By NOAH BECKER March, 2019
A humanist and social realist painter, Leah Bongiorno creates works that bring the human element back to painting. Her paintings make you think about the connection between people complex issues of human interaction. Her beautifully painted surfaces and subdued pallette relax the eye and allow one to spend time really looking. It's refreshing to see a painter working in this way, getting their message across without the flash of most contemporary figurative work. So much figurative painting these days is meant to shock the eye with clashing pop art color and vibrating patterning. Her focus is not shock but rather communication through solid image making. I had a chance to talk to Bongiorno about the motivations behind her works.
Noah Becker: Who is Leigh Bongiorno? What separates you from the thousands of emerging artists in the World?
Leigh Bongiorno: I want to change the world. I don’t want to create decorative paintings that someone buys because it'll look great in their home. I want to inspire future generations to be the best they can be in all aspects of their life.
I have tenacity and grit unlike anyone else I know personally. I’ll go weeks sleeping only 2-4 hours a night working practically non-stop. There comes a point when your mind has to push your body past what you thought was your limit and I will continue to do so until I achieve everything that I want in life. I will come back after every rejection and stand tall after every fall. I put in the work, and will continue to do so to until I’m recognized.
NB: Why did you choose to be an artist?
LB: I don’t feel like I chose to be an artist, it chose me. It’s what I’ve always done since birth. As a child I didn’t think being an artist was an occupation.
My high school art teacher entered an early work into a competition without me knowing and I ended up receiving a national award. The recognition gave me the validation I needed to trust in my gift. I started expressing myself through my work drawing surrealist self-portraits. No longer the nice quiet girl, I had a purpose.
NB: You are a draftsman with real skill. Did you attend an art school or study with someone?
LB: I taught myself to draw by reading books from the library. I had about 50-100 art books I read religiously, I still have most of the ones I purchased back than. They were everything from how-to books, books on anatomy, art history books, biographies on my favorite artists, and even books on the business of art. I was fortunate to have a small art museum near home that I visited once a week to study the old masters up close looking at the brush strokes, subject matter and color. I started attending life-drawing classes in the evening once a week to practice. There was no teacher only a small group of adults, I remember being the youngest one in room.
My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college so I worked really hard building my portfolio for a scholarship. I received a scholarship to the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD). My scholarship to CCAD wasn’t enough and I ended up withdrawing due to finances. In addition I didn’t feel art professors were teaching me anything. If I felt they were teaching me something then maybe it would’ve been worth going into debt for but I became bored and unmotivated for the first time in years.
I transferred to the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) and went into college with my skills very well developed. After graduation I decided to get back into painting after an 8 year hiatus. I taught myself new techniques by trial and error and by researching artists I liked. I would look up pictures and videos of them in their studios and look at what was happening in the background. I would listen to their interviews and artist talks - I studied them. I would have loved to have visited Italy or New York and studied with an important and or influential artist but that never happened. I taught myself painting from hard work, consistent practice, reading books, and watching Youtube videos. If art schools actually taught people to paint very well academically than everyone in the class would be able to do it, and that’s not the case. Art schools are good for networking and picking up a few tricks here and there based on your major.
NB: Do you consider yourself an artist or a painter?
LB: I consider myself an artist. The medium is not what’s important. It’s the feeling. I express myself through my work. It’s a part of me. It’s my soul. There’s never a time I’m not thinking about it. Whether I’m painting or drawing or researching artists and art history, it’s a constant. I love it. I get depressed when I’m not able to express myself. I’m expressing my emotions, my joys and my fears. I’m expressing my subject’s emotions. If I can’t feel the emotion in a piece then I abandon it.
I genuinely “feel” what I’m painting. I know my subjects personally. I feel for them and I genuinely care about them. I often find myself looking at people when I’m out in public, wondering what their story is or what their day was like. I’m using my skill set to change the way people see society and the world. I want the viewer see the world from a different perspective. Through the art I’m able to bring up really tough subjects that maybe people don’t want to talk about and or acknowledge. I want people to understand and have empathy for others. A majority of artists want to knock off Andy Warhol and create a parody of what has already been done. They're painting Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe and they sell because people will buy them because they like Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe. Their art speaks nothing of the times, it lacks creativity and it’s hollow. Those people are not artists.
NB: How do you choose your subjects? Do you source your subject matter through photographs? What process of elimination do you choose the images that you deem artistic? Do you know the individuals in your paintings?
LB: Sometimes I’ll have an idea in mind for a piece and I’ll be on the look-out for a certain type of person. I may think of someone I know, like a friend from high school, or a person from the gym and ask them to model. Other times I might see somebody who I think looks interesting and ask them if I can take their picture - thus far I haven’t painted anyone who I haven’t talked to or known on some level. Sometimes the photos I take of people are impromptu on the side of the street when I’m out and about doing street photography and other times I set up a planned photo shoot. Sometimes I try to get people to pose a certain way but they may look uncomfortable or awkward and it often times ends up being those candid in between shots that come out best. I could take 300 photos of a person and then I go through them combining different parts together into a pose that I like. Sometimes during a photo shoot as I’m taking the picture, I know it’s good - I can feel it. It speaks to me.
NB: Your focus on the Homeless, LGBT community and strong independent women are necessary especially in the Trump era. What inspires you and or reason you choose underrepresented groups to give a voice?
LB: While the Trump era has caused an uprising and awareness for certain groups, the issues that people are talking about are nothing new. I created paintings of a drag queen back before the Trump era and will continue after Trump. I loved the creativity of the drag queens clothes, the bright colors, and the breaking of gender barriers. I’ve painted people with darker complexions since I was in high school. I loved the way colors reflected off darker skin. It’s beautiful, with the deep reds and blues. I love it. Growing up I had diverse groups of friends that I grew up with hearing their stories and it’s heartbreaking at times. Hearing friends “coming out” stories, to friends having bottles thrown at their heads for walking through the wrong neighborhood because of the color of skin infuriated me. It makes me want to fight and protect the people I care about.
NB: Are you gay, a minority or have you ever been homeless? Some might argue that you are exploiting the mentioned communities to make your work appear timely humane, and with great empathy.
LB: You don’t have to be gay to love someone who is gay. You don’t have to be a minority to love someone who is of a minority. And you don’t have to be homeless to love someone who is homeless. Male artists have been painting females for centuries and nobody cared. Why should my painting of a person of a different identity matter? Should a straight, white, male movie director only cast straight white, male, actors and only tell the stories of straight, white, men? What a horrible society that would be. If you’re good at something it should be your duty to use that skillset to help the world. Critics will criticize you no matter what you do. And not all critics are good critics. If I wasn’t doing something right then nobody would even notice me enough to criticize me. I have been painting people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ long before the “trump era”. I know my intentions are honest, true and worthy.
NB: What if any artists past and present do you consider important and relevant?
LB: I could give you a long list of artists that inspire me for different reasons, but you’re asking whose work is important and relevant. To me anytime an artist is using their work for the greater good or is making a statement about a large issue it’s important. They don’t have to be a famous artist yet to make work that is relevant. It doesn’t even need to be technically good to be relevant it’s about the idea. However when the artwork is done really well then you get more people’s attention and then the point you’re trying to make might get through to more people and possibly help promote the change you want to see. And if the artist is consistently making good work with a strong message then that’s when the real change can happen. When they’re not just a one hit wonder, people remember them and start to listen to them and respect them. A few of my favorites are Shirin Neshat, Nan Goldin, Goya and Diego Rivera to name a few.
NB: Do you think its ok that artists cross the cultural line if they are from a different ethnic and or religious background?
LB: I think that not only is it ok to cross cultural, ethnic and religious boundaries but that it should be done. If we only immerse ourselves in the cultural, ethnic, religious group that we belong to then our art could fall victim to our own echo chamber. And how can I impact the world if I’m only looking at a small percentage of it? Plus like I said earlier, what if white male movie directors only cast white males and only told the stories of white men?
NB: Do you think women artists are at a disadvantage because of their gender in seeking representation and recognition?
LB: Sadly I think women still face discrimination in the art world. With the Me Too movement there is some change happening but it’s slow. Back around 2015 I remember reading an article about the lack of female artists being exhibited at Art Basel in Miami. Out of the 200 or so top galleries in the world only 3 showed any females and only one showed more than one female. When one gallery was approached and asked about their lack of female representation they said that they didn’t want to show “that kind of art”. I could throw out countless statistics like the fact that about ¾ of all students in MFA programs are female, yet only 5% of the artwork in art museums are by female artists - (National Museum of Women in the Art 2018). Then there’s all the famous quotes from the Guerilla Girls. I could also talk about my own personal experiences, from being sexually harassed by an art teacher, to being told by galleries that I could get paid more if I slept with them, to only being asked to discuss my art over drinks back at the hotel room. Artwork by females are still viewed as “less than” and female artists still earn less than their male counter parts. I changed my name partly because of this. I use my middle-name as it is a gender-neutral Leigh. I no longer talk directly to galleries, I have a male represent me. It won’t matter once I get into the gallery whether I’m male or female, gay or straight. And once I’m “in” that’s when I can really make the change that I want to see. I’m such an advocate for women and minorities, and when I see them doing well I’m cheering them on even if their art isn’t my favorite. Many times people go really far in life just based on their personality or on them being a good person. Society wants to get behind good people, and will quickly turn their backs on those who have proven otherwise.
NB: What are your thoughts and or concerns for artists that are only in for fame and fortune?
LB: I will say every artists exhibiting is in it for some kind of fame and fortune otherwise it would be a hobby that they keep to themselves and work at only when they’re “in the mood”. There’s a kind of validation that every “true” professional artist is looking for; they’re wanting to be reassured that there’s a reason that they’re so passionate about creating that painting or writing that song, that there’s a reason for them to go endless nights without sleep, and why they keep coming back after countless rejections. Sometimes that reason is right in front of them and sometimes it may be much bigger. Real art can be felt in the soul. You don’t even have to be an artist to know when you see real artists. If someone is only creating art for fame and fortune they will not last the test of time. They’re empty. They’re knock-offs. Their art feels like it was made in a cheap factory and was put up for sale at the discount store. We as humans can feel the difference. The real artist radiates his soul into his work and the audience can feel it. They can be moved to tears by looking at real art. Real art becomes culture and people will go to war to protect that. My battle is just getting started. WM
Noah Becker shows his paintings internationally. A visual artist, saxophonist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine, Becker has also written freelance articles for many other major magazines. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has also written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010) viewable on Youtube.
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