As one of Ireland's most prolific emerging artists, Leah Hewson is no stranger to the limelight. With three solo exhibitions under her belt, of which her most recent, Scintilla showed at the prestigious RHA Gallery in Dublin (not to mention was a complete sell-out), the young artist is a success of her own making.
Stepping away from the conventional, she made the brave and admirable decision to drop out of college at just 19 and went on to pursue her passions, enrolling in DLIADT where she achieved a First-Class BA(Hons) in Fine Art in 2010. Her remarkable approach to art and it being her career is equally courageous as it is practical; a level-headed understanding of both herself and the industry she’s in is perhaps one of her greatest powers and in splitting her time between her creative process in the studio and what she calls her ‘rent-paying other life’ in the set department on the set of the TV show Vikings, Leah is on the cusp of world-domination and already working on her next solo presentation which is set to take place in 2018.
Leah you’ve just recently completed your first solo sell-out exhibition, Scintilla, at the RHA. Congratulations, it was clearly a huge success. What does it feel like to have achieved both industry and commercial recognition and cultivated such prestige at such a young age?
I feel really chuffed that the feedback to this show was so positive. Particularly because I think this work speaks more about me as a person and artist than ever before. It has definitely given me more of a drive and motivation to keep going. I’m also flattered you’ve called me young too ha! But I sometimes think its best never to think about age, some people will be ahead and some behind no matter what age.
It doesn’t begin at the top though and it’s understood that you’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this point. Would you mind taking us back a little, where did your love of art and the creative world begin?
There wasn’t really any one moment with this but it was always something supported and harvested by my family, teachers and peers. I always remember getting excited when we got a new large domestic appliance at home because of the huge box I’d get to play with. We were always encouraged to use our imaginations as kids, something which I feel isn’t prioritised with the increase of technological advancement. I have recently realised though that I am quite a deep thinker but am not that great at articulating what I’m feeling so perhaps finding a new language in visual art gave me a better way to communicate. I never really saw art as a viable career path and just assumed that my parents would feel the same but it wasn’t until after I failed my first year in university that it was suggested to me by them that I should do a portfolio course and try art college.
Art and it’s elusive nature means it can be a constant balancing act between reality and fantasy, seeking stability in the unknown. Where do you find the balance?
Finding the unknown is part of why I do what I do. Life can be mundane and serious so when I give myself the chance to be in another world, I'm the happiest version of myself. Although the work that comes out is related to circumstance. This is evident of my last show Scintilla. I gave myself the opportunity to work for the first time as a full time artist. The obvious positivity in the work is directly correlated to me being at my happiest in doing so. Where as in hindsight, previous more sinister work reflects maybe a more unstable mental state.
The creative process is different for each artist, could you share yours with us and where you get your inspiration from..
I get an amazing amount of excitement from new materials. If im feeling a little lull I either go to see an exhibition or go to an art shop or hardware shop and look for a new colour, stencil or pattern to catapult me back into production. Maybe it’s a type of addiction that needs satisfying. I like to work on a number of pieces together. I feel it leaves room for a more cohesive body of work, especially because my work contains quite a few layers. I try to work in the space before something becomes a conscious idea so I work in an instinctual manner. I have impulsive reactions to colour, materials and surface and try to trust my artistic ability while in the process.
I have always considered myself as a mixed media artist because not limiting myself leaves an unlimited amount of possibilities for outcome. Being suspended in a state of constant experimentation is important to me. It's exciting! And I don’t ever want to be afraid of a blank canvas or more accurately, afraid to put down the ‘wrong’ mark. In my mind there is no such thing as the most incredible unforeseen parts of a painting can happen in these unplanned areas.
I recently looked back at all of my work since leaving art college 7 years ago and realised that all of my previous work was me looking from the outside. The work for Scintilla was the first time I was looking from within. A very profound realisation as I always felt the way I was working wasn’t very sustainable as it demanded things of the world. There is enough going on inside my mind to explore first! This way of working has also led me to make abstract art. I am now able to put more of myself directly into each piece. Sean Scully needs a shout out here too because I went over to work with him in 2015. Constantly being surrounded by so much amazing abstract art gave me an understanding and appreciation for it. I felt I had been let in on a secret.
It sounds cliched, but my inspiration comes from everywhere. I got a great three colour combination from a building site just yesterday. I get direct process inspiration from interior patterns and textiles, stencils, finding things to draw around in skips or hardware shops and seeing colours and grids. Going to a gallery is a different kind of inspiration, its more motivational. When I see a great exhibition it gives me new ideas on how to present work and always makes me want to have a show for people to see. Maybe slightly narssasistic ha!
There’s a quote that says “Modern art = I should’ve thought of that + Yeah but you didn’t”. What is your take on perspective and art being a matter of opinion?
Difference of opinion in art is what drives it. Some people are naturally critical and others take the time to understand points of view before making a judgement but what’s important in contemporary art is that it builds discussion and debate. This then brings progression which is where the drive of art comes from. It's cyclical and necessary.
The creative world is a funny one and we’ve seen far too many beautiful and talented people get lost to a world of personal chaos and professional ruin. In far too few words and in too simple a delivery, how do you remain so sane and level-headed among the unpredictability?
I crave it. I'm somebody who I think will forever remain un-contented, in a good way! There are always things to learn and things to be experienced, so much so that it sometimes overwhelms me. I also like the feeling of being slightly out of my comfort zone. Progressing as a better human is important to me too. I’ve had two ‘quarter life crises’ where I was beginning to feel envious of those with a 9 to 5 job but that’s because I didn’t really feel like a worthy artist. This was also before I realised that it doesn’t happen fast, that it will be a long hard struggle and that enjoying the process and path is important. Making progress is the most important aspect of any creative outlet. With all of this I try to set myself small achievable goals every day so that I am always moving forward, even if it’s just a small amount. The big goals then slot in when the time is right.
Professional creatives tend to be self-deprecating and find it difficult to put a value on their art in a business sense, but as we know and it’s true of all careers that one must be able to pave and pay their way, has it been difficult to monetise your craft and also avoid being swallowed up and dictated by the commercial world?
It’s the part I hate the most. It's such a fine line between over valuing yourself and under valuing yourself. At this point of my career I'm still focusing on getting my work seen and getting my name out there. I naturally make a whole range of sizes with my paintings which works out well commercially as the price points have such a wide range.
What does a typical day-in-the-life-of Leah Hewson look like?
It depends where I'm working. I still live two lives, one creative and one to pay rent. I work intensively in the set department of the tv show Vikings. It's definitely one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and is an amazing way to pay the rent. It's quite a fulfilling job that I also feel proud of. If I'm in the studio, I get up around 8, head down on my bike. Check my emails first and various websites to see if there is anything worth applying for in terms of residencies, group shows, courses and other opportunities. Then I just get making. There’s no really typical day for me actually because every day is so different! If I'm having a bad day I’ll recognise it very quickly and pull myself out to an exhibition or art shop. This to me is being as productive sometimes as being in the studio.
Who or what have been your greatest teachers to date?
My dad, he is an incredibly resilient man and such a logical thinker. I usually go to him if I’m struggling with something. My mum, she's also resilient and has a huge capasidy for caring for people. My sisters and friends for all the deep conversations we’ve had over the years, perhaps analysing everything way too much! My brother in laws work ethic is like nobody I’ve ever seen and he also manages to fit in family, friends and leisure time too. I learned a lot from Sean Scully, just observing him and his team and getting an insite into an artists life who is at the top of their game.
What advice would you give to your 16 year old self?
Don’t worry about what people think of you, it’s the individuals that make this planet better. And in turn don’t be so judgmental of others. Ask more questions about anything and everything. There is no such thing as a stupid question. Try to live presently. Don’t worry about the future or the past. Enjoy the little moments.
Abstract or modern art is ever growing, I was just in LA and it’s such an incredibly bold scene there with artist after artist making their mark, it feels almost like a rapidly moving movement. What are your plans going forward?
I have just moved into my new studio so I'm raring to get back to work as I’ve been studioless for two months. I'm going to Cuba to get some inspiration to hopfully kick start a new project for my next solo exhibition in 2018. I’ve just completed a screen printing workshop so hopefully I will be doing more of that. I have two portrait commissions coming up and a collaboration with a jewellery designer. I have also applied for some residencies and group shows abroad which I am just waiting to hear back from. Speaking of, I was accepted into the International Biennial of humour and satire in art exhibition this year which is coming up late April and I also have a piece in the RHA annual exhibition.
Check out Leah Hewson on..
Instagram @leahhewson // Facebook Leah Hewson Art // Twitter: @Leah_Hewson_art