Empty Kingdom was given the honor of asking Hugh Leeman a few questions about himself and his work, here are his answers:
Describe your history where you grew up, how you go into art.
I remember the first work I ever made and feeling as though you had had your head held under water up unto that point and you’d finally come up for air. That first massive breath, its beautiful if not painful, but necessary.
What are other sources of inspiration for your art?
I’ve been looking to pull more from life. From the things I love to the things I hardly know anything about. As my work progresses it looks to become more autobiographical. This body of work has a handful of paintings but mostly it has been a return to foundation. The majority of the works are pencil drawings. Every now and then I will put everything aside and simply draw, a number of these drawings will be on display. The drawings form the foundation for my murals and work outside.
Who do you count among your influences?
As of this past summer I got rid of the last of my subscriptions. No more art news, Art in America, Art Forum, or Juxtapoz. I wanted to take my inspiration from life and my surroundings. Im looking to make the work more personal. I would say it is more of an experiment than anything, to remove as much influence as possible with the idea that life and my emotional reaction to it will fill in the void left by my lack of art reading and its visual stimulation. Though discounting all of this there is still a Rauschenberg book next to my john, and Francis Bacon.
What have you learned from them?
Im not sure what I’ve taken from Bacon and Bob.The one thing, though, that continues to inspire me is how thankful my subjects can be for having put them into my artwork. Just the other day I was walking to my studio and I see Clyde who I’d just finished a drawing of earlier that day. As I began to greet him and say hey thanks for your time the other … he cut me off and shook my hand saying thank you, thank you so much. Not everyone is so enamored, and I wouldn’t hope for it. Nonetheless it is refreshing.
You use a variety of different media, spray paint, oil paints, pastels, silk screening, and more, did you go to school or are you self-taught?
I am self taught. I began traveling after high school and spent years living out of a back pack. Staying at other peoples places, youth hostels, and on floors or couches. This was an education in and of itself, at least in human interaction. There was a feeling of freedom and with the intensity of independence came responsibility, if only for myself at the time. While this is going on I often carried sketch books in my pack. I would never really ask, back then, I would just draw people, in the park, sitting at cafes, abandoned store fronts. These all were drawings of my life, in a way, though none were of me. In some direct ways if not as indirect as the butterfly effect these drawings greatly influenced me, who I met and where I went. Some of the more interesting places I would end up and people I would meet were because of drawing strangers.
Is there is a message you want to convey, or a question you want to ask through your art?
My work on the streets is meant to shed light and maybe it raises some some questions as well. Inevitably it acts as an advertisement for not just my subjects and my work but most directly for my tenderloin based t-shirt project, voice2voiceless.com. A project which sees my street art portraiture printed onto t-shirts. These shirts are then given in bulk to the subjects that have posed they sell the shirts and keep 100% of the profits. It is meant as a catalyst for conversation, forcing the forgotten into the conversation as well as offering introductions to communities and demographics that are often quite disparate.
How do common folk interpret your art and it’s message?
I see my street projects becoming more interactive and hopefully even a bit more literal. Through my artwork that exist on canvases I look to offer more to the imagination. Looking back I think some of my artwork in the past has been a bit more literal than I would like for it to continue to be. I see what I am doing inside and outside as beginning to take on two separate lives of their own. So with the work indoors I hope it leaves more to the imagination in the future. As far as my work outdoors goes it is often rewarding, my subjects love my work and have helped in its proliferation as well as offer inspiration if nothing other than through their sincerity. In life I find some of the people that are seemingly most attractive to want to be around for a number of different reasons seldom hold the candid sincerity that many of the most overlooked often possess.
What’s next for you, what projects are you currently working on?
I have begun a separate site for my public project voice2voiceless.com. It has and will continue to exist in part on my site hughleeman.com though it will grow and evolve at its own home now. I have recently added a QR code to my posters, these are given away for free on the streets of SF and through the mail, additionally they are downloadable through my site. The QR code is the same as an internet link that you can click on but on paper. It is scannable with any smartphone. This site, voice2voiceless.com, looks to subsidize the t-shirt project.
What’s the best part of your life?
The quiet solitude in the few hours before I go to sleep.