EK Interview: Hugh Leeman


The next of the fantastic four artists that will be participating in the ReCREATE:ATX event, which is only 1 week away, is none other than Hugh Leeman.  Discussing everything from personal maturation to the ignorance we have towards the richness of the life the person walking by you on the street, his interview is well worth a read.


For those who don’t know you, please give us a little introduction, what is a favorite book/story/fable of yours?
Holofernes, in the book of Judith, is wonderful and inspired an experimental painting I created on carbon fiber. Also the Flight and fall of Icarus, in fact my first sculpture was titled after it. “Icarus and the Dream” I have always been particularly attracted to storytelling and its pneumonic devices. Personification and metaphor have always been a favorite of mine in works of the Old Masters. As for me, I am an artist living in San Francisco, I stopped in here for what I thought was to be a layover, from three years of traveling. Seven and a half years later, I am still here, in the same studio I moved into on day one.
 miami mural 2012 full
Your work in 2012 has taken a distinct, turn, evolution, leap, what precipitated such a shift?  If I’m not mistaken, you started incorporating soot into your work, what prompted you to use this material as part of your work?  Was it ideological?  Was it the material?  An effect you had not been able to achieve before?  What dimension does soot add to your pieces?

The back story is that soot and smoke are something I had experimented with before and really was in love with the inadvertency of its languid wisp. The smoke is rich in pigment but its porous nature  lends itself to layering and a great potential for creating visual depth. However the turning of the corner existed on a deeper more personal level of wanting to evolve my work. I had been painting the homeless and created a not for profit t-shirt project to benefit my subjects for the better part of five years . Over the last couple of years I was thirsting for a new evolution for the work as I felt only compelled to continue creating as I had begun to achieve a little recognition which as a young artist is quite rewarding or even soothing. Amidst a conversation with friends someone said something about creating work if there was a catastrophic social collapse, in other words no paint and brushes no eye turned towards what others expected you to create, what would you use, my mind went straight to the idea of something I’d experimented with before, fire and smoke. 


Much of your work in large part represents, depicts aged, homeless, in effect bringing publicity and visibility to a group that is oft ignored.  Why have you chosen to portray, humanize and publicize the homeless population?  What kind of commentary do you hope to make or awareness do you hope to bring through your work?2012 has also been a divergence from much of the staple of your work. As for your 2012 work, why have you chosen to shift your discussion?  Much of your new work is reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman art, why have you chosen these sources?  How do thematic changes from before and now represent both your personal and artistic maturation?

There continues to be a personal evolution as I shift medium, subject matter and styles. In the past I felt as though I must stick to what I had done before. This felt machinistic and unnatural. I felt insecure about getting away from my comfort zones as it meant artistic challenges and identity challenges, especially to the ego. It has been rewarding as I turned inward and my first foray was into the medium I’d most romanticized, smoke. The subject matter of sculpture has been inspired by my love of rodin and traditional sculpture, there energy is so sincere and the emotion is palpable. All this said, I am again turning a new direction, I am now looking at as little as possible for inspiration. I have begun for the first time to paint from my imagination, taking away photo reference and life references to simply paint on feeling, using the past words from my visual vocabulary. My work now is inspired by the idea of fear and vulnerability , I have thought on what is it that visually represents fear in our culture, for me it is the aesthetic beauty inspired by MRI and x-ray scans, while stunning for their depiction of what is not, as opposed to what is, they are a reminder that when we look at this beauty it is often because something is terribly if not terminally wrong at worst, and at best a source of anxiety and concern. This is ecstatic in feeling, the beauty of life magnified by the shadow of death. These scans are what I start painting from and complete with my imagination painting simply with feeling, in essence they are a visual diary of the day in which they were created.

Tell us about Benz.  Is the image based on a real person?  Why did you choose to depict him in black and white against a red and black Victorian pattern?  Is there something to the juxtaposition of his wrinkled face, burnt cigarette in his lips, placed against a pattern representative of the bourgeoisie?

Benz is real, and he was a friend to many people in the Tenderloin, an inner city neighborhood of San Francisco. This however, was unknown to me until after I had drawn his picture and posted it outside. I put a poster or two of his up and unbeknownst to me he’d passed away. Beautifully though someone wrote “RIP Benz” under one of my wheat pastes of him. The building owner didn’t paint over it and soon many people in the neighborhood began writing their thank you’s and good byes on the wall around his face. notes like “Drink a beer in heaven for me man” or “We miss you man” began popping up, when I saw this I was very moved. It spoke to how little I knew of not just the people I was drawing but of the community itself and the best aspects any community can aspire to have, that of compassion and empathy. With the very human feeling of loss this all became something very genuine.
The idea of having a background at all stemmed from wanting to build upon the idea of when I pasted up these faces on a wall outside the backgrounds naturally were the walls to the houses of the homeless. The art which I created based on these very people would find its way above sofas as decorations to peoples walls, this all seemed quite interesting to me. Initially I had not thought of these painting of the homeless being used to decorate the walls of homes. It was beautiful and spoke to the complexity of the world. I thought a way to visually capture this was with the patterns of my favorite wallpaper.


How is your cause aligned with those of Empty Kingdom and the HOPE Campaign?  What do you hope to achieve in SXSW?  How would you describe the cultural attitude to public art?  How do you think we can change that attitude?  What are you doing to help make that change happen?

In the media kit I was sent on the HOPE Campaign it speaks to the idea of bringing the community together and creating dialogue with both people visiting and people already living in Austin. This is something that is on my wavelength in that I feel art is in essence about communicating and the greatest way to communicate is through genuine connection, and the way in which we can connect most genuinely is through empathy and compassion. There is a great deal of insecurity and vulnerability that comes with the beauty of the human existence, often we cover this up with the use of our egos, I feel as though the better we may be able to find we all share so many similar fears and vulnerabilities the better we all will be able to be honest about who we are as opposed to who we project ourselves to be and this is the very essence of what creates a vibrant and healthy community. 
I don’t know that I hope to achieve anything at SXSW, I am excited and intimated by the idea of taking a new idea from the size of a canvas and constructing its visual vocabulary to the size of a wall. This play of excitement and intimidation is not replaceable in that it simply is until the piece feels finished, and then it all vanishes and anything good or bad that happens after its creation, is something entirely different than the process of art. 
I think the public’s tolerance and intolerance of public art seem to speak to that society’s evolution as a whole, but I think it also is fair to apply the cliche don’t let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch here, because at times when public art is dis allowed or even when it is allowed and is subsequently destroyed or defaced it doesn’t speak to the idea of that entire community. I think to the idea of art as communication; that we simply should continue the dialogue and bend as the river does if the landscape changes. We move forward as individual artist and thinkers, challenging the idea of what the playing field is and where its boundaries are set, this is the only way the boundaries of a playing field are ever expanded, by those who challenge the very notion of what and where those boundaries in fact are.

Can you tell us anything about what you have planned for the wall in SXSW?  How do you plan on taking up an entire wall?

It is a rough unfinished outline that will create itself once I’m at the wall. In the past I would have things perfectly planned and measured and set forth on following that plan as I arrive at a wall, but it has come to seem more natural to let it come to me upon arrival at the wall. Undoubtedly the rough outline exist in some form of reality if only in my head for now, that outline currently looks like a painting inspired by the psychology of an MRI scan. You are looking at something beautiful while fearing of its very demise, sometimes this fear blinds us of the reality, that life is best lived under the light that it one day will be gone. The ultimate beauty within the ephemerality, a beauty of the now, I suppose.

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Hugh Leeman