It’s an honor to present this interview with New York artist, Leah Lopez. At a young age she experienced the rejection of family and friends as she sought to pursue her creative passions. Now in her 30’s, her life has been molded and shaped through many challenges, including overcoming loss, hurt, and uncertainty.
One of her biggest challenges was to leave New Mexico and to pursue a fine art career in New York. “I’ve always been an explorer and a seeker”, she says. Through hard work and determination she has become a highly respected artist and teacher, creating a space for herself in the art world.
I had the pleasure of meeting this beautiful young lady with a big smile at the opening of our two-person show, held at the Roux and Cyr Gallery in Portland, Maine, late last year. I’m pleased to know her. In working with her for this interview she proved herself to be thoughtful, sincere, honest, and thorough…and an absolute professional. Everything I hope for. By the way, her work is being featured in the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine.
I hope you’ll enjoy this great interview, and I invite you to share it with your friends.
What is your definition of art? I love it, John! Right off the bat you ask probably the deepest and broadest question of the day and I’ll be lucky if I can get through this doosy and have anything left to say toward your other questions. Seriously, I think this is a very important question/answer to ponder frequently. It is the very reason each and every one of us, in our own way, chose the artist’s path or why the path chose us. Good gracious, the mind warp is already beginning! Here it goes:
Yes, in a way, there is a definition for Art and mine is both very simple and vast in scope and incredibly beautiful. Literary geniuses have come close to describing it but, once put into words it evades and morphs, like vapor. Perhaps it is we ourselves who change and change how we perceive art, in order to push it just outside our grasp and back into mystery, once more. It is a part of what we consider “divine”. It is the way we survive and the way we grow. It first exists outside of us then, enters a mind like a seed and dwells until it’s time for it to be re-released anew, onto a canvas or in some other rebirth. It may be a collective wisdom, that in our turn, we each express our perspective, adding our distinct experiences back into the mix, enabling us to learn from each other and stretch the ways we dream. And yet, I don’t feel that neither art’s presence, nor my own definition of it, allow me to define art for another, just as it isn’t my place to limit another person’s dreams or ambitions. Art is something that I redefine or reaffirm, for myself, constantly, as my dreams and experiences redefine the person and artist that I am.
Why are you an artist? It seems like I wanted to be an artist before I really understood the concept of “artist”. I mean, it was pictures, paintings and stories for the imagination that I was drawn to and I just knew that I wanted to be involved with that, somehow. Then, when I got a taste for it I was hooked, worse than that! I am very cranky and unpleasant if I’m not actively creating a certain percentage of my waking hours. So, for the good of my neighbors, friends and loved ones, I must to be an artist, ha-ha-ha. Well, I’m only half kidding, it’s true.
Why is painting so attractive and a worthwhile journey for you? It is certainly the most beautiful journey I can imagine. Like true love, it isn’t all chocolates and roses or muses whispering sweet inspirations. Choosing a life as a self-employed individual comes with a fair amount of challenges, difficulties, demands and emotional turmoil, then add to those the world of creative challenges. It turned out that like any worthwhile pursuit it became an amazing opportunity for personal development. The journey is the reward. I switched off my cruise control so I could enjoy the ride and all the blessed adventures along the way.
As an artist, how do you perceive your role? My job is to paint honestly and create from my heart. Other than that, I try not to think in terms of a single mission or my role. I think it gets in my way. I just do what comes naturally, what I enjoy, and constantly stretch for deeper understanding. That said, I do feel that artists collectively have an important role in the function of communities and the world as a whole. The more honest the artist is the more likely they are to touch another human being.
You had some pretty strong resistance from your family and friends when you decided to pursue art. Why did they object and how did you manage to persist in the pursuit of your calling? The resistance was based on what I can only describe as a lack of understanding or acceptance of the importance of wholeheartedly following one’s own journey and calling, wherever it may lead, even when it goes against the life one is expected to live. Where my parents are concerned, love was not the problem but it couldn’t bring differing lives together again. And I learned an important lesson, the emotional hurt of rejection doesn’t disappear so, I had to change the way I looked at the situation. If I saw myself as “rejected” I felt hurt. If I chose to see myself as “free” from a life that wouldn’t suit me, well then, I felt relieved and free to begin my own journey toward the rest of my life. The journey has been one of self-discovery and of pursuing my passions unfettered. I discovered wonderful people out there pursuing similar goals and who truly want to be supportive.
“I’m a romantic. I like to be swept off my feet but I’m also a bit analytical, as well.”
How does your art reflect your personality? I’m a romantic. I like to be swept off my feet but I’m also a bit analytical, as well. I think my subjects, my choice of light and paint quality or textures are expressions of the former and my contemplation, design process and composition are indicative of the latter. I choose to paint only what moves me.
What do you hope to communicate through your work? I wish to reveal beauty within each individual viewer.
I think many would classify your style as classic realism. Is that accurate? It is too confining for me to adopt a label. I like to leave classifications up to experts of classification and just get the work out as honestly as possible. Still I hope that my work may pay homage and deep appreciation to the great number of talented artists before me.
What percentage of your work is done from life? Hard to quantify but I will guess: 70% from life, 15% from images, 15% from a mental creative space.
When setting up a still life or posing a model, what are you looking for? I look for anything that helps form the basis for a composition with which, everything in the painting will relate. It might be a shape or color, repetition, value or space. I am looking for what is both beautiful and startling, or intriguing. I want to make a connection and to understand and absorb my subject, then let it go and see what I was able to retain.
Are thumbnail sketches a method you use to develop compositions? Not often but, I find them to be the best way to quickly abstract, simplify and arrange certain complex compositions.
Are there certain compositional rules you consistently adhere to? I like to approach each painting as a new challenge. That means my process and how I begin may be altered by the way I want to represent my subject, as part of a concept. Even without a set process, I do notice that I favor certain compositional shapes and patterns of light, shadow and color. I look for these, so that I may incorporate them. I like to decide on the basic value structure for the light I’m trying to achieve, and establish my darks early on.
“I love challenging myself with the paint, so that part is easy. I relish these challenges and I hope they never stop coming.”
How much preliminary work do you do before beginning the final work? With some paintings, when the concept comes before the subject, my preliminary work is in designing the composition of shapes, colors, value, texture, edges, and then setting it up.
I usually prefer to jump right in to my final piece, especially when working from life. At this point, I’ve set everything up the way I want it. That means, what I see is what I want to paint and it’s a matter of taking down the information with my brush. This way it comes out as a direct expression of what I experienced. I trust that instinct. Now, if I sense that there is something I don’t understand in the middle of working, I may do one of two things:
1. Step back and study what it is I need to understand. 2. Slowdown, but continue to push the paint around as a way of studying the problem.
Yes, with No. 2 I may wreck a painting but then again, I may just find the piece I’m missing, right there in the paint. I’ve made the best and most exciting discoveries about the qualities of oil paint by, just completely letting go of the idea of “the result”, and getting down into the paint.
What colors are typically on your palette? I preselect a very basic palette before each painting that will best fulfill my concept (ie. 2 yellows, 1 red, 1 blue, a neutral, flake white and ivory black). As I work, I may want an additional color or two and add them to the palette. I regularly work with the following colors: Flake White, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Cad Yellow Light, Cad Yellow Deep, Cad Orange, Cad Red Light, Cad Red Medium, Terra Rosa, Venetian Red, Transparent Oxide Red, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Ultramarine Violet, Cobalt Blue, Ivory Black, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber and anything that fills the bill.
Do you consider the process of painting more important than the result? Absolutely. While I’m painting, the process is the focus. When I step away I think about results. Back and forth it goes.
Put these words in order of importance: color, framing, concept, edges, value, composition, technique, drawing, Concept, Composition, Framing Concept, technique, composition (or arrangement of drawing/shapes, value, edges, color), and framing.
What’s the most difficult part of painting for you? Feeling like I stopped at the right time. There is never any way to know if I stopped at the right time. That is the never ending battle between execution of technique vs the process and expression.
If you could spend the day with any three artists, past or present, whom would they be? This list might change frequently but today it would be: Emil Carlsen, Hovsep Pushman and Henri Fantin-Latour (I have to ask him a question). If they are busy I would also like to try James Whistler, George Inness, and Henry Raeburn. And if there is still time I would love a personal invitation to Olana to see Frederic Edwin Church. Come to think of it, as long as you are giving me a time travel passport, I would really like to think this through and narrow it down to like 60… is that possible?
Who has had the greatest influence on your career and why? I can’t give a perfect answer here because I feel so blessed to have had many influences in my career, and in how I approach life and painting in general. Still, I can absolutely say that the event of moving to New York also marked a rebirth for me. I started over, literally, and it was Gregg Kreutz who encouraged me to consider the move to New York and attend the Art Students League. He has always been a very supportive mentor and a dear friend.
When you become discouraged and feel the well is dry, so to speak, what do you do? The thing is, the well is never dry and I may just be detached at the moment. So, when that happens it doesn’t take long for me to get fired up. I can look at beautiful paintings, or read through my notes and daydream about possible paintings. Or, I may just sit in my studio looking around at the way things look in the light. It takes maybe 15 minutes and the juices are flowing again.
How does someone find their individuality as an artist? Look at a lot of artwork. Know what you like and what you love. Get in there and start working with the paint, with drawing, and with composition ideas. Then listen for when you feel the happiest while you are working. Don’t be too surprised if isn’t where you would expect it.
What advice would you have for a young artist/painter? Keep painting, keep drawing, trust yourself, and be open to advice.
What advice would you have for a first-time collector? Listen to what really speaks to you. Creating your collection is a journey and each piece of artwork is part of your story. You will find that the work you select is also an expression of your sensibilities. And of course, buy at least three of my paintings at a time. They look and flow the best as a group because I usually work conceptually, in a way that ties one painting to the next.
Where does creativity come from; can it be taught, and how is it nurtured? Everyone has creativity and we use it every day. In art, if the drive is there, I believe design skills and chosen medium have to be learned while creativity is nurtured. This is where a “teacher” becomes “mentor” or an experienced guide to help along journey. At my Atelier, I foster this kind of relationship between myself and my students.
“Success is going to bed at night exhausted from creating.”
Is the New York art scene enthusiastically receptive to contemporary realism? I think so. I think realism is deeply embedded in our psyches and there are always pieces that will resonate for one reason or another.
Why did you create the Leah Lopez Atelier? Please tell us about your school. When I started the Leah Lopez Atelier, I wanted to bridge the gap between teaching technique and guiding students to finding their own creative voice. The best teachers are also mentors who understand that each student needs to feel free to try new things in a safe environment. When a problem arises, the mentor helps the student to find possible solutions. It made the most sense to open an atelier style school, in my studio, enabling me to truly share my personal experience and help others to develop their own unique work. It’s an enriching experience for both mentor and student.
People tell me, as they enter my studio, they feel as though they’ve been transported to a distant place and time or an old world master’s studio. It has a high ceiling and a big wall-to-wall skylight window that faces north, from Union Square toward the Empire State building. It’s up on the 11th floor so we can forget there is a bustling city outside. The wooden floors are a dark walnut. My walls are a warm olive grey and my paintings hanging about. I have floor-to-ceiling thick black drapes which I use to control the amount and direction of the North-light that washes in, which creates atmosphere that cannot be duplicated artificially, and has long been sought by artists and photographers alike.
Essentially, atelier students work in the beauty of north light where they equip themselves with an arsenal of techniques, the experience of solving problems, and the freedom to let the creativity from within flow through and shape it into art. That’s what the Leah Lopez Atelier is about.
How many hours do you typically paint per day? From 4 – 12 hours.
If you were stranded on an island, which three books would you want with you? If it’s a deserted island then I’ll take: 1. The Organic Artist: Make Your Own Paint, Paper, Pigments, Prints and More from Nature. 2. A complete island survival guide 3. The complete stories of the Sherlock Holmes Collection or the Complete Twilight Zone Collection.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you like to be? Chef de cuisine or an archaeologist.
Thanks Leah for a wonderful, informative interview.
To see more of Lopez’s work and gallery representation…leahlopez.com
Here’s another short interview you’ll enjoy
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE