Which is better: to do many things well, or do one thing extraordinarily? You may have engaged in debates about this with your family, friends, and colleagues at some point. It is almost as if we must choose to be one or the other.
But what if we can do both? What if we can have a wide range of interests and knowledge, and become extraordinary at each and every one of them?
Leigh Brooklyn is an artist who is both a jack of all trades and a master at all of them. Her infinite curiosity and creative backbone has led her to master various artistic avenues like photography, medical illustration, welding, sculpture, and crosshatching. All of these unique skills, paired with her deep concern and understanding of the human condition make her work unlike anything you have seen before.
I made my way over to her Ohio-based studio, where I got to see some of her expertise firsthand. I learned more about how her life experiences continue to shape her perspective, and all of the exciting galleries and shows that she has on deck for 2022.
What are some parallels between your street photography and portraits?
At the start of my earlier series titled, Voices of Humanity, I was living in California.
I had just moved there and was looking for inspiration. A mentor told me to go to downtown L.A. and I did. I brought my camera and started photographing the streets and alleyways, the people and the energy.
I would go through places like Skid Row, Hollywood, and Venice Beach. Sometimes candidly shooting and other times approaching individuals to ask if I could take their photos. When they agreed to have their photo taken it would become this impromptu photoshoot on the side of the street and as I took their pictures I’d talk to them.
I met so many people from different walks of life. There were immigrants, homeless, trans, single moms, aspiring musicians, young and old - every walk of life. It was this beautiful random thing. We go through so much of life not talking to the person next to us and for me, the connection to humanity was so fulfilling.
After I’d get home, I would go through all my images and pull out the ones that really spoke to me and I’d paint them. I find it interesting that not all photos make a great painting reference. Sometimes the photo just needed to stay a photo and sometimes a photo that could be overlooked could have a whole new life as a painting.
“We go through so much of life not talking to the person next to us and for me, the connection to humanity was so fulfilling.”
Tell me about the driving forces behind your pursuit of a degree in biomedical illustration.
I had spent my first year of college at an art school going through their foundation program, I felt like I wasn't learning enough for the price so I withdrew.
At that point I wasn't sure what I was going to do, so I went to a community college for a short period working on my associates in entrepreneurship. While there, I saw on the news that a young girl's body was identified through a forensic facial reconstruction from her skull. I thought that sounded so interesting, and how nice it was to have that kind of closure for the family. I wanted to look more into it. I thought it would be nice to use my skills for good.
So one day at school a lawyer came in to talk to my English class and afterwards I asked him if he knew who did the forensic facial reconstructions. He mentioned a book by Karen T. Taylor called Forensic Art and Illustration. She was the lady that did the art you see on the show, America’s Most Wanted. So I went to the bookstore and ordered the book. Read the whole thing - it was fascinating. In it they mentioned that most artists who do forensic art were medical illustrators.
I then looked up which schools offered this for undergrad and came across two. One was RIT and one was CIA - the Cleveland Institute of Art. I thought it was fate and then called the school to set up a time for a visit. The next year I enrolled directly into the Biomedical Illustration department.
It was extremely challenging - I think I only slept three days a week the whole way through the major but I learned a lot. And during my time there they created a new class that was on facial reconstructions and they used the same exact book that I had read.
Talk about the stories that have unfolded during your travels, what made you switch back to figurative drawing and oil painting?
In my last relationship I moved a lot. Every 6-12 months I’d be in another place and often in another city or state. I think I moved about 18 times in the last ten years. It's hard to keep a job when you move that often. My art supplies would be boxed up for about 4-9 months every year. It was hard to work period.
Initially I tried doing medical illustration on the computer remotely but not every city gives the general public access to medical libraries for research. That was something that Cleveland had that I didn’t find anywhere else that I lived.
I decided to go back to fine art because I needed a creative outlet. I felt like I was missing a part of myself so I made it work with what I had. Even if my stuff was boxed up I could have a camera for street photography and I could get a canvas and paint from a reference on my computer. I have been in Ohio for a little while now, so I feel like I’m finally able to get some traction going.
Can you take me through your creative process with portraits?
I work from photos for my main pieces, although I enjoy drawing from life it's not always feasible.
I will set up photoshoots with my models. I direct them and often take candid shots. Everyone can take a good photo, it's just about moving to find the right angle and light.
I will then go through all of my images - pulling out the best ones. I will photoshop the images to get rid of distortions, change up the backgrounds, and combine multiple pictures into one. Sometimes I also already have a concept in mind and need a model as a sort of actress to fill in the roles.
From this stage it gets pretty academic and traditional. I will draw the image out and transfer it to the canvas. Then I do an underpainting and start building up the color on top in countless layers. I will often take pictures of my painting midway through and put it back into photoshop to try out different colors or ideas along the way.
The preparatory drawings that I would do have also taken on their own life. What started as a rough crosshatching to build up values as a reference has since turned into an elaborate and technically precise drawing that is really a work of art on its own. I’ve recently gotten more into crosshatch drawing and plan to do some large scale mixed media projects with that.
You have an original print titled, “Love Bomb” Grenade. Talk more about the term “Love Bombing.”
Love bombing is a manipulation tactic that abusers use.
It's especially common with narcissistic abuse. It’s when the abuser overwhelms their victim with grandiose displays of affection. This can include expensive gifts, trips, lots of love letters, and endless flattery and compliments. They are like, “Prince Charming” and you’re in this fairy tale romance. Then they start to devalue you and finally discard you.
It can become a cycle of abuse where they may attempt to love bomb you again and continue on with more devaluation and another discard. Usually the following love bombs are not as intense as the initial one.
It’s similar to a slot machine. You sit down to play and instantly win some money, maybe a substantial amount. It feels great and you keep playing because you think this machine is a good one. As you play, your money continues to go down.
Along the way there’s smaller wins and they feel great. They’re flashing and exciting and they distract you from the fact that you’re slowly losing. Eventually, if you play long enough, you’ll lose everything. Similar to a drug, it's addicting and it's toxic. It's psychological warfare. The Dirty John series really shows what this can be like.
What are some regular sources of inspiration for you?
Literally everywhere. I can find something inspiring in every work of art; sometimes the colors, the textures, and the concepts.
Then there’s movies, music, family, poetry, books, and architecture.
I think a lot of stuff that I see, think, or feel ends up in my subconscious and later comes out in my art.
How did you form your “Women’s Militia” series? What have you learned from your relationships with women from powerfully diverse backgrounds?
When I left an abusive relationship a few years ago I needed to surround myself with other strong women.
There was a sense of unity and sisterhood with everyone I met and I needed that so badly. I realized how many women went through abuse and never said a word.
Today, I constantly have women approach me and whisper to me that they too went through something similar. I think my openness has helped other women not feel so alone or so ashamed for what they went through.
And not everyone that I paint has faced domestic abuse, but they have all fought their own battles. Some have had their families turn on them for coming out, some are fighting cancer, some were homeless or incarcerated.
I think most of us put on a poker face most of the time - it helps us get through the day but it can also be very isolating so it's good to feel like you have others behind you fighting for you and supporting you.
Are you working on any new series into the new year?
I’m continuing with the Women’s Militia Series.
I have a solo show at the end of 2022 at Kaiser Gallery in Cleveland and I have several other shows I’m lining up around the country with different galleries for next year.
I plan to show during Art Basel in Miami next December and I’m stoked to see how that’ll impact my 2023. A lot of great things happened in 2021 that I couldn't have dreamed of so I'm really excited to see what opportunities I'll be blessed with this coming year.
What parts of your personal history do you see as foundational elements of who you are today?
My mom was a major influence in me becoming an artist.
She used to decorate cakes a lot and is always doing creative artsy things. She was my first exposure to anything artistic. Although we never really went to art museums or galleries while I was growing up my parents supported me wanting to be an artist.
All I did was draw as a kid. My high school art teacher really showed me opportunities and possibilities as an artist. He came to all of my award ceremonies and is like extended family still today. I don't know that I would’ve gone to art school if it wasn't for him.
The biomedical art program that I went through in college showed me how hard I could really push myself - like how badly do I want it. At one point I had stayed up for a week straight working with no naps or anything. And at that point it becomes more mental than physical. Before that I didn't know I had that kind of tenacity.
My sculpture mentor today has opened my eyes to that whole world. And the abuse I went through and survived showed me how strong of a person I am. It also brought me out of the clouds and taught me what I should look out for.
I traveled a lot in my last relationship and gained a lot of worldly knowledge that I wouldn't have otherwise. I also picked up on sales tactics which helps me in approaching galleries, museums, and collectors.
In the last few years, what has sparked your interest and become a new pursuit or hobby?
This last year I was in a full welding program. I got into it for sculpture.
I learned stick, MIG, TIG, flux-core, and plasma cutting. I earned my lifetime certification in 3G MIG. I'm really excited to use it in my sculptural work when I get a studio/shop.
I got more into sculpture this last year as well and started making my own molds and casts - it’s been a lot of trial and error.
I also taught myself the ukulele this last year. I taught myself some piano before. Music is a great creative outlet for me. I feel like because I’m pursuing visual art there can be more pressure with that and with deadlines it can be stressful but there’s no expectations with music for me.
If you could go back and tell teenage you one piece of advice, what would it be?
Listen more to yourself and trust your intuition, you know what you have to do.
Read more at Mills Rd.