Spotlight on Leila Holtsman
By Katlin Chadwick on Jul 11, 2011
It seems right we should start with the desert. The barren landscape is blurred by a subtle softness. Its sand feels soft to the touch. Colors are muted, hazy. And the atmosphere feels dreamlike.
But if you become at all acquainted with the desert, you’ll also find it’s one of the hardest things known. Leila Holtsman describes this contrast with fervor.
The landscape is rock solid underneath, and it hides things. Only when it gets a major drenching—every 5-10 years—can you see the truth revealed. Flowers bloom and life emerges from places most unlikely. And you can sense that it had been hiding there the whole time.
Leila is a mixed-material artist who creates sculpture and site murals. She transfers and screen-prints found images and objects onto steel panels. Her solo show at Artisphere (www.artisphere.com), The Frieze Project (http://www.artisphere.com/calendar/event-details/Visual-Arts/Frieze-Project-Leila-Holtsman.aspx), is up now through August 6th.
During her childhood, Leila spent ten years in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It was here where she became utterly in love with the desert. She identifies this passion as her wellspring. That’s not to say her ideas come from here only, but it might be fair to say, in some way, most do.
Only recently has she begun to verbalize this inspiration.
“I don’t know completely what it means. It’s so infinite; and that’s why it’s a wellspring. Just when I think I’ve tapped it, I discover I’ve only uncovered one capillary.” There are so many ways, figuratively and physically, to explore softness versus hardness. Contrast not only makes for interesting explorations in material, contrast is also reflected in Leila’s journey into an artist.
Leila’s father was a linguist, so her family moved often when she was young. She’s always had an interest in different cultures, histories, languages, and landscapes. Art was included in this, of course—but in the larger context of a culture.
After receiving her MBA, she climbed the corporate ladder to become a successful businesswoman in the finance world. She never knew she needed art until she took a pottery class at the Torpedo Factory (www.torpedofactory.org). It was there she discovered she needed that physicality art could provide—sculpture specifically. She liked the way her hands moved over clay and the asymmetry they could create.
After much nudging from friends, she finally, though still warily, made the shift from the corporate world to full-time artist.
Her everyday life shifted from the overly analytical to the creative and the physical.
“Making a work seems to strip life down to its essence. It simplifies it into something pure, and there is nothing else in that moment.” This comes only with hours upon days of focus and being surrounded by art.
“Simplicity, naivety, and spontaneity come out of this intense focus and not thinking that hard,” she says.
There’s thinking, and then there’s thinking. She’s not talking about analytical, left-brain thinking, but the act of doing art every day and blocking out everything else.
“If you do, all the crud (read voices) comes out, you can acknowledge them, and then it’s easier for the good stuff to eventually pour out,” she says. Stuff just gets solved.
Shutting off that analytical side can be tough. It’s why writers get writer’s block. For Leila, it’s hard but intensely worth it.
“I’m not a multi-tasker, and sometimes this overly technological world is challenging for me.” She loves to be able to go into her studio with one, sole focus. It’s a big reason she makes art.
Another big reason is to communicate.
Instead of engaging and persuading people to do things based on what she finds statistically (what she was used to in the corporate world), nowadays, she works with others to place her art in their homes (http://www.leilaholtsman.com/commission.html). She loves the feedback and the give-and-take in the process.
Art is a communicative tool. And it doesn’t have to be pleasant and pretty and nice—just effective. So what does “effective” mean?
“Since my work is organic, ‘effective’ can mean a broad range of things. It can mean the viewer sees the shapes and colors as representative of my inspiration. Or it could mean they just see the color as an oversimplified emotion. Or it can mean something in between.”
Her goal is to have her work communicate with others. If she’s there with her viewer, she often feels the need to use words to help—she has a linguist background after all. She likes words too much to not use them to help communicate.
“My work is part private, part public,” she says. “I don’t publicize everything, but it’s important to me to share a lot because I want people in it.”
She’s also not wedded to viewers seeing what she originally saw. She’s open to interpretation. Some of her work is physically interactive for that reason. In her piece entitled “Bending,” for example, abstracted clay spheres are magnetized and moveable atop a steel surface.
“On some level, you must disassociate from your art. It’s hard, but it stops being your baby. And the ultimately successful communication if someone buys it,” she says.
Another important reason art keeps her engaged is the act of continually learning more about her materials.
Her main materials are steel, clay, and printed images. And she consistently wants to get to know them better.
“If I don’t keep learning something new about the material each time, I die.” For example, she loves frescoes. With her most recent endeavor, “The Frieze Project,” she was inspired by the softness of frescoes and, therefore, wanted to figure out how to make steel seem soft. She discovered she didn’t have to use the same plasterized lime as in traditional frescoes, but could layer gesso instead. She filled the nooks and crannies of the steel, making it seem deceptively soft but still reading as steel.
“The Frieze Project” subject matter required this softness and ghostliness. The screen-printing she’d done in the past produced a clean, precise, vivid result that wouldn’t have worked. So she used a solvent transfer, usually done on paper, on steel instead. This translated into something not literal or verbal, but dream-like and intuitive.
Through her materials, Leila communicates. In the past, she worked a lot with both the sensitivity and aggression that comes with steel. This reached a small audience, which was satisfying, but she wanted a broader reach.
“I found people respond very strongly to figures and narrative—as do I.” And this brings us to about eight months ago, when Leila first began “The Frieze Project.”
A frieze usually tells a story or relays a journey. In this piece, there are layers upon layers of this theme of journey.
As a child, Leila moved every two to three years to cultures strange to her, an uprooting that has inevitably impacted her. The theme of home resonates in much of her art, and in this piece especially.
Where is home? What does it mean to wander from place to place?
In a way, this frieze narrates a journey of the journey itself. It’s a modern-day take on the Odyssey sprinkled with pop culture characters from today. There are many wanderers, a main one being Leila.
And the journey in actually creating the frieze is interesting in itself…
It seems right we should end with the desert.
The most overt layer of journey in the frieze is inspired by the journey of the Temple of Dendur from Egypt to its current home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Leila grew up around ruins, and she’s always been both puzzled and emotionally moved by them.
When she first saw the temple in the museum, her immediate reaction was anger. Anger that someone would pull this great temple from its Egyptian context, stripping it of its meaning. Anger that turned into inspiration.
Within a few weeks after starting “The Frieze Project,” however, she learned that this inspiration was flawed.
She learned that the temple’s being here was actually a calculated move by Egypt to save its tradition. In the early 60s, the Aswan Dam was created to control the Nile and fertilize surrounding land to support millions more people. With this additional flooding, temples would be destroyed. Egypt couldn’t save them all, but saved a few by moving them back from the flood area—moves that had huge monetary costs. The U.S. was one of the countries that provided funds, and Egypt repaid them with a temple.
The Egyptian government gave the Temple of Dendur to the U.S. as a fair exchange for money and expert archaeological assistance. But I was in love with my idea that it had been unfairly gained and was reluctant to abandon it for a couple more months.
“I’ve never experienced that amount failure in that concentrated amount of time,” she recalls.
Three months were spent in reflection on how she should proceed. She had a choice to make. She wanted her piece to have kernels of truth that she would embellish, so she could either follow her anger to its original source. Or adapt.
Perhaps it’s because of her variable upbringing, or her big career shift, or even her everyday swapping between left-brain and right. Perhaps because of one of these things or all of them combined, she reworked the frieze as something that would be true to her.
“I’m nothing,” she says, “if not adaptable.”
The Frieze Project: Now through August 6, Artisphere, Mezz Gallery, Free
Artist Talk: Critiques and Collaborative Art Studio Environments; Tuesday, July 19, 7p.m., Artisphere,Bijou Theater