Harry Leigh (b. 1931) graduated from Albright Art School and SUNY College at Buffalo, where he received his Bachelor's degree in 1953. Drafted into the United States Army that same year, he trained as a radio operator and was stationed in West Germany. While serving in Europe, he traveled extensively, visiting museums and architectural sites. Upon return, Leigh took advantage of the GI Bill to study under Peter Voulkos and received a Masters degree in 1959 from Teacher's College, Columbia University. He studied painting privately with Richard Pousette-Dart from 1956-1960. It was during this period he began experimenting with large constructed works using cardboard, plaster, and plywood; by 1965, sculpture became his principal medium.
In his first solo exhibition at the Brata Gallery in New York City in 1967, Leigh realized for the first time the integration of his work, travel and educational experiences. Having set up his first NYC studio at the corner of Bowery and Rivington in 1970, solo exhibitions soon followed at O.K Harris Gallery in 1974 and 1978. He has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Studio Program. He lives in Suffern, NY.
The wood that I work with is sometimes laminated and bent. The resulting forms enclose and capture volumes of space.
Q&A with Harry Leigh
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Harry! You state that sculpture became your principal medium in 1965, but you used to also make paintings—what drew you to sculpture and what keeps you intrigued?
I’ve learned from all the jobs that I’ve had. As a student I worked as a cabinet maker’s assistant, a carpenter’s assistant, and a mason’s assistant; I worked on a glass furnace at the Bethlehem Steel Company and at a Ford assembly line putting automobiles together. A lot of the skills I employed early on in those jobs seemed to come together in the production of sculptures later. There was a merger. I was trying to exhibit my work in various regional shows, and I was experiencing more success with my sculpture than my paintings. Around 1962 I joined a gallery in Lower Manhattan called the Brata Gallery. I did exhibit some paintings, but when it was my turn to have a solo show, I decided to just show sculpture. From that point on, I worked mainly in sculpture—occasionally I’ll make a painting, but ultimately I’ve been making sculptures.
And you’ve been making sculptures ever since?
Ever since. And then what happened was a friend called me up one day and said, “There’s this artist colony in New Hampshire, they want me to come up there for the summer, and I can’t go, but would you like to go?” And I said, “Well, what is it?” and he said “Well, it’s a place where they give you a stipend and they teach you and they leave you alone and you can just do your work. They give you a place to live.” And I said “Whoa, that sounds great!” So he recommended me for it and I got in and went many times after that and that was a very important experience and it gave me a time to consolidate some of my ideas and focus on things like I never had before.
And that was MacDowell, right?
That was MacDowell, right.
What was it about that specific residency that struck a chord with you? I noticed you’ve also been to Yaddo many times. But there are so many residencies out there, and obviously MacDowell has an incredible reputation but I was wondering what it was specifically about that residency that brought you back so many times?
Well, back in those day—this was the 60’s—there weren’t really that many residencies around. Now they seem to be all over the place. But in any case, that became a very important experience because you discover your generation. Other people are there, and you discover your community. Living here, in the country, I was rather isolated from the art center of New York City, although I was there a lot because I was in a graduate program, and I was going to museums and galleries and so forth. And, I was participating because I was in the Brata Gallery. Somehow going to that colony gave me the concentrated environment in which I could put all these things together.
Was the community the main difference between working in your home studio and working in a residency studio or is it about getting out of your normal routine?
Yeah, that’s a good question. The difference is that you have no interruptions. It’s that simple. You don’t have to think about buying groceries or cooking a meal or taking the garbage out.
Right, so would you say the ability to focus without interruption is the biggest motivator to go to these residencies? Would you say you see a big shift in your work—a big output shift—like you’re able to make more work, or that the work is just better?
Yeah, you have to remember that in the 60’s there were no cell phones, there was no communication. There was one telephone at MacDowell. Around dinnertime people would call home because the phone was very close to the dining hall. But aside from the US mail there was no interruption, you didn’t have phone calls, and your bills would eventually catch up with you, but not until the mail came. Nothing is quite that way now because communication is so different with the internet and so on. Everybody has a smart phone.
That makes me wonder—since you have experienced so many different shifts in communication over the years—do you feel like your experience as being an artist in your own studio today has changed because of the ability to become distracted easily due to the always-on nature of communication? Do you feel like it has changed your experience at residencies as well?
Hm, well, I was just at Yaddo for seven weeks, and it’s still a wonderful place to be, in spite of the fact that you’re more in-touch now than you were before. It’s incrementally different but basically the same. But the thing that was important about it when I first went to MacDowell was that I never had that kind of peace and quiet and opportunity to focus. And so that was a really wonderful and inspiring experience.
Has the internet changed your working at your studio at all?
No, not at all
Why is that? Is it because you don’t engage with that those channels as much as other people?
Yeah, I hardly ever check my email, so people will get in touch with me other ways. So it doesn’t get in the way of my work really.
So you’re still operating in a very pre-Internet capacity?
Yeah I guess so. My daughter lives near Woodstock and often comes out and says, “You gotta answer this.”
Ha. Do you feel like because you’ve chosen to keep your distance from that type of thing—not that totally avoiding it, but that you’re not using it with the same kind of regularity as many others, do you feel like that helps you focus when you’re in your home studio and that that helps you not be distracted?
Well, I don’t know, maybe I’m missing a lot of opportunities. But you know, the other thing is younger people are so skillful at using these things. They know all the ins-and-outs of the internet, and I don’t. I can send email, I can type a letter. Maybe if I was more attuned to the use of the Internet I would be more successful, but what usually works for me is peace and quiet and uninterrupted times where I can focus on my work. And the way my work evolves—I mean, as you work, you learn about what you’re doing. You begin putting things together you hadn’t thought were related previously.
Speaking of your work, the work you’re making now that we’re featuring in the issue is primarily made of wood, and I was curious if there are particular types of wood or if there’s anything unique to the source of this wood, or the treatment or anything you’re thinking about when you’re choosing the material?
Well, the evolution—and you have to use that word ‘evolution’ because that’s the way my work has gone. When I started making sculpture, the ceramic sculpture I made was a big interest to me, but then I thought I should try other materials too. So, I made things out of plaster, and then I wanted to make bigger things, but they were so heavy that I made things out of cardboard that were six or seven feet high—very bulky. So, in order to keep them from collapsing I discovered I had to build an armature inside, but I’d already built this thing out of cardboard, so I began thrusting pieces of wood into openings in the cardboard construction to support it from the inside. Then I thought, maybe I should start with wood. So, it evolved from working with the cardboard to working with wood and then I stopped working with cardboard. I mean, this is in the 50’s, and I tried showing it, and I took photographs around to galleries, and they said, “Well you can’t show cardboard.”
Yes! I mean I took them to a few people, and I took them to a gallery that now doesn’t exist anymore, owned by Stephen Radich, and he liked the work, and then he said, “Well where is this?” but, it was too far away, and he said “oh we can’t go up there, you should bring it down here” but I never did.
Do you have any thoughts on cardboard as a material now? You were ahead of your time! Now, everyone’s using it.
Yeah I was ahead of my time, I still have one of those pieces from the late 50s, and photographs of some of the other work that I did, but yeah cardboard is great. It’s great because it had the form potential I hadn’t discovered with ceramics or wood, a certain flexibility that made it a very expressive material. I guess I should have brought it to Stephen, but I was in graduate school, I was teaching, I had a couple of kids and a mortgage. You just can’t handle everything.
You can’t do it all.
Yes exactly, but cardboard was very important to my evolution. I was going to have a solo show at the Berkshire Museum at the Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I was preparing for that show and I made a piece that had a horizontal member that was off balance. So, in order to keep it from falling over, I decided I had to counterweight it with something. And I found outside the barn a pile of bricks, so I put bricks on one end of this, and then closed it up to keep it stable. I thought, wow wood and bricks look great together! When I finished this project I was working on for the show, I’m going to focus on bricks. So that's what I did. I started taking bricks and closing them in pieces of wood and make strips that are 8 to 10 feet long. I was going to make them so that they would stand vertically, but in the studio I had in the Bowery back in those days, I couldn't make anything stand up. So instead of making standing pieces, I started putting them on the wall. Because I put those 8 foot 10 foot strips on the wall, and connected them with verticals and I had a rectangle and I started working within. At the same time, I had another project that needed a curving piece of wood. Finally, I decided I would cut strips of wood (2 or 3 inches wide), put glue between them and bend them. and I did that by driving nails from the floor and pulling the strips of wood around the nails and leaving it for 24 or 36 hours. Then it would retain its shape.
Ah I see, so you've been using the same process for quite a while then.
Yeah, I’m still doing it actually.
Can you tell me about your current studio and how you started working there?
Well, I had a studio in the city from 1970 to ’75, that was in SoHo. But then I was evicted because they raised the rent. Then I moved to Jersey City, but that was terrible, it’s the worst move I ever made, because someone break into my studio and they occupied it for a year. I was sick, I didn't go to my studio for a year. When I got there, some motorcycle repair people stole my tools and broke up a lot of my work. It was a terrible experience so I decided I’m going to stay at Suffern, NY and I’ve had my studio here ever since.
Many of the sculptures that you submitted to this issue seem as though they are conversation with painting in many ways—with their relationship to the wall, two dimensions, and the frames with empty spaces, etc. I was wondering if you were thinking about a relationship to painting while making them, given your background as a painter?
I don't know if I was necessarily thinking about painting but the pieces are in opposition. The curved forms and the projected forms are in opposition to the wall. They kind of defy perception, and become an optical illusion. Because some of the forms described the volumes of the space and when you look at them, you can feel the weight of the volume of the space.
You talked about some of your visual influences being other artists, are there other big influences you still think about a lot today?
Certain life experiences, like my employment at the blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel had a big impression on me. I was a laborer, and lots of things would go wrong with the blast furnace. You would climb these very dangerous stairways with no railings, just from one step to the other to the top of the furnace to repair things. The blast furnace had an escalator that delivers materials that needs to be smelted and they get dumped into the furnace. Sometimes something goes wrong with it and you had to go up there and clean it up. You’re many stories up in the air with no railings.
Do you have any shows, exhibitions or planning any residencies coming up soon?
Actually, since last September I’ve had four shows. That's what I’ve been working on. I didn't have any new work. And everybody was interested in seeing my earlier work. I didn't show any of the cardboard pieces but I showed a lot of the earlier works, mainly from the 1970s. And I’m in a show now at the Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz, New York that started last month and ends by the end of July. Next year I’m going to have a show at the college at the Rhode Island College.
What are a few of the artists that have influenced you over the years?
In the early days, John Marin, Niles Spencer, later Burgoyne Diller, Mondrian, Arthur Dove, Franz Kline, David Smith, Calder and yes Pousette-Dart—also Peter Voulkos.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Harry and his work, check out his website.