Leah Smithson is a Georgia-bred artist of great creativity and insight. What I’ve seen of her work www.leahsmithson.com has a great air of mystery and I wanted to find out what inspires her. I got the answer to that question and much more in our cool chat below …
MICHAEL: Hello Leah, Your work is very intriguing. I get a sense of mystery from it and it has as strong feminine vibe, obviously. It makes me think, "Mysterious Woman." Am I on the right path?
LEAH: Hmm, Mysterious. I hadn't thought about it from that angle, but I think you're right. A lot of the women I've been writing about are mysterious. Just the fact that they are a part of a species of intelligent life forms that have actually been living on earth with us is pretty mysterious. They're not alien, but native. In fact, they've been here the whole time humans have existed. What's also mysterious is how mankind has amnesia about the whole thing.
MICHAEL: Amnesia? I totally know what you mean.
LEAH: Now that I think about it, even their personalities are a bit mysterious. I'm still getting to know them myself. I think the reason they're that way is because of a tragedy they've experienced. There was a strange occurrence that drastically affected mankind and the Ishan as a people. I believe this has caused them to become very cautious. Especially since neither of us can really remember what happened. It's interesting how life causes some people to react in a manner were they put up walls. I'm having to slowly erode away these walls by building trust with the characters. By working with them in our investigation as to what this mysterious occurrence actually was helps. Plus, I don't mind a little mystery. It's definitely more fun for those of us that like surprises.
MICHAEL: Collage is very hard to resist as a genre. I think perhaps because it's so very creative and anyone can clearly see the creative process of the artist in the final product. What do you like about creating collage works?
LEAH: It's restrictive in many ways which seems like it would be stifling, but I find it forces something unexpected out of the art pieces. I enjoy challenges whether it is in the medium I use or the concentration of a subject matter like my current 365 day anthropological documentary, “The Ishan Project.” Both move me out of my comfort zone and make me grow creatively. Both also give the creative process of the art a bit of transparency. I love that, though. I think others appreciated it, too. We all love sincerity and respect honesty. I hope that comes across in the art I make. That’s even though some of my subject matters can be surreal.
MICHAEL: I'm always hearing people and even corporate types saying they want to be more creative when it comes to addressing issues and solving problems. And yet somehow, they don't really respect contemporary art and artists. What do you think about this?
LEAH: That's true Michael. Creativity is like a muscle that can be strengthened with use rather than like a mysterious power some are born with. Art has a direct link to problem solving and big picture thinking. Just like someone goes to a trainer for help to reach their goals in strength, weight loss, etc., corporations could use a person that has come to develop a strong creative ability to meet its goals. Actually, many have already come to appreciate that point. For instance, CERN Labs in Switzerland have brilliant scientists who have developed a Large Hadron Collider which helps scientists understand the universe and the particles that make it up. They also have artist residency programs that encourage an atmosphere that stimulates creativity.
There's also a lot of generalizing when it comes to many people's ideas about art as a profession and artists themselves. We forget that art permeates almost every aspect of our lives and influences many decisions we make. For example, some artist made a decision on the design of the sheets we sleep on, the house we live in, our tooth brush, tooth paste, the design of the cups we use to drink coffee, even the street sign that tells us if children may be playing nearby. I think all of us, in general, take it for granted. People don't even realize that artist do all those jobs. Many also don't realize the type of skill it takes to make all of the things that improve the quality of our lives in a simplistic format. Even though art may not directly feed, clothe and shelter us, it can improve our quality of life. We like for our food to taste good, but we're happier when it looks tasty too. We feel better about ourselves and we like how our clothes make us look. We feel great when we live in a creative and attractive place. Appreciation for art just makes life enjoyable I think.
MICHAEL: Tell me about the Ishan Project. What's it all about?
LEAH: Due to a mysterious occurrence, mankind's memory has been wiped clean of a group of people that look like us, but whose extremities stretch to the heavens like branches from a tree. Through a series of art projects for the next 365 days, I'm documenting an investigation of what this occurrence actually was. This involves releasing and/or creating a painting, sketch or some 'other' form of media. I say 'other' because this story has taken so many twists and turns I have no idea where it will go. In addition, I'm creating a visual anthropological documentary of the Ishan's story and history, “Resist + Remember.” People are able to learn about them and of our history with them through pictures and interviews of the Ishan. I'm extremely excited! During this year long art project, I have many surprises in store to push the public awareness of this forgotten species. I'm almost three months into it and I haven't even scratched the surface.
MICHAEL: Cool. What's your first memory of art? When did you know you would become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
LEAH: Great question. I can't remember one specific memory. As long as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to be an artist or in some type of creative profession. When I was like five or six, I remember always trying to invent something, design clothes for me or my Barbies, and of course paint. My parents were always very supportive. I really appreciate how out of the box and flexible in their thinking they were. My father was an engineer and would work on little machines in his spare time. He had all kinds of top secret inventions he would never go into too much detail about with us kids. My mother stayed at home to take care of us, but she was always into something creative, too. She doesn't think so, but in her cooking and interior design, she was very creative. She also had little paintings she did around the house that she never made a big deal out of, but us kids thought they were cool. I think as a family, we would play. Playing is all about using the imagination. Having fun is so vital for learning. So in my opinion, I think my family was pretty artistic in a way, even though we never thought of ourselves as setting out to be artistic. We would just play and it kinda happened that way.
MICHAEL: What's your daily art routine like? Do you work on one project at a time? Do you wait for inspiration to hit you? Where does inspiration come from?
LEAH: There's a bike trail not too far from my house that I ride on regularly. Nature is important to me for finding inspiration. I also like wandering around cities, people watching or just being observant in my surroundings. It may sound weird, but things like looking at a flower closely may give me an idea on how to add translucent layers to my painting in a certain way. Or someone's car may be leaking antifreeze fluid on black asphalt, and it could be next to a random red blob on the ground. The color and shapes of the random fluids on the black background may spark a color combination and composition for a painting. All kinds of little things we take for granted can spark imagination. And I, of course, love looking at artwork by all kinds of artists, especially in person. I usually work on multiple things at a time. Even if I know exactly what I want to paint, I still tend to have points in the duration of making the piece where I need to give it a rest and work on it later with a fresh mind and eyes. It helps to work every day, whether I'm inspired or not. Creating is a muscle that works better if it's exercised regularly.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. If you could change anything about the "art world" what it be? In other words, what common practice needs changing for the benefit of artists or even the public?
LEAH: This is a field where the ones that the entire industry depends on are considered simply as a group of people that are thought to be a 'dime a dozen.' Sometimes their art is treated that way too by the very people who are supposed to help others fall in love with it. The idea that people are disposable can be very expensive. That idea causes many artists to be exploited by others. The ironic thing is that many would do better financially if they respected the artists they work with. Be a fan. Enjoy the work and respect the artist's creative processes or the message they're communicating. When someone shows honor sincerely for a thing and or subject, and talks about it with enthusiasm it becomes contagious. Don't get me wrong. I'm not implying that everyone in the field is a shark.
For example, at the ArtPad SF a couple of weeks ago, I met a new gallery owner that really was a fan of the artist she represented. You could tell, because when I walked into her room, she not only showed me around to her artist's pieces, but she was also excited. She knew the objective that the artist was trying to communicate and relayed that to others. She also appreciated the fact that she could discern more and more small details in the pieces. When I left, I was in love with his work partly because she helped me to see it from the perspective of her loving eyes. On the other hand, it was sad walking into some of the other gallery rooms that represented some amazing artists, but they wouldn't talk about them and would barely look up from their phone to talk to ones coming in the room. I mean, they could have been selling anything: fruit, old DVD's, watches, whatever. When you did get them to talk, they had a sheet of paper with something about the artist, but no love. If they treat the customers that way, I can't imagine how they treat the artist. Many times that equals a negative business practice when it comes to compensating the artist. The idea that the artist should be a 'starving artist' while others make millions, is disrespectful as well to the field. Art is something valuable. From San Francisco alone, art brings in over $1 billion yearly. I might be criticized for that thinking, because some others think that money can't taint the quality of the art. Sometimes that can be the case, but there is a balance. It's hard to thrive off of oppression. Artists being compensated appropriately also means that they have more freedom to work and create. Facts show this can improve the quality of life in a community. Ironically though, people will still be drawn to the underground artists because many of them have so much heart. The internet has been instrumental in this. It can be an equalizer if you can figure out a way to cut through all the information and find your audience.
MICHAEL: Women still appear to be under-represented in contemporary art. Do you agree? What's going on?
LEAH: Wow! That's another heavy question (smile). It is a fact that there are far less women represented than men. It is also a fact that art by males tend to fetch bigger prices than female artists at galleries and auctions—currently. If there is a gallery that is not confident in the artistic intellect and taste of their consumers or their ability to help their consumers see the value of the pieces they know are quality and that gallery is only concerned with statistics and probability concerning the gender, race, or background of the artist they represent rather than the quality of work, then taking on a female artist would be a risk for them.
As far as any prejudice against women artists or prejudice in general, most people around the world pretty much agree it's wrong. The fact that it’s still so widespread despite the fact no one likes it shows that many who disapprove of it may not realize that they may have prejudice in themselves. I don't think it will forever be that way, though. It's a learned behavior that can be unlearned. I heard this quote from the book The Nature of Prejudice: “Prejudgments become prejudices only if they are not reversible when exposed to new knowledge.” I think and hope that all kinds of artists can be appreciated for all of their unique points of view. If so, it would be an enriching experience for everyone. Especially, the art world. In the meantime, I think that artists should just enjoy making art and not having their self esteem as artists hanging on the institutions that are known to have faulty judgments because of their prejudices. Just love doing what you do, and get your work out there to people who will love it, because they're out there.
MICHAEL: You just mentioned institutions that may have faulty judgments. What do you think causes this? Surely not everyone can be correct all of the time in the art world ... And correct about what anyway?
LEAH: Of course, everyone is free to have their own opinion. When I mentioned faulty judgments, I'm just referring to those who allow their decisions about art to be influenced by prejudice or opportunistic reasons. People who are prejudiced tend to make bad decisions. These decisions aren't based on truth, but they cling to their preconceived ideas in their imagination. Obviously, we can use our imagination for good or bad.
MICHAEL: While you're creating art, what actually goes through your mind? Or is the process more emotional or even spiritual? Is the actual process of creating art more meditative or like a party?
LEAH: For me, it's more meditative. I may have a particular story in mind or a rough idea of a concept I want to work on. As I create the piece, often times, it changes into something different than what I had originally intended. As I paint, a clearer image or story comes to mind and I try to capitalize on that moment of creativity. It's like a story with a surprise ending.
MICHAEL: Writing is very much like that too. Finally Leah, what does art do for you and what's the point of it anyway? Should people who aren't into art even care?
LEAH: Life nowadays is so busy. It's difficult to take time to appreciate our surroundings and especially things that are in nature. Art also helps me to appreciate the moment and to see the beauty in little things. Taking the time to analyze all the details of a subject and record those things on paper, wood, or canvas helps me to appreciate the one who actually created it in the first place. Taking what I see and arranging it so that it looks like something new is a challenge. It's fun and definitely meditative, as we just spoke about.
Appreciating art is a gift. No other animal on this earth can do it. If food, shelter and clothing sustain life, then the arts can add a layer of richness which can make that life more enjoyable. When I refer to the arts, I'm talking not just about visual things. There's a synergy in creative fields. All of it is influenced by each other. I mean music, performances, writing, where we live, what we eat, what we wear, what we put on, the way food looks and tastes, the books we read, and the movies we watch. Many good artists cross over into many of those fields and are sharpened and influenced by them. Humans are very sensitive. As we talked about in the beginning of the interview, we are all affected subconsciously by many, many things. So in my humble opinion, if someone feels that they are not affected by art, then most likely they are, but they just don't realize it. It would take a calculated effort not to be.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Thanks Leah. This has been a cool chat.
LEAH: Michael, Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation. There were some heavy questions. I hope I wasn't too long winded!
Check out Leah at www.leahsmithson.com.