Leonardo Drew recently gave a talk at the Denver Art Museum as part of the Logan Lecture Series. Known for creating large-scale sculptures and multi-media works on paper that explore his interest in the cyclical nature of creation, decay, and regeneration, Drew has created a unique style and technique. Drew employs a process that is physically and conceptually steeped in memory, history, and the passage of time.
We spoke with Drew while standing in front of his work, Number 162 (pictured above and on view in Showing Off: Recent Modern & Contemporary Acquisitions through April 3) at the DAM to learn more about his time as an artist and this particular piece of art.
– Leonardo Drew
I would call [Number 162] a large drawing, but also it is a history of places and things that I’ve done. I’ve been making art all my life and I think that that piece actually has a good deal of the things that I’ve touched on it.
Desa Beslic: What was your first encounter with art? When did you first realize you are an artist?
Leonardo Drew: I was born into it. My mother was trying to make sense of what I was doing and she pretty much just had to get out of the way. I was doing it. I was drawing on walls; on whatever I could get my hands on, any flat surface, anything that was a blank palette I was drawing on it.
DB: Can you tell me a little more about the piece that is on exhibition at the Denver Art Museum (Number 162) and how it developed in your studio?
LD: I would call that piece a large drawing, but also it is a history of places and things that I’ve done. I’ve been making art all my life and I think that that piece actually has a good deal of the things that I’ve touched on it (even though it doesn’t have comic book characters, so it doesn’t cover that part).
I started exhibiting when I was 13, so I’ve been out in this art world for a long time. That piece is actually a record. I love that piece. It was in the studio for at least a year or maybe two years, I was hitting it, working on other things.
DB: Who or what would you say is your least-likely-to-be-predicated influence?
LD: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Terrence Malick, filmmaker, or Stanley Herbert. Now I’ll tell you something about how Herbert works. He works in threes. He takes each section, works them to perfection and then brings them together believing of course that if all three areas are refined enough that they will harmoniously work together. If it’s coming from the same experience and same body it has to. I work in that very same way.
Film is something I do follow. I have a huge film library. As a child, I was in front of the TV drawing all the time. I remember growing up there was a program that used to show a lot of foreign films. It dragged me right in. The fine-art aspect of any level of creativity, I’m on that.
DB: How do you make the decision that a piece of art is finished?
LD: I’ve actually experienced some different situations when it comes to works speaking to you at different times in the studio or outside of the studio. Listen, you got seven crying babies in the studio (I rotate seven things at a time). You’re trying to feed all these babies [works in progress], you’re trying to give them all attention, and then they leave. Sometimes they leave one at a time, or three at time, and it’s like you’re on to the next set.
My mind is such that the artist is continually progressing or moving forward. So when you meet something, like meeting this piece (I mean I haven’t seen it in at least four years), it hits you. It tells you things that you couldn’t have probably known at that time because you’re attending to so many others and it lets you know what their journey was about at that moment.
I love this view. Looking at this piece now, it’s still telling me some stories and that means that in fact these things are actually alive. But you do have to let them go. So finishing is actually like letting your own child out into the world.
– Leonardo Drew
You can make art from anything. This is what it’s all about. In the end, I learned that, for a fact, art exists in you.
DB: What are you having the most trouble resolving in your art?
LD: I mean there is always something, but right now color is starting to happen in the work. Can you image that piece in pink for instance? That literally happened in the studio. I painted a piece pink once…but we have to go through these extremes to sort of realize the next phase. So I know that there are certain things I have to give up or sacrifice in order to reach the next plateau. There is no “from point A to point B” or any kind of script for how you have to navigate this path to get to the next place. And the next place is a total mystery. It’s an unknown.
So at the moment its color and how does color become a part of what I do. I was recently in Beijing, the Forbidden City, and at the Great Wall and saw the disintegrated ruins there and it hit me…that’s my work right there in living color! So the work is now taking in color in the right way, where before everything was pink and pastel colors. Now I’ve seen how to add this very thing to my vocabulary.
Advice for Artists
DB: What is the best advice you can give to an up-and-coming artist?
LD: Stay focused! You were born to do this.
DB: Could you talk about a significant success? Or noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career?
LD: Probably one that was most ridiculous was my adventures in Brazil. I was asked to be a participant in Quiet in the Land. There were 13 international artists asked to come in and work with street kids. The idea was to bring them in by way of introducing them to the arts. Biggest mistake was that they brought me in as the first artist.
I grew up around an art program and was assisted by an art program so it made perfect sense, a good opportunity to give back. The only problem is they put us up in a two-story penthouse and they asked us to then work with these kids. I packed my bags and was out of there. They chased me down in the airport and said you can’t leave, you’re the first artist! And I said listen, there is no way I’m going to be living in a two-story penthouse, it’s spiritually wrong. They said what if we put you with the kids?
It was like six weeks I think. I didn’t speak any Portuguese. I took on 250 kids and gave them 250 garbage bags and said go out and hunt for whatever and bring it back. And I had a huge fishing net and I said tie the stuff into the fishing net. Oh the kids loved it. It was a monster of a piece.
You can make art from anything. This is what it’s all about. In the end, I learned that, for a fact, art exists in you. Just do it! That’s what I’ve been doing all my life and what I introduced to those kids and that experience just reinforced it.
Image: Leonardo Drew, Number 162, 2012. Wood, metal, paint, gouache, thumbtacks, ink, and graphite on paper. Museum purchase in honor of Cathey Finlon’s contributions to the Denver Art Museum. © Leonardo Drew