I’m an artist, designer, and art fabricator from Montreal living in Los Angeles. I have a day job as an art fabricator, but at night and on weekends I work on my own stuff in a small studio in Chinatown that I share with my wife Sarah Mackenzie-Smith. We share our home with a horrible little bastard of a cat named Boots.
These days I’m working on a couple of projects simultaneously. One is an over-arching series of sculptures, leather works and design objects called “The Shop” and the other is my leather-working design practice. There’s a pretty messy line between the two of them, but I guess the difference lies in that old art school condition of “function”. Some of it is weird shit to put in your house, and some of it is weird shit to hold up your pants. Anyway “The Shop” is based around my time as an art fabricator, which has been my day job since I finished art school about 15 years ago (yikes!). Most of that time I was working at a foundry here in Los Angeles making bronze sculptures. There’s really no way to sum the experience up in an artists statement but in short, I was an illegal immigrant, working for a gun toting alcoholic, and made so little money I was often homeless. Our neighbors were gang members, who had their shop (and half of ours) blown up by a fire bomb. In addition to world famous artists coming through the doors, we had cops, junkies, gangsters, bounty hunters, scammers of every stripe, a Hindu mystic who guessed my weight to the pound, AND a giant monitor lizard which had escaped from a local drug lord. After about 10 years of this I said, wait a second there’s some good experiences to mine here! So now I’m making a body of work about it. Cathartic grotesques that speak to the insanity, the physical strain, the day dreaming, the craft, the beauty, the frustration, the depression, the blue humor, and the camaraderie with your fellow workers. Surreal, humorous sculptures that mimic the tools and gear used to make them, as much as the spirit of the place that forged them. I got into leather work sometime in there too! I guess in short I feel that art/design is a tiny little place of pure freedom where you can do things just right, whatever that means for you. So there you have it! Thanks for reading this, and please hit me up if you want any full-custom surreal/grotesque leatherwork!
Interview with Andrew Sexton
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Andrew. What were some of your early interests or artistic influences growing up in Montreal? Do any of these still find their way into your work?
I grew up in a small town near Montreal called Chateauguay. There were no museums or galleries or anything like that, so my initial artistic influences came from pop culture, mostly comics, cartoons, toys, and illustrations. I grew up in the eighties which was a heyday for gross-out illustrations which I absolutely loved! Things like Mad magazine, Garbage Pail Kids, Santa Cruz skate decks, Mad Balls, and video game graphics among many others. I was also really into science, paleontology in particular, so I devoured all the scientific illustrations in text books and national graphic magazines that I could get my hands on. As a teenager I became more interested in heavy metal, punk, and B-movies. Fangoria magazine really opened my eyes to the phenomenal craft of practical effects in horror movies. I still think about Rob Bottin’s creature effects work in John Carpenters version of “The Thing”. Without a doubt, you can very easily draw a line from any or all of those things into my work today!
How did your time at Yale impact the development of your work?
Yale was a trip to say the least! I felt a bit like some kinda Canadian yokel who accidentally wandered in through the ivory gates when no one was looking. Like a hillbilly version of Peter Sellers in “Being There”. After a while I realized almost everyone else felt the same way, and the ones that didn’t were a bit delusional. I had the time of my life to be honest, I was in my mid-twenties, full of myself, partying, pulling pranks, and making art every day. That said though Yale definitely lives up to its reputation for intense criticality. Luckily I grew up in a tough town so soul-crushing public humiliation and psychological abuse was old hat! I think if anything it sub-consciously instilled in me the idea that “the critique” is the only way to quantify value in art. It really took a long time to shake off the idea that art exists solely to keep a conversation going amongst a small group of aficionados for as long as possible.
What initially motivated your move to LA? In what ways has the art community changed there over the past 15 years?
Don’t get me wrong Canada is an incredible place, (and every time Trump opens his mouth it looks better and better) but there is a moment in every Canadian’s life when you’ve gotten up at 5:30 am to shovel your car out of the snow, it’s -30 degrees and still snowing, you’re sweating from the exertion even though it’s freezing, and juuuussst when you’re about done some asshole in a plow comes screaming down the street and dumps a mountain of ice right back into your driveway, you have to start all over again and you say to your self “Fuck this shit I’m moving to California!” So eventually I did.
LA just seemed cool, and I was always attracted to it as the home of a wilder, and weirder art scene. Hot rods, comics, and psychedelic hippy art over the cool intellectualism of New York. Unfortunately that was not the case at all when I first got here. I think because LA is second banana to New York and because of its wilder reputation, a lot of the people here really go out if their way to prove how conceptual and academic they are (this usually means they’re just boring though). Maybe its because at first I didn’t know the city well enough and I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, but I had to stop going to openings in Culver City (the fancy blue-chip gallery area of LA) altogether for a couple of years because I couldn’t stand being around all those rich douche bags and pseudo-intellectual snobs. Luckily I do think that’s changing though. There has been an explosion of artist run spaces in the past couple of years. The other night my wife and I went artn’ and must have went to 5 galleries I’d never even heard of before and all the work was good! I actually got chocked up walking down the street with the realization that there are so many people here giving it their all, working day jobs to make art and run galleries out of pocket just to put something out in the world that’s worth a damn.
In addition to your art and design practices, you have a day job as an art fabricator. How did you get into this line of work?
Unfortunately there’s only so many actual paying jobs you can get with an art degree. I was into welding and metal working as a student so when I finished graduate school a friend put me in touch with a local fabrication shop called Versteeg Art Fabricators. The owner Peter Versteeg was a great boss and he let me use the shop after hours to work on my own projects. When I moved to LA I worked out a similar deal at a foundry run by the sculptor Kristan Marvell. He was really good to me as well, he not only let me use the shop and equipment after hours, but he gave me a little studio too. Being a fabricator is hard work (especially in the LA heat!!) but I learned a ton about art making, made some great friends and connections, and was able to make my own sculptures on the side so it’s worked out well. Plus now that I’ve been doing it for 15 years its nice to be able to use my knowledge and experience to help other artists realize their projects.
You primarily spend nights and weekends working in the Chinatown studio you share with your wife Sarah Mackenzie-Smith. Do your practices ever influence one another?
I think we definitely help and influence each other. At first it was just bouncing ideas off of one another, and helping each other with anything from needing an extra hand to getting an honest opinion on whatever we happen to be working on. Last year we got married and we treated the whole thing as a massive collaborative project. We designed our outfits, handmade a big Vegas-style marquee sign for the alter and collaborated on a drawing for our wedding invitation. After the madness of the wedding passed we both realized how much fun it was to work together and decided to do a collaborative show which we’re working on now. We’re also talking about curating some shows together in the near future so stay tuned!!
What are you working on right now? Can you tell us about your typical routine in the studio?
These days I’m working towards a show called “The Shop” about my experiences working at a foundry here in LA. It’ll be an overarching narrative portrait of my time there expressed through drawings, sculptures, and leather works. My studio routine is pretty simple. I go over after work, tidy up a bit, maybe read an article or mess around on social media to decompress and then start working. I usually listen to podcasts and work until I’m too hungry or tired to keep going, and then I head home.
What are your go-to tools or gear?
My “studio” is really just a jacked-up old office space above a chicken butcher, a bootleg T-shirt shop, and a questionable massage parlor. I can’t do any heavy welding or metal work in there so that pushed me to transition more into the leatherwork. So these days my main tools are a pencil, a knife, a little-ass hammer, and a bevel foot chisler. Oh, and my phone for podcasts as I tappity-tap myself down the ol’ carpal tunnel.
Over the years you’ve used a wide range of materials to create an exuberant aesthetic - from colored pencil and watercolor drawings to mixed media assemblages to bronze sculptures. Would you describe yourself as a maximalist?
I don’t know if I’d call myself a maximalist, I’d prefer to just call myself handsome and charismatic!
You seem to be a natural storyteller. Who are some storytellers you admire?
Growing up in a tough town, you had to learn how to fight or tell stories and make people laugh. I was a sensitive weirdo so I went the latter route. My parents read to me every night, until I could read myself and I maintain an intense love of the written word. As a kid I loved myths, fables, fairytales and writers like Roald Dahl, J.R. Tolken, and Lewis Caroll.
My first experience with the true power of story telling was through my buddy Thomas’s dad, Mr. Conrad Jocks. One time when I was in Cub Scouts we went to the Kahnawake (the town next door to mine) Cultural Center to learn about First Nations culture and history. We all went into a nondescript room and waited for a while. Mr. Jocks eventually came in, pulled up a stool, turned down the lights and completely blew my mind. He started telling us all these incredible Mohawk legends, creation myths, and trickster tales. The stories were great, chock full of wit, dark humor, and magic, but there was just something about the way he told them that was captivating. I remember thinking to myself, wow this is just someones dad on a chair and it’s better than a movie!
Later when I was in Boy Scouts we had a leader named Mr. Hardy that was an unbelievable story teller. He told a story one time that was so scary a kid literally shit his pants in terror while listening to it. Everybody looked forward to the campfire at the end of the night to hear his stories even though you knew you wouldn’t be able to sleep for the rest of the week!
I’ve maintained that love of reading and I could list amazing authors all day but the ones that have really impacted me over the years are Celine, Knut Hamsun, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Roussell, Hunter Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, and Joseph Heller among many others. Stand up comedy was also always a huge interest of mine. My best friend Daryl had a couple of Richard Pryor videos, and I remember laughing so hard to one of his specials that I almost suffocated to death. I also loved Steve Martin as a kid, and for my grade 3 show-and-tell I did his Fly-dini act (if you haven’t seen it, its like a magicians act but he pulls everything out of the fly of his pants). Before school I stuffed my pants full of everything I could think of and headed off. Of course I didn’t think to practice, so I just got up in front of the class and started trying to pull things out of my crotch. Unfortunately the opening in my pants was too small and I couldn’t get anything past the zipper. I started panicking, frantically tearing at my pants trying to pull all this stuff out. My teacher just though I was beating off and freaked out and sent me to the principals office. They even had the district psychologist come over to talk to me, talk about bombing!
Your work has consistently celebrated the strange and grotesque—oozing flesh and bodily secretions, dislocated eyeballs, severed limbs, and protruding nipples frequently appear. Can you talk about the significance of your chosen subject matter?
That might be a better question for my therapist! I’m not exactly sure to be honest with you. As I mentioned earlier I grew up watching a lot of B-movies, horror in particular. I think one of things that stuck with me was how so many of the movies were terrible, but they’d have that one moment where the monster was revealed or there’d be an incredible fight scene or a crazy set piece or something. With drawing and sculpture there’s no real temporal or sequential element to build up to, you only get one shot. I think I’m always trying to deliver that one awesome scene. I want to pack the picture with as much energy as possible, so I focus on all the good stuff.
You describe “The Shop” as “cathartic grotesques that speak to the insanity, the physical strain, the day dreaming, the craft, the beauty, the frustration, the depression, the blue humor, and the camaraderie with your fellow workers.” Can you share more about the place and experiences that inspired this recent body of work?
There’s really no way to sum up the experience quickly but in short within two years I went from being at Yale, and showing in New York to working in a foundry for a beer swilling, gun-toting maniac (albeit an awesome one!). Our neighbors were gang members, who had their shop (and half of ours) blown up by a fire bomb. In addition to world famous artists coming through the doors, we had cops, junkies, gangsters, scammers, bounty hunters, a Hindu mystic who guessed my weight to the pound, AND a giant monitor lizard which had escaped from a local drug lord.
I was always injured. I had an earplug catch on fire from an errant welding spark, had a clamp slip off a sculpture and break my nose, and an angle grinder fracture my wrist. Once I bent down the wrong way and the steel cap in my boot tore off my toenail. I electrocuted myself while welding inside a giant sculpture. The shock caused body to spasm so badly that I smashed my head into the top of the sculpture splitting it open. It was 9:37 am. I saw a co-worker weld himself into a sculpture and get stuck there for 30 minutes because no one could discern his screams from the death metal blasting in the shop. I’ve had to have a conversation with a room full of grown men about how it’s not ok to eat other people’s lunches. I’ve been threatened by a neighborhood gangster, only to find his body on the sidewalk the next week, brains splashed into the street. I’ve watched clients pull up in brand new Porsche’s and then stiff us on the bill. I was once almost crushed to death by giant bronze penis.
You took up leather-working after seeing ornate parade saddles at the Gene Autry museum. Why were you captivated by these particular objects?
I’m really into the craft of art making and I’m always trying to pick up new techniques and materials. As a sculptor and drawer I was really attracted to tooled leather as a material that exists halfway between both disciplines. It’s like some kind of hot-rodded, backwoods-baroque hillbilly low-relief. It really seemed to fit well with the type of imagery I’m pulled to. I love drawing but I’m not sure I’ve every really been able to add much to the conversation, but doing it in leather seemed to work. With the leather somehow the sum felt like it ended up being greater than the parts.
How did your participation in Rat Bastards at the Hammer Store come about?
Well as you mentioned earlier I got into leatherwork after a visit to the Gene Autry museum. On my way out I picked up a little how to do leatherwork book in the gift shop. I was raving about all the leatherwork the next day at work and my co-worker happened to have some leather tools he got a garage sale and never used. He gave them to me for free on the condition that I use them, so I started making myself some foundry gear. Mostly I just messed around with it for a bit. After I’d been doing it for a while a friend posted a picture on social media of this beautiful leather bag he had bought. I went to the link to buy one and they were about 1500$!! I was wondering what kind of an asshole spends that kind of money on a bag and then I remembered I did leatherwork! So I made myself a bag, showed it my wife and she loved it, so I made her one for her birthday. She’s pretty fashionable so people started asking her where they could get one and through a bit of the ol’ telephone game I ended up getting including in a design show at the Hammer museum gift shop. Being in the show gave me the impetus to continue with it, and now I’m the asshole charging 1500$ for a bag!
Can you talk about the overall process of hand-tooling leather and if it relates to your approach with other mediums? Most of your work seems to be quite labor intensive.
Haha, yes this is true unfortunately! I had a shitty teacher in college who said that anyone who spends a lot of time on their work is an insecure ego-maniac because every brush stroke is an affirmation of the self. That sat with me for a long time, but I must respectfully disagree. It sounds corny, but I’m just trying to make something right. To me all that labor is like a meditation on quality. I have a job, I’m responsible, pay my taxes, all that stuff. In the studio I’m free, free to do things for a laugh, free to indulge in strange and grotesque fantasy worlds, free to put as much heart and soul and passion as I can into every little detail whether its a leather keychain, a giant flaming mustache or a bronze sculpture of a trans Burt Reynolds shooting whiskey out of his dick.
How has your perspective as an artist shifted over time and how do you anticipate your work progressing in the future?
Hmm, this is a tough one. I guess the biggest shift has been my move into the design side of things. For the longest time I felt like making design work would be “selling out” somehow. Its weird that I had a thing about it though because I would never say that anyone else and some of my biggest influences have been designers and illustrators. Now I love making design stuff. It’s really cool to be able to make quality objects that normal people can afford and then take out and use in their daily lives.
What were some of the best exhibitions you’ve seen in recent memory?
Genesis Belanger just had a KILLER show here in LA at Francois Ghebaly gallery. Really strange, impeccably crafted ceramic sculptures conjuring up this real weird surreal 80’s cubical office vibe. Come to think of it, I saw another incredible show there earlier this year by Kelly Akashi. Gorgeous castings of bronze hands holding blown glass elements that seemed to me to be a metaphor for the act of sculpting itself, the artists hands magically pulling ideas out of the ether. Oh and recently Heather Benjamin had a show at These Days gallery that fucking ruled. She is a powerhouse. Drawings screaming with raw punk energy and honest ovaries to the wall depictions of female sexuality thats totally unapologetic, confrontational, but powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Men (myself included) have waded in these areas for years, but her work deals with sexuality and the grotesque in a way that’s so badass and genuinely feminine.
What does the art world need more of?
It needs more people doing things for the right reasons. It needs money to land in the hands of people who truly need it rather than piling up in bigger and bigger stacks in the same 10 artist’s bank accounts. It needs curators and institutions that are willing to take risks on up and comers and weirdos. It needs to stop telling young people they have to accrue a mountain of debt from some fancy school to get anywhere in life. It needs more nuts and characters who are more interested in living extraordinary lives then having extraordinary resumes. It needs more empathy, kindness and of course more free booze is always appreciated.
What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?
My latest reading kick has been to take up an author I love and run through their entire bibliography. Right now I’m having blast working through Kurt Vonnegut.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events, or other news you’d like to share?
Nothing concrete, but “The Shop” is in development and will hopefully find a home soon in a gallery near you. Of course I’m always looking for leather commissions so all you beautiful readers out there hit me up for that dream one-of-kind belt/purse/backpatch/guitar strap you’ve always wanted!! Thanks so much for including me in your awesome magazine, it’s truly been a pleasure!!
Thanks so much for talking with us!
To find out more about Andrew and his work, check out his website.