Interview— Leigh Hyams: Trusting the Process
by Richard Whitaker, Jun 1, 2009
Portland, OR Apr. 2008
Sally Retecki invited me to Portland to participate in a series of artist events she hosts in her home in Portland Oregon. Would I interview artist and teacher Leigh Hyams? And I could show some of my photography, too, she suggested. Of course, I accepted.
I'd first met and interviewed Leigh at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco early in 2005, and a warm relationship had grown between us since then. On the evening of the event, Sally's home was packed. Before she introduced us she asked Leigh to show everyone some of her artist's books, all of which had been bound by San Francisco's Howard Munson. One book, of a series of masterful and delightfully whimsical cow drawings, particularly captured my fancy.
Afterwards, when it was time to begin our conversation, I returned to the cow drawings...
Richard Whittaker: I was just charmed by that group of cow drawings. Tell me, when did you do that again?
Leigh Hyams: Probably about 1995, around there.
RW: Is that too long ago to talk about?
LH: No. I did another portfolio during that period. But that was one of the first ones. In New Mexico I took a book with a hundred blank pages and decided I was going to draw the sky. It's called "A Hundred Skies." One of the parameters was that, as long as I was looking at the sky, I could paint any way or draw any way-it didn't matter.
RW: I want to get my hands on these and publish some of them!
LH: Be my guest! [to audience] He did some of my dogs recently.
RW: It's difficult to know where to start, but why don't you tell us a little about your history, particularly with regard to your experiences, which I think you told me were formative for educating your eye, working for Philip Guston and also the time you spent with Meyer Shapiro. I'm sure we'd all love to hear about that.
LH: They shaped me much more than graduate school did. I had an MFA, like everyone else, but it was nothing compared to being able to sit around the dinner table for five winters and talk art with these people! We were living in Sarasota Florida at that time. In the middle of winter the Manhattan painters get discouraged with the New York winters. There were some canny people in an experimental college in Sarasota and they started a new college, a fine arts institute, and were able to lure these New York painters down to teach.
They would come down and buy a condo on the beach. It was very pretty, and they'd walk up and down the beach for two days. Then they'd be looking for someone to talk art with, right?[laughs] My husband was an artist and very verbal. So just because of demographics we were able to spend all winter-with dinners and stuff-with Guston. And Conrad Marca-Relli was there and James Brooks. And later on Meyer Shapiro came. Meyer, as I'm sure a lot of you know, was a professor at Columbia and he was Berenson's equal at that time in world scholarship. He was a lovely man. He'd come to dinner. He was so excited about art! He would start talking about, say, ninth century Egyptian Coptic textiles, which would then remind him of this Romanian painter from 1930, and on and on-for two hours! It wasn't conversation, but you didn't care because of hearing this great mind leaping, giving you some idea of the whole sweep of art-a tremendous privilege. He didn't even realize he was lecturing. He was just excited. His mind lived there.
But you could talk back and forth with Guston and Marca-Relli. Conrad was mostly interested in gossip, what went on in the studios of the Abstract Expressionists. Of course, for me, that was very exciting, being on the outside and hearing all the inside poop on these things.
RW: Would Guston talk about art with you?
LH: Yes. A lot!
RW: How did it go?
LH: Over dinner, and with a lot of wine! The conversations would go on for four or five hours. It was great! Then Guston came over one day and asked me very humbly, would I mind trading drawings with him? It was a great moment in my life! He was a very nice, a very thoughtful man and a wonderful teacher.
I have a very good eye, a very sharp eye, which I certainly attribute to my time with these people. If they didn't like something, they'd say so. Including my own work. Actually Mark Areli came over once and said he'd trade for whatever I wanted. He looked at two years of my work. He took a deep breath and said, I'm sorry. I don't like any of it.
It was not easy to take, except he was right. And I came to understand why. That's an incredible education, right? On many levels. Humbling, too, but okay.
RW: Yes. That's tough. How do you get through a moment like that?
LH: By that time, you're so driven you can't stop.
RW: All these experiences with Guston and Shapiro came at what part in your art life?
LH: I had my MFA, but I was pretty stupid. I learned so much afterwards.
RW: And you got your MFA in Mexico? I find that interesting.
LH: Well, it was one of those domestic things. My husband went to the Antarctic and there I was with the kids. And I certainly didn't want to stay in Rhode Island. So I packed up and we all went to Mexico. I went for three months and stayed for four years.
RW: Would you say there are important differences in MFA programs here and in Mexico? Or is that too broad a question.
LH: Too broad. I went to the Instituto and got my MFA through the University of Guanajuato. That's how we did it in those days. It's a lousy school now. I don't recommend it. At that time they had very good instruction. But nothing compared to those dinner table conversations.
RW: In talking about the roots of your artmaking, you'd mentioned you'd had important experiences in childhood.
LH: Yes. The main thing is if you're not squashed by well-meaning parents, or adults, or bad teachers. I wasn't ever squashed. I was just drawing naturally and nobody ever told me you can't do that or that house doesn't look like a house and so on. So I was one of the kids who slipped through, and I was definitely interested. I remember at age seven telling my cousin that I was going to be an artist. I never questioned it. It seems sort of stupid to me now, but it's been fine. Interesting life. Not easy.
RW: Do you have any sense of what was behind that moment when you said, "I'm going to be an artist"?
LH: I just was a kid who was drawing all the time and I didn't get stepped on. It's that simple.
RW: In other words, there's something very natural about this process. If kids didn't get stepped on, do you think there would be more artists?
LH: Well, they'd be different human beings. They may not all be artists, but they would have breadth and the ability to think creatively, which our education system stamps out of them. Well-meaning parents and well-meaning teachers are still doing it. It's a crime.
RW: I wonder if you agree that the whole process of artmaking calls upon parts of ourselves that we don't have names for, that culture doesn't provide models for. It's as if the artist is drawing from something in him or herself that's not recognized in the culture. Would you say so?
LH: Absolutely. I work with a lot of adults these days and a lot of them are people who were drawing or painting up until they got married and had the kids and got the mortgage, and they quit. In other words, they went in a more approved direction in our culture.
When the kids are grown and the mortgage is okay-or it was until now [laughs]-anyway, they sign up for my classes, many of them almost with a desperation: there's a hole in me. Something's wrong! They can't articulate it very often, but it's very real.
The creativity is still in you. It's in anybody, anywhere. It's just a question of pulling the plug and trusting the process. Sometimes you need someone like me to give permission and to get them into it, and to use it! You have to use it! It's there.
RW: That reminds me. On the way up here, my wife read me a quote by Blaise Pascal: the last step for reason is to understand that a million things surpass it. I'm not suggesting we should throw reason out, but with "a million things that surpass reason" wouldn't you say that now you're entering a territory where the artist is going?
LH: And searching. And you have to trust the process. You have to believe that whatever this is that you're looking for is worth devoting your time to, devoting your life to. If you go into it deeply enough, it takes you over. There's no question that it's very important for me to paint, for you to paint-or whatever art form you're following. It's part of being a human being.
RW: After awhile, you said you have to keep doing it.
LH: I can't imagine, and probably many of you can't imagine, going through life and never making another painting or doing another dance or singing again. It's such an integral part of being a human being.
RW: I'm inclined to think it has something to do with what happens inside. Without doing the painting or the dance, I'm not going to have this experience.
LH: It's just a path. Meditation is another path for some people.
RW: And it's a path into what?
LH: Into a reason for living, into the fullness of being alive! It's not enough to go to the office every day or get the mortgage paid. There's something else out there, and just because you can't put a noun on it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
RW: A phrase came to me earlier when I was thinking about our talk. Is undertaking the act of artmaking-undertaking that search-is that like the entry into an invisible forest?
LH: That's nice. It's a forest alright! It's very complicated.
RW: Well, and we're a culture that recognizes the value of the intellect, the technical, the practical-what do you think of the word "expert" as connected to artists?
LH: It's sort of suspect, because you can never learn it all. It goes on and on and on and on. Years ago, at one of those dinner parties, I can remember Meyer Shapiro saying, "In the end, any painter just wants to be a good painter." At the time, I thought, "My God, no! You want to be superb!" And I've learned better. I just want to be a good painter. It matters. That's my thing in life.
RW: And what is that, to be "a good painter"? It's a disarmingly simple phrase, but what does that really mean?
LH: Painting is so complex! And it demands much more than your hand and your brain. It demands your whole body! Your perception. Your perception field is enormous!
RW: Yes. See, that's the thing. This little phrase "a good painter" needs to be opened up because it slips by so easily as if it's nothing, or not much.
LH: Yes. And that's our culture again. It rewards celebrity and money. If you don't sell and you're not famous, then you're invalid. If you really understand painting, or any of the arts, that's a lot of stuff! That's not art. Do you trust art?
RW: Do I trust art? [audience laughs] I think I trust something in myself. Sometimes I recognize it in what people call art and sometimes, when I look at art, I don't see it. It's something that has to come to me, and it's felt. It has to touch me in a certain way, and then I trust that.
LH: I'd love to find out from you-and I'll trade you two examples for your two-some art experience that either kicked you in the stomach it was so profound and unexpected or brought goose pimples all over you. Can you think of any?
RW: Well, two come to mind immediately. One, which was a very formative experience, was not from the visual arts. It was a poem by Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning. A veil fell from my eyes when I read that. I was twenty-one and not yet much interested in poetry. It was a class assignment. I looked at all those lines and groaned. But it was an assignment and I really had to read it. And, at a certain point, an entirely new world was revealed to me. My God! Poetry! It was an important moment in my life.
Then the other one that comes to mind was one afternoon at the Met. I was looking at the paintings of Van Gogh. There were several from that ten year period when he was really on fire. All of the sudden, I was just moved to tears. It was the color that really got me. Of course, it was the entire painting, too. It's difficult to explain what the tears were about. As far as I'm concerned the tears had to do with feeling where that man had to have been in order to be able to do that, to realize those colors. I mean, he couldn't have done that without being in a certain kind of place, and that place just made me cry.
LH: [she nods]
RW: So you tell me yours.
LH: I was in Manhattan when Rothko had his first show. I'd been living in Mexico so I was not full of any information about him. I went in cold to MOMA in New York. I went in without any preconceptions at all, and was able to encounter those paintings with my whole body.
I remember going from gallery to gallery with goosebumps. It was the most thrilling experience! It's good to remember that we read, we read, we study; well think what we're blocking in perception! So that was really a gift!
The other one was in Barcelona in Gaudi's Parque Guell. Some of you have been there, right? It's huge with the most illogical buildings and tile work and so on. It was early in the morning and nobody was there but the two of us, and I wept. I remember that. Can I tell one more?
LH: This is self-serving. It's my whole best moment as an artist! It was when I had a show in the museum in Queretaro, Mexico. I was in the gallery. There weren't many people in there at the moment. A Mexican man was there in a big overcoat standing about ten feet in front of one of my big paintings. He just stood there, and so I walked up to him. He could sense I was there. He didn't turn his head. He just kept looking and he said, "Will that painting ever let me go?" I thought, "Wow! All those years!"[appreciative laughter from audience]
I had a couple more for you. When we were talking the other day, you used a wonderful phrase. You said, "I was moved by beauty." Can you talk about that a little bit? I love that phrase.
RW: I did. I'm pretty inarticulate when I'm asked to talk about things like this. A question about photography led me on a search and to realizing rather quickly that I had this capacity, which I hadn't known about, of looking and responding to those unknown places I'd see that touched me. Of pointing the lens at them, and then searching through the viewfinder and composing an image. It was actually pretty easy. All you needed was the camera and then pressing a button and you'd end up with an image. But still, in a way, it was my own creation even though done so easily.
I would notice a general visual situation and sometimes sense right away that something was there-because a powerful feeling would appear. And I'd head toward what had caught my eye. Very quickly I'd often find myself in a state I really have to say was ecstatic, an ecstatic state in the presence of this beauty. I'm sort of reluctantly using that word nowadays, but it's the truth. That's what it was.
I'd say that was being moved my beauty. Maybe it relates to Plato's idea of Beauty in some way, one of the three aspects of the Divine. It has to be something like that, I think.
LH: Can you tell that moment when you moved from the known to the unknown? I know you've experienced that. We all have. At what point does the recognition come?
RW: It's almost like the unknown is the normal place. We call it "known" but it's a very shallow "known." It's a very ordinary "known" and keeps our lives not very interesting, not very alive. That kind of knowing is not a knowing. So this shift is to something that feels known in a wholly different way. There's something that's touched and we don't have words for it, but there's something there that one knows, right? One knows, but it isn't this shallow ordinary "knowing." Much more of oneself is suddenly present and alive. So I wouldn't call it the unknown and yet I don't know what it is exactly. Or maybe I do, but there are no words for it. Does that make sense to you?
LH: In painting maybe it's little bit easier. I don't usually know at that moment, but a little bit later I know that I slipped into, mostly it's "I, Leigh." If I get out of my own way, then it happens. That's when you're doing your best work, right?
RW: When that happens, where is time?
LH: Suddenly five hours has gone by and you don't even know it.
RW: There's a formulation I ran into not too long ago. It says the possibility exists that at any moment we might find ourselves at the place where time and eternity intersect. I can't help thinking that at the moment you describe that something like that is taking place, if that's not too flowery a way of putting it. I try to be careful about my language what with our tough-minded culture.
LH: Our tough world needs us! Should we see if there are any questions?
Question: I don't have to make money painting. I've worked for thirty years and I can now paint and take classes. So it's been four years of doing that. I can really connect with the notion of feeling more alive with it, but I'm also wondering what role audience and other people have in this process? Recently I felt it was important for people close to me to see some of the things I'm doing and caring about, so I had a little show in my bedroom for close friends. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are about that whole relationship.
LH: Well, the main thing is to be clear about why you're painting. You're painting because you have to paint and you want a richer, fuller life. The gallery and all that stuff is completely separate. If you can go that way, and still have a rich, full life, that's fine, but I completely respect people who don't want any of that in their lives. And you're piling up a lot of paintings under the bed. A storage problem, right? [yes]
One of my friends in San Francisco, Jane Baker, has a web site. Things were piling up and she's not interested in a gallery, so on her web site she's offering any painting she's done, ever-it could be three inches wide or thirty feet long, it doesn't matter-for $300. And you have to give the $300 to her favorite charity. If you want to give it to your favorite charity, then it's $350. [laughs] And she's moving her work. It's getting out!
Now think about that. You can do that. When you think about it, what a smart idea! So that's one good answer. Do other people have suggestions? It's every artist's problem.
Same questioner: I also wonder if I don't take it far enough.
LH: You feel you have to show in order to make it valid?
Same Questioner: I don't think so, but well, I guess nothing is ever finished.
LH: And the American culture is telling you that you need to do that to be valid. So watch it. You can buck it or use it. Just don't let it swallow you.
RW: If I could say something here. We all have moments of beauty and often they happen when we're alone. And what happens then? Can I experience a profound moment of beauty and be content? Can I be content, or do I need to, want to, share it? For me, this is a real question.
LH: And I don't think there is one answer to it. I heard about a man in Northern Scotland on the Island, Skye, where this guy spent five years building a beautiful road. It didn't go anywhere. I think about him when I'm in this kind of quandary. It was something he did in his life and it had meaning for him. Very few people are ever going to see it. So we don't have to do what everybody says. You can find your own path. But you have to be pretty clear about your needs and your wants. What really does matter to you? And Sherry, I think it's a beautiful idea to have a show in your bedroom for your friends. That's wonderful. It doesn't have to be a Guggenheim.
RW: Yes. What does one need? Can a small group of people support each other in a way that's needed? Even coming up to be here tonight I was asking myself this question, can a small group of people, and maybe numbers of small groups of people, help establish something supportive of this kind of effort?-which isn't supported, as far as I can see, in the high art world.
LH: That's right. Well, there are critique groups, these little cells all over. If you're lucky and you're serious about it and seek out somebody on your level of development-we're all at different levels-they're the best things, if they're well done, if it's not a show and tell group. If you give honest criticism. As a public duty, I do crit groups a lot. I feel very strongly about them as a teaching mechanism and a perception thing, as a social thing and a support thing. On my web site there's an essay I wrote about how to establish one and the ground rules which you can follow to do a really successful, non-destructive, non-competitive, but deeply honest critique group.
People come to my classes from different countries and one of my crit groups is in London. Someone from one of my San Francisco crit groups went to a crit group in London and now they're sending each other images by email and have an international thing going. There are lots of ways to keep from being alone in your studio all the time.
Question: I read that article and you mentioned everybody bringing something and everyone spending ten minutes on each work. I was wondering why it was set up like that instead of, say, two peoples' work each month.
LH: If that makes sense to your group, then fine. It's just that it keeps people really working if they know the second Tuesday of every month...
Question: ...You have to have something.
LH: Yes. That's the idea. But there's no reason your group couldn't set up its own rules.
Question: Is ten minutes long enough?
LH: It depends on how big your group is. You want to go for two hours and you have how many? Do the math. The main thing is so you don't spend a half hour on the first two people and then the people at the end don't get five minutes. So that's why. Use the old kitchen timer.
Question: Ten minutes is enough?
LH: Yes. In ten minutes you can do a good crit if you're really focused. If you have the luxury of more time, sure, use it. Even two people, as long as you're not just honoring everything they do. You have to be honest. Otherwise it's just show and tell, and that's not good enough.
Question: I'm often in critique groups where it's basically somebody expressing their opinion and it comes down to a like or don't like thing. You get fifty different reactions from fifty different people.
LH: Well, I say over and over in a critique that we are offering our opinions. My opinion is equally valid to Richard's opinion even though they may be completely opposite. So it's up to the artist who's work is being discussed to listen to the differing opinions and deciding, that makes sense or no, that doesn't make sense, or that gives me a new idea. As long as you really understand that I'm not talking about the person. I'm not putting down Jan if I think her painting needs work. I'm saying the painting doesn't feel alive enough. I think you could get more quality in the lines or something. I'm being specific. "The ear needs a little bit more work. That large dark area seems not to be relating very well and so on.
It's good if we can get away from the idea of liking or not liking. If we can just set that aside and really discuss it and also not get into the "decoding" department. That figure looks like my grandfather. That kind of stuff. That's irrelevant. It may be interesting, but it's not going to help that artist. Beginners especially slip into narrative. Don't waste your time on that.
Question: As a teacher do you ever run across a painting where you know something's not right about it, but you don't know what to tell this person? You can't figure it out?
LH: Yes. And I'll just say that. It doesn't feel right, or it doesn't feel resolved. But somebody in the group will have an opinion. And I've found in lots of teaching that if I can get all the students to really speak up about what their opinion is, even if it's very different from mine or anybody else's, the learning goes much deeper than if you just sit quietly in the back and listen to everybody else. I really encourage that. I think that's an important part of the learning.
Question: I have a question going back to the word "beauty" that you were reluctant to use. I'd be interested in hearing a little bit more about your perceptions of beauty.
RW: The reluctance was more about saying that my experience was ecstatic. I don't know how you feel about this, but it seems there's a kind of uneasiness especially among younger people today about sincere expressions of deep feeling or thought, that it's not cool. Part of the mission of the magazine has been to fly in the face of that. But maybe, like a lot of artists, I've often felt a bit of a misfit and a bit of an introvert and maybe I was sensitive, so I learned to keep things to myself, especially things like that. Does that make any sense? But the experience is absolutely precious. One wants to be a little careful for one's own sake.
LH: To keep them intact.
RW: Yes. Exactly.
Question: I wanted to ask about something I just read in one of your artist's statements that says Philip Guston taught you "to think like an artist." What is that about? Is it the approach you take to your work?
LH: No. It's more amorphous than that. Maybe "thinking" was too narrow a thing. It's perception. I take it in all the time. It could be the light on her hair. It's always feeding in, feeding in. Seeing the shapes between her boots. Without being aware of it, it's a sharpening and deepening of perception. And then there's this business of having some sense of the immense sweep of art. I travel a lot and there are artists on Malta and in Africa who will never be known and they're just as intense as we are. There's a whole stratum of people right now alive today and fifty years ago alive. It goes on and on. The awareness of that affects my thinking processes.
Questioner: Sort of a way of being?
LH: A way of being in the world. You don't even think of it anymore if you're deeply enough in it.
RW: Could I add something to that? It's a very interesting topic. There's starting to be some understanding about an intelligence of feeling. You even have the phrase nowadays "emotional intelligence." That's sort of a late-comer to our culture. We perceive by feeling as well as through sensation. We measure things up as if we had an intelligence of the body and an intelligence of the feeling. Our intelligence in this culture is more of a head thing. But we're much bigger, more complex entities. We perceive things in a complex way and, as an artist, I think you're calling on all that.
LH: This week I just taught a workshop in Calistoga. It was the first time I tried this. The painters there were very open to new kinds of things so I gave them an assignment to do a complete painting standing right in front and never to step back and look at it until it was finished. And to never make a mark unless it was caused by a feeling inside. Whatever they were feeling, they put it on. Trying to work from here [gestures to stomach area] and not thinking about making a great painting. Seeing if you could sustain that. And as your feelings would change, your marks would change.
Many of them did very interesting paintings and for some, it was a profound experience. One of the people said she tried real hard, and I'm sure she did, but she said, I got blocked. I felt something, but I had to wait and name it. Fear. Ecstasy. She couldn't skip the head trip there. And her painting wasn't nearly as interesting as some of the people who were able to skip that part and just go.
It was an experiment, but it could help and inform to deepen the work.
RW: That's my problem, too. But in a way I think it's everyone's problem. I remember when we were talking down at Meridian Gallery, How can I stop myself from completing this painting? Do you remember that? [yes] Because we all have these habits. They interfere with something.
LH: They do.
RW: Would you say that after all these years, you're a little bit more alert to these things?
LH: Yes. I am. And, as I get more and more skillful-as we all do, it comes with the territory-then I have to keep myself out on that unknown ridge or my facility will come between me and making anything meaningful.
I was telling Richard that, just before I came here, I was working on a seven foot charcoal drawing based on a Mayan thing. I had completed part of it and then the next morning I got up and I saw these two lines. They were the beginning of a tree trunk, or something. I wanted to go over there and finish it and another part said, "No Way!"
I was able to stop myself and see it without putting my normal part on of having to resolve that area. I feel so victorius! [laughs] There are still these two lines hanging there. I don't know how they'll look when I come back, but it's part of keeping oneself alert and in the unknown. Students say over and over, I don't know what I'm doing. I say, right! That's the area! [laughs]
Question: I'm wondering whether you have a way of allowing images to form, of the unconscious becoming conscious. Do you have a way of allowing it to happen?
LH:: Allowing is the word. Just don't talk it down.
Questioner: I say to myself, I'm going to allow it to happen.
LH: Then what happens?
Questioner: Well, well [laughs]
LH: Well, make the marks! That's the next step. Just don't cut it off. Trust the process. Trust yourself. That's hard. You might think I can't do that, or somebody else has done it better. Picasso did it better. We all have those things. Shut up and make the marks! And see what happens.
Question: Can you do that more easily now?
LH: It's not easy, anything. It's hard to paint. It gets harder all the time, so I don't think I can even answer that.
Question: Do you think there's been one painting that changed your life or was a huge breakthrough?
LH: I probably thought they were breakthroughs at the time. I can think of three or four paintings in my life that were-I don't know if they were like turning points, they were achievement points. But not very many. I usually lose interest next morning. You know, that glorious night when you finish one! [general laugher, groans] Well, there's always the next one.
Question: When you were talking about true art experiences you had mentioned Rothko. Rothko was the one who came to mind for me, also. I had an experience at the Tate. I went into this room. It was dark. The paintings themselves were pretty dark. When I think back on it, really what I feel is there was this vibration, almost, of the paintings. As an artist you must see so many paintings, but when that happens, what is it that makes it so special? Is it where you are in your life?
LH: I think it's where your development is. The same painting ten years later would probably not speak the same way at all. Again, that's one thing that keeps us going and going and going.