Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Leigh Hyams: This Incredible Fact of Being Alive

by Richard Whittaker, Nov 21, 2005



I’d arrived early. It was easy to miss the door at 545 Sutter Street. It opened into a narrow foyer where one suddenly felt transported back to the San Francisco of the 1950s. Deciding against the rickety elevator, I chose to climb the narrow stairs hidden in the back. On my very first visit to Meridian Gallery I’d been charmed by the place, by the feeling I was revisiting an era when the Beats were just getting going.
     No one could mistake Meridian as a place dedicated to art as a saleable commodity. There was a different alignment there, and yet director Anne Brodzky and her husband Tony Williams had managed to keep the gallery going. At Meridian a wide variety of creative activities are nurtured. It’s something of a refuge in the San Francisco art scene.

     Brodzky, I discovered, had been the editor of artscanada for years before coming to San Francisco and founding Meridian Gallery with Tony. Among all the artists she knew, there were certain ones she wanted me to meet. Leigh Hyams was at the top of that list. Hyams had been a studio assistant for Phillip Guston, had taught at San Francisco State University, San Jose State University, John F. Kennedy University and California College of Arts and Crafts. She led international art tours for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and taught workshops all over the world.
     And it wasn't long before we met. The occasion was an exhibit of Hyams' recent paintings, large flowers, at Meridian. It
 had been timed to coincide with Hyams' yearly trip to Esalen from her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It's one of the places where she conducts her unique painting workshops.
    In fact, having made my way up the stairs, I was waiting for Hyams to arrive straight from Esalen. Today, I'd be interviewing her. No one was in sight. But then I spotted Howard Munson, a book artist and an old friend of Leigh's. He was waiting for Leigh, too. Munson was on his way to Mexico the next day and had offered to carry some of Leigh’s work with him back to San Miguel de Allende.

     We didn't have to wait long. Leigh’s head appeared as she climbed the stairs. And soon Anne appeared and, all of a sudden there was a small party going on with hugs and greetings all around. While everyone took a few minutes to relax, I went looking for the best place to set up for the interview. The light in the north gallery looked perfect....

Richard Whittaker:  As a start, I thought I’d ask you about Esalen, since you’ve just returned from there. Tell me a little about that.
Leigh Hyams:  I’ve been teaching there for eleven years, painting workshops, at least once a year, usually twice a year. I’m good at teaching, and participants come from all over the states and all over the world, people with a mix of experience. I’ve gradually built up a following over the years and it keeps getting better and better. The last two years I’ve been able to start teaching master classes, and that pleases me.

RW:  How did you get connected with Esalen?

Leigh:  Someone recommended me who knew me and the type of teaching I do, so they tried me out and I’ve been going ever since.

RW:  I didn’t know they had an art program down there.

Leigh:  It’s more of an arts and crafts program, sort of a community center approach, which is not mine. I’m very serious about teaching, so I attract a different kind of student, a different kind of participant.

RW:  Tell me a little more about that, that you’re serious about teaching.

Leigh:  Well, I’m a serious painter and I try to teach with honesty; I have to. Anyone has to work from that place in themselves if they’re trying to make really worthy paintings. But the phrase “teaching art” makes me uncomfortable. I teach people how to learn to make art, and I’ve been teaching so long that I’m able to release people, no matter how fearful they are and adult beginners are always fearful.

RW:  That’s a gift. That’s overcoming a lot, that inner concern and anxiety.

Leigh:  It’s a useful gift. I’ve done a lot of university teaching—design, color, drawing, painting, composition etc. But I can pass through all that and, in a week, they’re off and flying. They need to experience the excitement and complication of actually making a painting first, without technique demonstrations or much explanation in words. When they’ve done this (usually to their surprise), they’re eager to start learning what visual language, perception, etc. really mean.

RW:  That word “serious” is intriguing. Can you open that up a little more?

Leigh:  Well this week, in the master class, they told me that the mantra for the week was “paint or die!”

RW:  Paint or die. Would you say more?

Leigh:  I suppose it comes from this: “Painting is more serious than death.” I say that sometimes just to sober up people. I remember writing somewhere “that art took me over before life did.”

RW:  “Painting is more serious than death.” That’s a pretty provocative statement.

Leigh:  For a lot of us, when you get right down to it, it seems that way. Maybe when you’re closer to dying, you won’t think so, but for most of us, not being involved in the whole arena of the creative arts would be a kind of death.

RW:  For a minority of people, like you, the need to engage in this is so compelling that it has persisted in their lives, but for most people, that need gets suppressed beneath so many layers of things. Do you feel, from your experience, that this need, even when it’s buried, that this need exists pretty much for everybody?

Leigh:  Absolutely. That’s what’s meant when I say I “release” people. They come to me when they’ve denied it for twenty years and there’s a hole inside themselves they don’t understand, but they know it’s there. They’re desperate enough that they sign up even though they’re terrified. But with their first painting, the creative energy that’s been dammed up for years begins flowing again. I’ve worked with people from Iceland to Greece, from the Arctic to Brazil—with Athabaskan school children, adults in a hospital for the mentally ill, elderly people who’ve never made a drawing—not to mention professional artists. Creativity is there in everyone. We only have to use it, but it’s almost forgotten in our culture as something meaningless.

RW:  An artist friend of mine, Jane Rosen, talks about how in grade school a kid draws an apple, let’s say, and the teacher comes over and says, “No Susie, an apple doesn’t look like that.”

Leigh:  I hear that story constantly. I used to do a lot of work with young children. They have no walls inside themselves. They need only materials to work with and a wholehearted appreciation of whatever it is. One woman told me she was eight years old and did this huge, beautiful drawing of an angel. She said, “I was so proud of it I took it to show my mother and she said, “Angels don’t have breasts.” After that the woman didn’t draw for years and years. But she told me, “Now I’m a writer and just published my first book. Guess what the title is?”

RW:  Angels Have Breasts.

Leigh:  That’s right! [laughs]. There are deceptively small points that twist people’s lives.

RW:  Yes. What do you think about such things in relation to the art world? I mean does this raise any questions for you? 

Leigh:  Only in the sense that you don’t need that kind of validation. Validation by the “art world” can be gratifying, but it’s irrelevant. Exhibiting, marketing, money, fame—they’re fine, but they aren’t art.
     Validity is in the work, in the process of making art. I mean, I love to paint, obviously. It’s what the paintings do to you, but the enticements of money and fame certainly have the power to twist artists’ lives. It’s difficult to stay balanced.

RW:  I just heard an artist speak at the Oakland Museum, Enrique Martinez Celaya.

Leigh:  Did you really? I’d love to have heard him.

RW:  When he speaks about painting, he also talks about ethics. He’s one of the very few artists I’ve heard who put the two together—explicitly, anyway.

Leigh:  It seems obvious to me. The ethical part. You have to work from that. If you are working from a clean, true need to paint, there’s a kind of focus that forces you to be honest. We think we’re making the paintings, but the paintings are also making us.

RW:  I find it encouraging when I hear this spoken of, which I don’t very often. That seems not to be easily found in the art world today.

Leigh:  Well, look at the art. The paintings don’t lie. It’s all there, if you can read it, and it’s not very interesting.

RW:  Here’s a word I bring up very cautiously: metaphysics. I only mean to indicate matters of depth. Can we talk about such things in art today? Something universal? The hidden life of being, say? Such things seem to be off-limits in today’s discourse.

Leigh:  How long is this going to last? It’s ridiculous.

RW:  You’re aware of this issue, so to speak?

Leigh:  Oh, of course! I was in Manhattan last summer and walked through the much-touted galleries in Chelsea and I couldn’t feel anything except market and hype. And there’s not a lot of nutrition in art magazines, either, these days. It’s not fashionable.

RW:  Some friends were talking with me last night. They’d gone to the Kiki Smith and Chuck Close exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art here. The artists had been interviewed. My friends told me that the interviews never got below the surface. No nutrition, as you say.

Leigh:  It’s a loss. Not long ago there was a Philip Guston retrospective here. It was a really interesting show and I went to a talk the curator gave. He said, “I put this show together for painters, for artists.” And I said from the back row, “We THANK you!” There’s not much in museums today to feed a working painter either.

RW:  Yes. I have trouble understanding this. But I want to go back to the question of how art is taught to kids. It seems that the popular idea is that there has to be a likeness, or it isn’t any good. So, in other words, there’s a lot that’s being missed.

Leigh:  Yes. You can do paintings that have a likeness, that are realistic. Take Vermeer. There’s a lot of wonderful realistic painting out there that also has soul and some spiritual content, some connection with human life and feelings. But most of this stuff, it’s either clever or fashionable or interesting in other ways, or just plain skill, period.
     I have a lot of skill, too, but it’s not enough. With any artist who has worked many, many years, you build up it up whether you planned to or not. It goes with the territory, and there are a lot of artists, it seems to me, who stop there. Many of them are acclaimed. But there are many people, like me, for whom that isn’t enough. It’s a waste of my life if I use only my skill.

RW:  So let’s take a particular painting. Say, the painting that’s behind you right now. Okay. There’s a certain degree of likeness of the blossom, but you could have painted something with far more of a likeness.

Leigh:  Easily!

RW:  So what happens in there? In that search between the blossom in front of you and this inner process of painting?

Leigh:  Well, these are flower images. I’m at the point where they’re just a vehicle for this almost untranslatable thing I’m trying to find. I could make them very realistic flowers, but that would be meaningless to me, and to any sensitive viewer; they’d just be flowers. So I have to watch my own facility. I have to make that painting say something. But it isn’t that articulated as I’m painting. So I keep at it, keep at it, keep at it.
     It’s got to be a little odd or strange, an opening to some kind of recognition of the incredible fact of being alive. I use the words “life force” a lot. For me, that’s what these paintings are really about. I hope they’re challenging to some viewers, maybe bringing them back to the fact that it’s a miracle to breathe, to be here.

RW:  Words don’t take us too far down that road.

Leigh:  No. That’s why some of us have to paint.

RW:  I was thinking about the particular, the specific thing. There’s the word “flower”—that stands for any flower. Take “blue flower”—that rules out lots of flowers, but you still have any blue flower. A “blue flower with four petals.” Well, you’re getting closer, but the specific flower itself is uniquely, exactly, specifically what it is. It stands in a non-language reality, I’d say. Does this make sense?

Leigh:  Completely.

RW:  So when you get to that, you begin to realize there’s something which lies outside of these words.

Leigh:  That’s what I’m trying to touch in these paintings.

RW:  Art can show us something sometimes there, that words can’t. Words, I’d say, are often a vehicle for a kind of sleepwalking.

Leigh:  Tell some hot writer that. [laughs]

RW:  But they have the same problem in a way, don’t they? How to find the words that help me wake up for a moment. It’s so difficult. 

Leigh:  And that’s the challenge. Artists’ lives revolve around this search. Plus, it’s so interesting. You learn this and then you think “My God, look what’s over there now!” It’s endless.

RW:  Well, I thought I’d ask you about color. Could you talk a little about color?

Leigh:  I was a guest artist for two summers at sculptor George Rickey’s Hand Hollow Foundation in upper New York State. He invited six artists from Germany and six from U.S. to live and work together there. He came into my studio one day, looked at my paintings and said, “Oh, you’re a colorist!”—a startling remark, as it had never occurred to me before. After that, of course, my interest in color deepened and it’s now a major part of my thinking as an artist. And living in Mexico with their fearless attitude toward using color certainly influences me. I live in a house that’s blue with a yellow wall and next door there’s a rich red one with a lavender door. One’s perception of color is constantly challenged and delighted down there.

RW:  What is it when you go into color?

Leigh:  It’s such a turn-on when you’re actually applying the paint. See that painting behind you, the large red one?  It made my mouth water when I was doing it.  Imagine the sensual pleasure of sloshing around six feet of red paint with a big wet brush! Then there’s the surprise of watching it change by itself when adding that tiny blue flower shape next to it, then deciding one section had to be wiped and a shot of orange added in the corner to see what would happen next.

RW:  The color itself, how does it enter me?

Leigh:  It can be a total body response, depending on your sensitivity and openness. Color can enter through the eyes, through touch, through your skin; sometimes you can hear color in a painting and, for some people, colors have fragrance. But your preconceptions can block your full experience of the color.

RW:  Sometimes I have a moment where I think: “Color. Isn’t it mysterious that it does this!” It does this red, or “the yellow does this yellowing” as Nathan Oliveira said when I was asking him the same question. It’s mysterious.

Leigh:  Endlessly mysterious.

RW:  There are conditions in color that affect one…

Leigh:  …Our perception of color constantly expands and contracts.

RW:  You can say, “red” or “blue,” but for each word, there are entire worlds of almost infinite variations. You could have a blue, but you could have another blue that’s just something else!

Leigh:  I feel that all of the time. There’s also the excitement of how color moves in space, on a canvas. I’m really interested in manipulation of space through color, through value. How can I pull this dark area forward? Make this area stay flat next to that big gushy one with all the texture? Sometimes it feels like I’m working with moist clay—physically pushing one area back and pulling another one up. It’s very tactile, almost a sculptural thing for me. And it changes so much. A dot can be right in your face, or it can be fifty miles back, depending on the relationships in the painting. If you can use visual language sensitively and well and then go beyond it—that’s a very rich thing to do with your life.

RW:  There are so many people out there calling themselves artists, who have hopes and ambitions and who will never get anywhere in “the art world.” So are there other ways for artists to keep this art process alive, their own relationship with it, without that imprimatur?

Leigh:  I work with people like that all of the time. These are adults who, most of them, have successful professional lives in other areas, but they’re completely serious about painting. In my workshops and critiques they re-validate themselves and others in the group—not in any competitive sense—because they’re concerned with making art, not “making it” in the art world. Some of them have galleries, but it’s not emphasized. They’ve gotten beyond measuring themselves as artists by the market, and that’s a big thing

RW:  Very big!

Leigh:   And that’s why a large percentage of their paintings are real. It’s getting your head adjusted. Why are you painting? What does the market mean in the large scheme of things? It can be fine as far as it goes, unless it infects you and you lose your reason for painting in the first place—which can happen.

RW:  Now you said something in your gallery talk about “artists are people keeping the world alive.”

Leigh:  I believe that. Actively using the creative parts of ourselves in any of the arts affects our value structures, our attitudes towards living a life of integrity. Even with all our tics and wrong choices we’re still, in a sense, spots of purity in the world and we affect people and situations around us. I can’t imagine a genuine artist dropping a bomb anywhere.

RW:  So those who are able to engage in this authentic search in art sometimes find these moments of meaning; and those moments of meaning, they’re like moments of health in the world.

Leigh:  That’s the right way to say it.

RW:  If you have a real moment of meaning, you don’t have to get extra thousands of dollars or twist someone’s arm or do these other things which one often is persuaded are necessary in order to feel good about oneself.

Leigh:  You can see through those things. They don’t have power over you anymore.

RW:  It’s hard to get to a moment of that kind of meaning, wouldn’t you agree?

Leigh:  Yes, because those attitudes aren’t recognized or validated by our culture nor addressed by our faulty educational system.

RW:  You travel a lot and meet people. What do you find in different cultures about this relationship to art making?

Leigh:  Mexico, especially in the Bahio where I live, the tradition of making things is very much alive though it’s not spoken of as Art. Embroidery, wrought iron, weaving, painting, making books and puppets and fireworks, ceramics, stone carving, furniture, tin work—a large percentage of people make things with their hands every day. In the markets, papayas, mangos, watermelons are carved into interesting shapes by the vendors, and cheeses, vegetables, toys, plastic buckets etc. are always inventively arranged. It’s part of everyday life. For Brazilians, music, dance and the many arts that go into Carnival are a focus for art making. Both countries, of course, also have rich histories in architecture and the “fine arts” and have excellent contemporary artists. Brazil, particularly. 
     These days, when I teach in any country or culture, the work is usually with adults who are on some inarticulate level searching for something beyond words that has meaning in their lives. Experienced artists want help from an outside person in deepening their work.

RW:  How do you find these people?

Leigh:  They find me now. It’s very nice. [laughs] I get wonderful invitations from all over the world. I’m in that enviable situation where art is part of the lives of most everyone I know.

RW:  You must feel very fortunate.

Leigh:  I do, all of the time.

RW:  Somehow I got this new thought about scale in relation to art. Like for some new building projects there’s a requirement that two percent of the budget be allocated for art. That would be a 2% art scale, sort of like near beer. But I just interviewed the Berkeley artist and gardener Marcia Donahue at the Berkeley Art Center, and if you go to Marcia’s house and garden you’ll have the experience of the other end of that art scale, pretty much a 100% ratio.

Leigh:  How terrific.

RW:  So I was wondering about what would be good? What’s better? Marcia says that sometimes she literally has to give people a wet towel. That 100% ratio is pretty hard for some people, newcomers. But mostly everyone goes away from Marcia’s garden just inspired. They feel, “Now I have permission.”

Leigh:  Yes! Permission. That’s a good word. That’s the way I teach. I remove the fear, and the permission comes.

RW:  You told a story of how at about the age of seven you knew you were going to be an artist. And you had this friend. Would you tell that story again?

Leigh:  You know how you have small snapshots in your mind that you remember all your life? This is one of my early ones. I was sitting on the steps in grandmother’s house with my cousin Virginia. I still see the sunlight on the wooden floor. We were talking about what we’d do when we grew up. I said I was going to be an artist and she said she’d be a nurse to the lepers in Africa. The year I had my first solo museum show I discovered she had just opened a hospital for lepers in the Belgian Congo.

RW:  This is quite interesting, this knowing. I hear this same story now and again.

Leigh:  I can’t explain it. As a child I was always drawing. I can remember when my girlfriends were playing paper dolls, I was the dress designer with an imaginary studio on the floor in the corner of the room. Sitting through church services I drew the choir as singing rabbits. Drawing, drawing. My parents weren’t artists, but they were always supportive and interested.

RW:  You taught for years, I think you mentioned at San Jose State.

Leigh:  San Jose State, San Francisco State, University of California, Berkeley extension and John F. Kennedy University. And I’ve done a lot of teaching in museums. I was a single parent much of my life and supported myself and children with jobs always involved in art, much of it teaching which, fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed.

RW:  How did you meet Anne Brodzky?

Leigh:  I set up the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California and was its first director. Carl Djerassi gave me a credit card and said “Make me an artists’ colony.” I was there for three years and look on it now as my “Djerassi Piece.” During that period I was able to choose the visiting artists and invited Anne to come. She had been editor of artscanada magazine for sixteen years.

RW:  I’m very impressed with what she’s doing at Meridian Gallery.

Leigh:  That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed here with the gallery for so long. I really like the idea of their intern program. Some of these young people will be qualified for careers in the art world eventually, but all of them are getting a good education in the arts here and they’ll be different human beings.

RW:  How long have you been living in Mexico now?

Leigh:  I moved there permanently three years ago. I had a loft in inner-city San Francisco for twenty years, overlooking a traffic intersection in the Mission. Now I live in a quiet neighborhood with a fountain and a walled garden full of bougainvillea in a town where there’s no continual feeling of the possibility of violence, which I think we have in most cities in our country. It’s not there. Then there’s not the constant commercialness you’re hit with here: buy, buy, buy. We don’t realize how much we’re being assaulted in our culture. In Mexico there’s more time, more beauty and I find more space inside myself to work and to enjoy the richness of everyday life. We have a lot to learn from the Mexicans.

RW:  I just remembered the wonderful little port-folio of drawings you did of the Goddess figures, so-called. It reminds me how there are carvings and sculptures and paintings, which over the centuries and even millennia still speak to us. These must have been an example of that.

Leigh:  I had a Fulbright in the mid 80s and spent it drawing in museums in the Mediterranean. Tiny stone and ceramic figures of women in obscure regional museums were always labeled Goddesses or Fertility figures, as if women themselves didn’t exist in those days. But the carvings themselves still speak through the years; you are right.
     I think of myself, and other artists, as the current growing edge of a 30,000-year old body of people who made those carvings, the drawings in the caves, the Benin bronzes, Pompeii murals, sumi paintings, Rembrandt, Picasso, Grandma Moses. The artists before us were helping to keep the world alive, as working artists are today. We just happen to be occupying the universe at this moment. It’s humbling. It gives me courage and pleasure, and some perspective.

Leigh passed away in March of 2013 in Mexico.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.                


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