Kate Sessions estate provides backdrop for art classes


La Jolla painter Leah Higgins, known for her paintings of architecturally and historically significant houses and glorious gardens, offers art classes twice a week in her home, an estate once owned by San Diego horticulturalist Kate Sessions. Between the house and structures on the property, and the lush and diverse garden, the Soledad-area house provides the perfect backdrop and inspiration for budding painters.

After retiring from the health industry in 2001, Higgins reignited her love of painting. With strength in painting houses – thanks largely to her college fiancé, who studied architecture and whom she assisted by drawing architectural renderings – she decided that would be her niche.

“I like gimmicks because the art competition is so stiff in La Jolla because so many people love to paint landscapes and plein air, so my gimmick was houses,” she told La Jolla Light. In the years surrounding her retirement, she would paint (by commission) people’s houses onto birdhouses.

“I did that for years, not so much anymore, but I did get a request recently for a house as a wedding gift,” Higgins said. “Because I’ve gotten better at it, I included the bride and groom on the house.”

As the birdhouse demand faded out, she returned to painting houses on canvas. “I started out painting pictures of homes for Realtors as closing gifts,” she said. “I love painting homes because I can landscape them however I want or how the Realtors imagine. When the homes are new, there is no landscaping, but people would tell me what they planned to do, and I would paint that on. Then I print them onto a little card and they can have it with them.”

Higgins added, “I started showing my paintings at Girard Avenue Collection … but I was encouraged to paint local scenes and historic places, like the La Valencia Hotel and Mary, Star of the Sea Church, The Bishop’s School, St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church and more.” She also shows work at Bird Rock Art Nest.

With a blossoming reputation, Higgins was soon asked to teach painting classes. She had garage space on her property, so she converted the room into a studio, and started teaching one-on-one. But the requests starting coming in more often, and her one-on-one sessions morphed into classes.

“I take people of all levels, people with no experience whatsoever, and those with some experience. I start with lessons such as sketching, color theory, perspective before we start painting,” she said. “I don’t want them to copy anyone else’s art, but I encourage them to take a photograph and paint from that. I prefer painting from photos so people don’t spend hours sitting in the sun.”

But some days, when the weather is nice, Higgins will let her students paint in the garden on the grounds as a group. “They can spread out to wherever they want to go and just paint. But it gets to be a shade issue, most plein air painters wear big hats, so I tell them to bring a hat and slather on the sunscreen,” she said. “I encourage them to take pictures with their cell phones and we print them out here so they can paint in the studio.”

Some of her students have painted gardens during the La Jolla Historical Society’s Secret Garden Tour (which this year is Saturday, May 14). That’s a point of pride for the San Diegan, who grew up in the house where she resides.

Kate Sessions was a botanist and horticulturalist in the early 1900s. She is responsible for the majority and variety of old trees in Balboa Park and is credited with importing and popularizing jacarandas and other plants found throughout San Diego.

—For more information on the art classes, visit