Meet the Artist: An Interview With Leamon Green

Today, I’m talking to artist member Leamon Green. Leamon got his BFA in painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art and his MFA from the Taylor School of Art, Temple University. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Texas Southern University.

Let’s start by learning a little bit about your background.

Leamon Green with his print at a Rockin’ and Rollin’ Prints event.

I say I’m from the Army, because I’m an Army brat. I was born in Anniston, Alabama, but my dad was a career officer, serving for over 30 years. As a kid, we moved around between the Washington D. C. area and Germany. I went to high school in Landover, Maryland. Then I went off to college. At first, I went to a small liberal arts college in West Virginia, Concord College; they offered me a scholarship. After two years, I transferred to Cleveland Institute of Art, a five-year private art school, for their BFA program. I selected Painting as a major at that point.

When did you become interested in art?

I guess I became interested in art in high school. My art teacher got me into a contest and I won a summer scholarship to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. That summer I got to take classes at the Portrait Gallery and we could walk around behind the scenes. We got to learn how the exhibits happen, study the collection, as well as draw and paint. That was when the idea occurred to me, “Hmmm….maybe this is something I could do.”

Were your parents supportive?

When I was ready to graduate, my dad presented me with all the brochures for the different services, but I told him I wasn’t interested. He was fine with that. They were very supportive. They bought me supplies; my first easel and they let me go downtown to look at art.

As a very young person, whose work excited you?

I remember looking at Charles White because of those massive figures. I was aware of John Biggers as well. Then there was the whole experience of wandering through the National Gallery…well that was an inspirational summer. As a kid who didn’t really know about art, to then to walk into that building and see all these things. I know it showed in the work I began to do. My art teacher said, “You’re starting to use color! You’re thinking about composition.” It was a great experience.

At what point did you discover printmaking?

While attending the Cleveland Institute of Art, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a painting major or a drawing major. I chose painting because I thought I was weaker in that area. Along the way, I took an elective in printmaking. I really liked etching. I enjoyed drawing directly on the plate. I did intaglio in graduate school as well. I really didn’t do any woodcuts or silk screens until after school. Also, since I didn’t own any equipment. I wanted to include printmaking; I picked up on woodcuts and silk-screening. I didn’t begin doing lithography until a few years ago.

In graduate school he met his wife. (Artist Susan Wallace) After school he was painting houses and doing construction. He also taught community college part-time. Wallace wanted to return to Houston and got into the Glassell School Core Program and that brought Leamon here in 1990.

How did you come to TSU?

In Line, Lithograph (Image courtesy of Hooks-Epstein Gallery)

When I first got to Houston, I worked as a house painter for a few years and then I was hired at the Museum of Fine Arts. I was working at the MFAH preparing installations for exhibitions. I knew Alvia Wardlaw (Dr. Wardlaw is the director of the museum at TSU) and she knew of an opening and urged me to apply. Fletcher Mackey had left and the timing was just right for me to step into the job. I was hired as the painting teacher. I was beginning to show in Houston and people were beginning to see my work. When I moved here I really wanted to be able to show work. First, I wanted to build a portfolio. I wanted a job where I could come home and still have studio time every day.

At the PrintMatters website, Leamon’s artist statement says, “The content is derived from reflecting on similarities and differences in cultures.” Can you expand on that statement?

I think the idea of totally separate cultural ethnicities is going away, especially in the United States. It’s such a hodge-podge. Still, you have markers. For example, you have African-American things and things that are more universal. When I was in college, I found the curriculum was very biased toward the Western canon, everything from Europe up to the United States and very little of other cultures. There were only 3 or 4 black students out of a class of maybe 65. I’m very aware of my African-American artistic side and my Western European Americanized side in terms of my artistic education. Nowadays, you have to think African and American. We aren’t struggling to establish an identity as we had been in the past; there’s been some progress.

Do you feel compelled to make art that addresses current issues?

I don’t see my work as political. If anything it’s more biographical. Of course politics affect me, but I’m not trying to be that way. I do the work I feel compelled to do.

I noticed that in your show at the O’Kane Gallery you had Greek and Roman classical images incorporated into your pieces. Talk about that a bit.

That’s the expression of Westernized Art History. When I think European, I think of the Classical Age, like columns and capitals. If I had to associate a symbol with Western Art, that would be it. My compositions have that symbol and then an African symbol somewhere else. If anything, it creates contrast in the work.

 

In 2007 Leamon won a Fulbright Fellowship. He and the family packed up and moved to Tanzania for a year where he studied and taught at the University of Dar es Salam.

TSU has a study-abroad program in Tanzania. The founder of the program was in the history department and he was looking to expand into other departments. I applied. From 2003 until 2007, I was associated with this program. While I was in Tanzania, the Tanzanian faculty said I should apply for the Fulbright. I applied for the research/teaching grant. I ended up doing about 90% teaching, but my research was supposed to be on contemporary African artists in Tanzania. There are lots of fantastic craftsman and lots of traditional art, but the fine art community is very small and under-recognized. I did learn quite a bit about the traditional art in Tanzania. That was rewarding, but I was teaching a full load. The teaching, in a way, was better than teaching here. The students really wanted to learn. They were amazed that I had a sketchbook. They were hungry to know about materials and computers and just all kinds of things.

How did this experience change your work?

It made me aware that we really are not all that different. I thought about the visions we have about what other cultures are like. During my time visiting there, I had a more stereotypical view. I thought people there were more envious of Americans. Actually, they’re probably more envious of the money than the Americans. Living there, you realize these are people just living and working like anyone else. It made me really aware that for centuries there was this blend of cultures from all over the world. There’s a wonderful mixture of African and Arab cultures

When you look at your work now, what do you see that marks that time in Tanzania?

Certainly I see it in the way I use pattern. It doesn’t show up so much in the prints. I see African patterns. I’m a little more aware of trying to merge the traditional African with the contemporary. Africa can be a very westernized place. It’s not that isolated from the rest of the world. I still have ideas I want to incorporate in my work. When I go back, I take a ton of pictures.

Who in the contemporary scene do you look to for inspiration?

I look at everybody. There are people like Kerry James Marshall and Whitfield Lovell. I look at a lot of online art magazines. I’m very curious about international contemporary art. Of course I still look to the European masters, like Raphael, Rubens, Velazquez, or Manet.

As a teacher at TSU, do you feel any added responsibility toward your students?

I don’t think of myself as an African-American first. I’m an artist who is African American. My students all realize it’s a tough field but they want to stick with it. They know they really have to prove themselves. I think any artist has to do that. If anything, they don’t realize how difficult it is to be truly successful. I probably thought the same thing when I was in school. I don’t think they realize how hard it is to really stick with it. The school environment is really wonderful and it gives you everything. But it’s a lie. At Tyler, there was a sign on the door. On the outside it said, “Tyler School of Art”. On the inside it said, “The Real World”. I always thought it was a great sign.

The Weight of the World, Woodcut (Image Courtesy of the Hooks-Epstein Gallery)

What is the role of artists in times of conflict?

I think if the artists are responsible to themselves in the manner of the images they are creating and in the materials, it can’t help but be protest. It doesn’t have to be overt; it has to be genuine. That’s just the nature of art. That’s one thing you can say about the Western canon. There was always a lot of politics in there. At the time that much of the art was made, it wasn’t deemed “good”. We have a long history of resistance in art.

 

 

 

 

In what direction do you see your work going in the future?

I’d like to have more time to make art. I have some thematic ideas and some content ideas, but I never spell it out. I don’t work that way. There are always plenty of ideas and I write them down. I’d like to do more drawing. About a year ago, Robert Pruitt was here in town. He had the idea of doing life drawing with black models. So we would meet over at Project Row House and draw. That was really great and I miss that. I’d like to do that again on a more regular basis.

Thanks for talking to us Leamon. You can see Leamon’s work at the Hooks-Epstein Gallery during PrintHouston. Check our Facebook page for dates and times.

 

Chris Fitzgerald
PrintMatters artist member Chris Fitzgerald lives and blogs in Houston, Texas.