught in school.
“It’s really not teaching me anything; it seems like it’s for 5-year-olds,” Millie said of school lessons. “During the two hours with Sonserae, I’m learning to draw like a professional, and she talks to me about what it’s like to be a real working artist and how to make it and about her life story.”
She said she’s encouraged by Leese’s success as an animation artist for studios such as Nickelodeon, Disney and Sony Pictures. “I think animation is really cool and I want to learn more about it and become an artist,” she said.
Millie, who could barely draw a triangle last summer, has progressed to doing charcoal drawings of objects such as fruits and vegetables, along with painting some watercolor landscapes.
A closeness has developed between the student and the teacher, according to Holm.
“She’s such a positive role model,” Holm said. “It’s so special to have a female artist teaching a young girl.”
In fact, Leese has practically become a member of the family.
“We visit her dog and she makes us birthday cake,” Holm said with a laugh. “It’s rare to connect with a teacher and look back and say that person literally changed our life. And she is that person for Millie and even for me.”
Leese’s penchant for working with kids landed her a job at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, where she will be teaching digital media and integrated visual arts beginning in August.
Susan Hoffman is a contributor to Times Community News.