Meet the Artist: 10 Questions for Leslie Lew
Leslie Lew is a pop culture historian.
Her sculpted paintings, brimming with color and depth, revel in the mass-media icons that helped define the 20th century.
A contemporary and friend of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lew was inspired to capture the popular symbols of her childhood—everything from advertising to superheroes—in her own evocative style.
Her paintings celebrate the highs and lows of American culture through her unique artistic voice. Lew’s work has continued to evolve over the years, with her art appearing in dozens of solo and group exhibitions. Today, art collectors around the world commission Lew for portraits, which makes perfect sense as Lew has long described herself as a “recorder of history.”
Recently, we were able to ask Lew about her inspirations, her singular painting style, and the pop culture icons that make recurring appearances in her art. Enjoy this exclusive Q&A with Leslie Lew!
1). When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist?
I knew from the start, actually very early, maybe three years old.
My dad was a famous art director, Les Hopkins. (I am named after my dad, Leslie, Jr!) He was responsible for a lot of the ad campaigns of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was what the TV series Mad Men was all about. He created ads for Marlboro, Alka-Seltzer, Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks, Pop Tarts, and more.
At the time, my dad used magic markers. He had hundreds of colors, and I would sit under his drafting table and draw.
Dad was very “persnickety” about them and, when they were dry or lost their edge, he would throw them down for me! I still have some of my earliest drawings!
2). What inspires your art?
Everything! Life, culture, friends, other artists, childhood memories, and art history.
My work is about growing up in America—our culture, tastes, history, and all of our childhood memories that have shaped our perception of the world.
In some ways, I feel that I am a “recorder of history” in that a lot of my work centers on wonderful childhood memories—animal crackers, children’s readers, comic books, superheroes, mom and pop stores—many of those memories which are now disappearing.
3). Which artists have played a role in influencing your style?
Early on, I would say some of the Old Masters like Botticelli, da Vinci, Van Gogh, Giotto, and Rembrandt. In fact, I visited the Metropolitan Museum as a third-grade student and was so moved by the “Mona Lisa” and Rembrandt’s self-portrait that I bought both postcards with my allowance!
I was introduced to Andy by Jean-Michel Basquiat in the early ‘80s when I was a young artist exhibiting in New York’s East Village art scene. Andy loved young artists for their vibrant artistic energy. He was also very kind and helpful.
My dad loved Peter Max’s work, and we had some of Peter’s posters in our house. I love his work since it has such vibrant color and movement—a palette that I can really relate to!
Norman Rockwell may be a bit surprising, but it makes sense. Rockwell recorded everyday life, memories, and culture with humor and love. He was a “recorder of history” for his time. I feel that I too am addressing these ideas but for our time.
4). Could you describe what inspired your Sculpted Oils technique?
“Sculpted Oils” is the technique that I have done for over 30 years. My work is built up entirely in paint, applied with brushes, and it is literally 3 inches thick.
I never tried to figure out how to be different. I just fell into it so it was never contrived. When I was an undergrad student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978, I started a series of supermarket paintings. It made perfect sense since I had grown up with all of the products that my dad had created.
I had always painted thick but I started building up the products in paint so that they would be more emphasized and, as time went on, they got thicker and thicker!
5). What draws you to portraying pop culture iconography in your artwork, ranging from Wonder Woman to Animal Crackers?
Most of my work deals with portraying important and relevant icons and pop culture images.
“Animal Crackers” may just be the most recognizable product/icon because almost everyone has eaten them growing up. Introduced in 1900 during Christmas, the box was originally meant to be an ornament—after Christmas, the kids could eat the cookies.
“Wonder Woman” was an important one for me as she was the first female introduced in 1938 as a comic character to counter all of the male superheroes. This was done to empower and inspire little girls at the time.
As a little girl, I was pigeon-toed, and my mom enrolled me in a ballet class with an instructor that had taught some of the Russian ballerinas. She took one look at me and said that I had no talent. I overheard this and had my parents install a ballet bar in our home. My mom bought me very cool red ballet slippers, and I practiced every day. One year later, I danced the “Nutcracker Suite” in the New York City Children’s Ballet!
You can do anything if you set your mind to it. Wonder Woman inspires me, and she also wears red shoes!
6). What do you want collectors to take away from your art?
A smile and a memory that brings back a happy time in their lives. Color can create joy.
I remember when one of my “Animal Crackers” paintings was unveiled at the Mayo Clinic children’s ward. Here are kids that are sick and scared. The first thing that they see when they enter is my painting, and they get to “touch” the animals!
A lot of collectors tell me that my work makes them “happy,” and that is something that we can all use.
7). What are your thoughts on the representation of women in art in today’s art world?
The art world throughout history has always been a “boy’s club.” Recently, there seem to be more women working in art. Being a woman and competing sometimes can be difficult, but I have always known that making art was my purpose in life. I have never considered myself only a “woman” artist or compared myself to a “male” artist. I only strive to be the best artist that I can be.
8). What do you enjoy doing when you’re not painting?
I love to cook! Cooking is a bit like painting—a pinch of this and pinch of that. I also love to bring people together and, for many years, I have hosted a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for all of my friends and others that have no place to go. I make a mean acorn squash, and my stuffing is great—I stole the recipe from my mom!
9). Do you have a favorite color?
I love cobalt blue, which is the color of lapis lazuli. It was the stone that was used in the Sistine Chapel and in a lot of the Egyptian pyramids.
In my work, I don’t have a favorite color. It varies on what I am painting.
10). In addition to being an artist, you’re also an author. Could you tell us about your children’s book Buki’s Garden?
Buki’s Garden teaches children to not bully and to be tolerant and accepting of being different.
A few years ago, I noticed when my son was young that there were a lot of kids that were bullying other kids if you were the least bit different.
Buki (boo-key) is one of our family cats and she looks “different,” like a gremlin. These two factors inspired me to write and illustrate Buki’s Garden. The story is about Buki and how the other animals would not play with her because she looked different.
I’ve conducted many Buki’s Garden readings and art workshops for children in museums, libraries, and learning centers.
I also did a wonderful tour for the book in Detroit with Park West Gallery, where I visited children’s hospitals, homeless shelters, and orphanages. I brought along black-and-white 3-D Bukis, where the kids were able to paint their own versions of Buki. The paintings they created were totally awesome! It was one of the more rewarding experiences ever!