Director of Park West Gallery, Morris Shapiro, recently had a rare opportunity to sit down for a chat with artist Leslie Lew. Following is Part 1 of a compelling interview in which the “Sculpted Oils” artist discusses her artwork and thriving career…
Morris Shapiro: One of the things that strikes me about your work, which I find so fascinating and appealing, is that the notion of Pop Art and American Art is often about taking imagery from our culture and elevating it to art from a context in which it’s not art. You have this very positive idea of finding things in our culture, in our past particularly, that elevate people and bring them wonderful feelings about their past, about growing up in America.
Leslie Lew: I feel that we all have little portions of our lives…maybe when you were a child…that fresh and that wonderful time when you saw life in a totally different way and everything was new and exciting. That’s what I’m dealing with. I’m almost channeling memories. I’m channeling moments that we’ve all had. People see my work and they say, “I remember when I did that…” or, “This brings back my memory of…” And it’s not one experience—there are all these little moments of our lives. I feel I am a recorder of history; I feel I am almost channeling that and grabbing it for posterity. Life has changed so much; life now is so chaotic. We’ve got Home Depot, we’ve got Bed, Bath and Beyond. We don’t have those little stores any longer; they have gone out of existence. So I grab these little moments that we’ve had, because we need to keep them. It’s our American heritage; it’s part of our souls.
MS: Tell us about the three artists who were your primary influences—Peter Max, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell.
LL: Peter Max, with the vibrant and explosive color. People who like Peter Max tend to gravitate toward my work. He draws from popular American culture, so I can see that. And of course Warhol is the ultimate Pop artist. Like my father, he was in advertising before he was a painter.
MS: So from Peter Max you get the idea of reaching the public with cultural iconography. And Warhol has influenced your Pop style, where you appropriate things from culture. What about Norman Rockwell?
LL: From Norman Rockwell I learned to appeal to the soul. It’s about our whole memories, like macaroni and cheese and meatloaf—comfort food—appealing to those memories that we have deep in our soul. I’m so happy because people get it; they may not know about art, but they love it. And people who are collecting Picasso’s and Rembrandts also get it. I just love that.
Norman Rockwell did a lot of scenes of Americana. You know…the barber shop scene with the little boy getting his hair cut, the army scenes, soldiers, things that were happening in his life. For me, I think I’ve done something similar for my generation—the Baby Boomers. I’ve noticed, though, that even people in their 20s and 30s still seem to be able to relate. And I grab those kinds of ideas. I’ve done a barber shop, and I didn’t put anybody in it, but there are a lot of products. It’s almost about the barber and his shop. He’s got his little coat in there and he’s got his little icons on the shelf and a hairdryer, and the mirror reflects his jacket. Or I do the Animal Crackers because we’ve all had animal crackers.
MS: Tell me about Animal Crackers.
LL: Animal crackers. I think that’s got to be better than Campbell’s soup. It’s the epitome of every childhood. Everybody growing up in America has had animal crackers. My son has had them, you have had them, I’ve had them. I would say most people in the world have. I don’t even know if I thought about that when I first started doing animal cracker paintings. I just loved the animals and I loved the idea of building them up and making them like little live creatures.
MS: And this particular subject is, I think, one of your most popular. I understand you made a painting which is in the Mayo Clinic.
LL: Yes, the very first animal cracker painting that I ever painted was purchased by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. What made me feel really great was that they hung it in the lobby of the children’s ward. When the kids walk in, and these are scared, sick kids, the first thing they get to see is Animal Crackers. And literally, every one of those kids lights up. They are allowed to touch it, and I think in some ways it might be a little bit of a healing thing, too…
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Stay tuned to the Park West Gallery blog for Part 2 of this fascinating interview with Leslie Lew!