Leah Poller is a lovely artist who paints, sculpts and expresses herself very well. When I first saw her work http://www.leahpoller.com/, I knew that she’d make a very interesting interview subject … and she does. Here’s our great chat…
“The challenge for me is to capture the soul of both animate and inanimate subjects and have that connect provocatively with the viewer.”
MICHAEL: Hi Leah, I want to start with your "Unmade Bed Project." I've found that most people either hate unmade beds or couldn't care less. Was this at all your motivation for creating the series? The works also seem to create subconscious narratives. No?
LEAH: Hi Michael, after spending years creating the 101 Bed Project, I began to ponder- how do other people relate to their beds? What does it reveal about a person? Do we really know where people sleep or just assume it is like our own beds? Obviously, the Unmade Bed Project provided a ton of insight into this amazing “theater of life” that has been largely under-exposed visually. More than a “sub-conscious narrative” as you suggest, I see it as an unconscious space, so intimate, so self-expressed, so unique and yet nothing we think about, talk about, reflect on or ask to divulge its deeper value.
MICHAEL: I love your "Theater of Life" analogy. How much does this apply to your work? Is this a big concept that you explore in other works?
LEAH: Clearly Shakespeare was brilliant when he said, “All the world's a stage and all the men and women are merely players.”
My principal role is “artist” and I challenge myself always to be the best artist I possibly can. My curtain goes up every time I enter my studio. The challenge for me is to capture the soul of both animate and inanimate subjects and have that connect provocatively with the viewer.
I have become very holistic about my life so I can't say I put this in the realm of a study or a focus; everything I am, feel, think, or do informs and re-informs the whole. That said, what is the most appealing to me is the examination of Real vs. Reality.
Sculpture is very real in its materiality. If your eyes are closed, you can stub your toe on it and say “Ouch!” But the reality of it for me (I spent five months of my life creating a real portrait) and you (Interesting. I could take it home and live with it) are not the same.
The portrait is real; the relationship with it is a construct, a "reality." Is this not theater?
MICHAEL: What is it about bronze? Why is it so appealing to sculptors?
LEAH: Bronze is what is called a “noble” material. It is immutable. There is a very alchemist quality to it. It does not change. Buried for thousands of years, it remains bronze. I love its contradictions. It goes from liquid/molten to hard in 30 seconds. It takes earth, fire, air and water for it to become a sculpture. In fact, it is so costly, difficult and time-consuming that fewer and fewer artists care to use it. And the public in the U.S. especially sees resin, aluminum, steel as substitutes.
Think of Rome or Paris without bronze! For me, working in bronze is a reminder that the work will be permanent and calls for the most serious of considerations to exist.
My professor at the Beaux Arts Academy in Paris said: “If a thousand years from now someone on this planet digs up one of your bronze sculptures from the ground, he will hold it up and say in whatever language he speaks, ‘Hmmm, interesting, let's keep it.’”
Bronze can do that!
MICHAEL: Leah, you've been around for a bit. What do you think really needs changing in the art world? What practices or things are holding the art world back from reaching its true potential ... or has it reached its true potential?
LEAH: There are myths and mixed messages that abound in the art world. “High art” is purchased by less than 2 percent of the population. 98 Percent are equally capable of loving art, living with art and buying art.
There is a disconnect between the artist and the collector, long intermediated by galleries of which there are too few in relation to the number of creative talents at work. The internet may serve to break this dilemma. More art fairs with artist participation instead of gallery participation could provide more accessible art.
In sum, maintaining an elitist approach serves civilization very little. Art arises from societies and represents its culture. A $50 million auction sale of a work by a dead or living artist gets the attention and sucks up disproportionate funds for the very few while convincing the masses they can't ever buy worthy art.
Education, more populist art events and a new discourse could double the number of art acquisitions across socio-economic stratum - everyone would be rewarded.
Potential? If it became 10 percent, Wow!
MICHAEL: Exactly. That's why I do what I do. Why is art such a struggle? I think this is why many parents try to dissuade their kids from art careers because they know it won't be easy. It seems like art is more of a struggle than anything else and yet art brings its own obvious rewards. Yet, somehow, people don't get it.
LEAH: Double the exactly! We fiddle around with our culture like kids playing with firecrackers. Art is like a natural resource and should be treated ecologically - it comes from nothing, takes humans to convert to visible value, and needs protection.
Struggle isn’t the word. Stupid is more like it! We are biologically engineered to express ourselves (cavemen’s first drawings - case in point). Who are the “people?” People do get art. They just can’t figure out how to be part of it.
MICHAEL: Yes and there are operatives in the art world who want to perpetuate that mystery. It's sad. Given that, how are you making it as an artist? Are you a full-time artist?
LEAH: I have never had the luxury of being a full-time artist. But I have worked successfully in the art world (gallerist, agent, pr-marketing). I exhibit more than most and my career is admirable. I work a 50-60 hour week, half art, half business.
Looking back and understanding how I have learned to solve problems and create success with financial rewards, I have no doubt I could have lived from my art exclusively. But I am not sure that I would like who I would have become, who I would have dealt with as much as I like the total freedom I enjoy now.
MICHAEL: All many artists want to do is just create. Is that a luxury that just isn't possible anymore?
LEAH: And sports stars want to play, not practice. And doctors operate, not fill out charts. Realistically, the thought is childish- like cooking without dirtying pans.
More than ever, we need talents beyond our pure creative expression to manage careers/ and succeed.
Aren't you doing more than writing?
MICHAEL: That’s for damn sure.
LEAH: The luxury is in having the time and attention to execute each requirement artfully. That is the beautiful life!
MICHAEL: Back to your work. Your 101 Beds project is intriguing. Are they small sculptural works - bronze works - of beds?
LEAH: I like to think of the 101 Beds as one considers Judy Chicago's “Dinner Party,” a narration/installation in breadth and depth of a specific subject, it is a baroque and layered conceptual work which should be regarded as a single work comprised of 101 individual bronzes, each unique, a work spanning more than a dozen years. It is less small sculptural works and more an enormous conversation about an amazingly overlooked object that plays a role in one-third of our lives. The bed is conceptually huge, powerful, intimate, complex and filled with mystery. While Tracey Emin's own bed, filled with the detritus of one night of debauchery, airlifted to the Tate for several million dollars, does no justice to the subject except objectifying it in a “me-me” way, it does suggest that the subject is provocative and filled with multiple readings.
That said, certain pieces from the collection have been made larger than life and presently I am in discussion with a gallery in Shanghai interested in huge public works inspired from the 101 beds.
They were just selected as the first foreign contribution to the Second Beijing Biennale of female sculptors and unquestionably, even on the opposite side of the globe, the subject was debated as hugely relevant to our “human” existence.
MICHAEL: Even today, male artists still command much of the art world and art market's attention. Why is that?
LEAH: Male artists, male-run galleries, male-run auction houses, male art critics - I haven’t done any research about the exact statistics, but I sense that women have gained new territory in all these areas. But there is just so much farther to go to get a sense of an even playing field that still doesn’t feel all that different from the past.
I just participated in the Second Biennale of Female Sculptors in Beijing. The opening included a four-hour seminar with about 17 specialists including artists, gallerists, sociologists, critics, historians, etc., and the story is the same!
What may be more significant is that men are now willing to go into their “feminine side” and women are more willing to show their “masculine side.” Perhaps the notion of strict gender is becoming more blurred in the works themselves and that so long as the artwork is compelling, the gender of who made it will begin to lose its weight. As the purchasing power of women increases, they may also begin to value work by female artists and then prices will rise for this “category.” Once that happens, the market will follow.
For me, as I work, as I digest what I have created over the years. I find I have no interest at all in specifying it as “gender driven or gender-specific work” - the “me” who made it was a female, but the “me” that made it wasn’t even considering femaleness as an element in what I was doing. That said, the work is unique to me and no one else, male or female, would have made it as I chose to.
When I cook dinner, I am cooking, not conscious/self conscious as a woman making food as compared to a man making food. I have received a myriad of compliments in this domain and don’t recall a single one that said: “This is so much tastier because you made it as a woman!”
MICHAEL: I understand. Finally Leah, What do you want your work to say to the world long after you're gone? Is there a message?
LEAH: You have definitely reached the crux of the creative process. What is it all about anyway?
Many people think that the artist is struggling with his/her immortality and wants to be remembered, leave a legacy and never truly die. I personally have never subscribed to this perspective and think it is an exaggerated, romantic view of a limited, narcissistic extreme.
I believe that art is a language, a very special language, capable of communicating in a unique way with something very special, very deep that courses through humanity like blood courses through the body. If it does not circulate, death results; if it hemorrhages, death results. Art is its lifeblood and it must circulate.
If I can learn that language, connect to that current and touch, move and inspire with my work, then I have done something powerful, unique and personal in my lifetime. Even though some aspects of creativity can be hard or frustrating, I choose to create in joy and communicate a message of goodwill toward all men.
If my own humanity can be nourished, if I can share this in my lifetime with others, then I am fulfilled. There is no greater gift than to rise in our humanity. So for me, how it contributes to my own discovery, adds dimension to my living, and gives the viewer a doorway into the deeper sense of being during my own lifetime is enormous. What happens when I am gone and it’s still here doing its thing, is out of my hands. The present is already huge - the future? So be it!
MICHAEL: This has been a very lovely chat. Thanks Leah.
LEAH: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts. The questions have been provocative and thinking through the answers has been one more challenge and lesson in the life of the artist. I've been following your work for awhile and feel like you are cracking open the nut, courageously.
MICHAEL: Thank you!
Check out Leah Poller at http://www.leahpoller.com/.