Interview with Leah Oates, NY Arts Magazine

1. When did you know you were an artist?

I knew that I was an artist when I was very young. At about 5 years of age my mother and I would visit my grandparents and while they talked in the living room I would be given a piece of paper with a pencil that had been sharpened in the kitchen sink with a bread knife.  Even at that young age I was aware that making art made my breathing slow down and made me feel happy.

2. How do you conceptualize your images?  They are very layered and it seems that you work on your paintings in stages.  Is that so?

I start a painting in many different ways.  Sometimes a painting’s inspiration comes from seeing a color or combination of colors in my everyday life and deciding that I want to use them in my art. Sometimes it is an image that moves me. As for your question as to whether I paint in stages, I can finish a painting quickly over a period of a day and conversely I can work on a painting over a long period, layer upon layer, until the original kernel of the painting has quite disappeared.

3. You are a native New Yorker and have seen the art scene in NYC change for a better and worse I assume.  Please elaborate.

I try not to keep abreast of the politics of the art world.  It would distract me from making art.  I want to make the best, most sincere, honest work that I can make.  In the past I have been lucky and have usually found a place to show it.  The work has also gained notice from people that I greatly respect. That is enough for me.

4, What is your family background?  Were there any artists in your family?

I was an only child growing up in a very eccentric family – but I’ve heard that everyone thinks that his or her family is eccentric.  My father was a larger than life, very overweight bon vivant.  He was in the real estate business in NYC and would take me all over the city to look at properties.  We would combine eating in various neighborhoods — Chinatown, Little Italy, Harlem, Arthur Avenue, etc., when we went to “look at property.”  We would wander in and out of food shops, churches, synagogues, and various business establishments on our trips.  I realize now that in reality I was taking field trips that explored urban sociology and diverse cultural practices within NYC. Museums were a part of the mix, neither higher nor lower than visits to a special fruit store or a food shop in Chinatown where we bought honey slathered chicken hanging from a hook in the window.  That was my introduction to art making – seeing how wondrous and colorful the world was.

Later my father started to make art.  He took a course in painting at the New School and started to hang out with his instructors at The Cedar Bar.  One day he told me that he met a fabulous Dutchman.  His name was Wilhelm de Kooning!  My father subsequently opened an art gallery in the then wilderness of the Washington Market area, what is now Tribeca.  He showed all his artist friends’ work there. He was interviewed about his gallery outpost on The Voice of America, a US government radio program with a worldwide audience.

My mother loved words and devoured novels and biographies about “the lost generation in Paris.” She enjoyed playing with words to create the well edited descriptions of her own life that suited her fancy. As an example, my father was not “fat;” he was “stout,” while I was “slender;” not “skinny.”   I came to realize early on that words had the capacity to be as powerfully graphic as art making did.

5. You draw from many sources for your paintings and text is incorporated as well. What comes first in the creation of any image, a phrase and then an image?  Where does the text come from?  It is a very strong part of your work and I think it leaves the images more open.  What are your thoughts on this?

I gather inspiration from many sources; personal photos, textiles, wallpaper, food and product packaging, poetry, overheard dialogue and visual memory. What I am trying to do by combining seemingly disparate words and images, is to make paintings that pay homage to the associative way the head and the heart ponder meaningful experiences.  I cannot say which comes first when I create a painting, text or image. It is a dance and I never know which is going to lead.

6. What makes painting a unique art medium from other such as photography or sculpture?

I don’t know.  Everything has aspects of being unique and in my bookwork I combine the 3 dimensionality of sculpture with painting.

7. You live in NYC and in Paris.  How do both arts communities differ or are they similar?

French people are in Paris and Americans are in NY.  I don’t mean to be glib, but people are people. On the whole artists are wonderfully special people, with many similarities in every culture around the world.

8. Has Paris or France influenced your life?

Yes, living in Paris is very sensual and much of the visual information there has an unknown quality to it for me.  Thus I see almost everything as new, fresh and visually exciting.  I find that I slow down in Paris, drink more wine, and immerse myself in ordinary life.  I have an existential faith that the totality of a life lived is the bedrock of true art making. Anyway it certainly is a lot of fun.

9. What advice would you give to an emerging artist in NYC who wants to show and be part of the scene?

I’m probably not the right person to answer this question.  I have good artist, dealer and writer friends, but I do not feel that I have ever been a part of any scene. I just quietly make my work.

I would advise an emerging artist to create the best, most sincere work he or she can and never sacrifice the work for anything political. I would also advise against showing work that is not ready to be seen.  Above all I would always try to be honorable in all my relationships, both art related and otherwise. That’s it.

10. What upcoming series, projects, shows etc do you have coming up?

This winter I had a one person show, “Out Gallivanting,” with OK Harris Gallery who shows my work in NYC.  Now I am allowing my new work to build organically, understanding that a major show always allows for a punctuation mark in terms of future work.  I will be showing work this spring at a show curated by Arlene Bujese at Spanierman Gallery in East Hampton.  I will also be showing unique bookwork at Brooklyn College and will be exhibiting work at the Centre Librarie d’art Contemporaine outside of Paris this summer.  But right now I am enjoying making art with no immediate pressures. It is a delicious act of blind faith with no script or formula.  I truly feel that I’m just a “flaneuse” out for a walk.

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