BERKELEY, California — Hugh Leeman’s work didn’t immediately impress me. It had a distinct Bay Area style, which is not my personal favorite — his paintings are loose, colorful, street art–influenced, and have some realistic surrealism mixed in — but what caught my attention in Leeman’s practice was the social utility interwoven with the artwork. Not only was Leeman painting the homeless people living around him, but he seemed to have created mutually beneficial relationships. Leeman would paint his outcast subjects, screen print T-shirts from the paintings, and then give the shirts to his subjects to sell on the street for their own profit. For millennia, artists have painted the downtrodden, the poor, sex workers, homeless, and the like, but relatively few artists seemed to actively care about the subjects past the painting. Leeman was different.
I emailed Leeman to see if we could meet, and he agreed, inviting me to his studio/apartment in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Making the five minute walk from the BART stop to his apartment building, I passed over 20 homeless people and was offered the chance to buy pot twice. I wondered if any of the men and women I passed had been painted by Leeman. He had been living alone in this apartment for about seven years, and the canvases, frames, paints, found objects, and a handmade didgeridoo, to name a few things, filled up the tiny studio space.
I wanted to talk to Leeman about how impressed I was with his seamless combination of social work and art. I hoped to talk about social practice, about Theaster Gates, John Ahearn, about the Diggers, and other culture makers I saw in keeping with Leeman’s practice. I wanted to find how Leeman had come to use art for good, but he didn’t seem especially interested in any of that. “I don’t think much about influence, I just make stuff all the time,” he said. “I’ve thought at times that it may be my trapdoor escape from life, or from myself, as it allows my mind to run with the wind while in process.”
Leeman is a fellow Hoosier, and the two of us launched into what brought us to the Bay Area. Leeman has traveled the world, and while I’ve heard cocky people say that and mean Europe or Central America, Leeman seems to really have been everywhere, doing whatever odd job came his way. Impressed by the diversity of his work and travel experiences, I asked if he had been making art the entire time. He laughed. “I first started drawing while teaching English in China,” he said. At 20 years old, Leeman couldn’t speak any Mandarin, and:
I felt alone and pretty depressed as I’d been running around the world alone for a couple of years, and it started to catch up with me, I guess. I needed someplace to put all my observations from watching others in places I had never been to before. The drawings were a diary of sorts; I forget so much of the richness of the beautifully random experiences that happen when you go with the flow.
While out with his class one day, he found a book that took the reader through how to draw step by step. It didn’t require any knowledge of the language, so he bought it and began teaching himself to draw. It was as simple as that.
Leeman enjoyed drawing; it comforted him and passed the time. A while later, he wound up in San Francisco and found himself once again alone, so he poured himself back into drawing and painting. “I wanted to be sober for a while, so the challenge manifested itself with me by staying in, but I need something to do. I didn’t go out for the first year and a half I was here, so I made stuff, paintings and more paintings, and then painted over some of those and made some new ones.”
Leeman was going to the library to find portraits to print and paint from. This was keeping him busy when one day, he was walking near his home with a camera and everything changed. He explained:
I always saw the guys in the neighborhood hanging out. One day a guy asked me for 50 cents, and I said I would give him $5 to let me photograph him. He said he would do anything for $5 and began striking poses. That was how this started, with Raymond.
Maybe that is a part of why I created the projects I did. I loved meeting people and seeing those who were into drugs and drinking and transient, too. It was really a perfect place to start meeting people again, in the alleys of the city. Who knows, maybe a psychologist would say I was painting myself. The down and out were real, genuine, very near, and felt somehow comforting to me, as well as giving me something new to paint. I didn’t even realize I was making social art, change, or any of that at first.
As Leeman struggled to settle in to his new environment, his subjects increasingly became the downtrodden living on the streets around him. I asked about his relationships with his subjects, and it seems that he just enjoys being around them — plus the work has produced a couple of lasting friendships. Leeman spent this past Christmas day with one such subject-turned-friend relaxing in his apartment. He wasn’t doing a great service or actively trying to shed light on the dire problems of the homeless; he viewed his subjects as friends and inspiration.
So what about the T-shirt project? Leeman somewhat embarrassedly admitted that it started out by accident. “I thought screen printing would be really easy, but it wasn’t at all. I messed up so many shirts early on, I decided to just give them away.” He set up a small table and began handing them out. “But I wasn’t giving them away for free. I traded a t-shirt for photographs.”
Understandably, life on the streets had made many cautious, and the crowd began accusing Leeman of being a cop, tricking them into having their photographs taken. Leeman didn’t know what to do until Raymond, his original subject, came to his defense. He knew Leeman wasn’t a cop but a painter, and through their lasting friendship, Raymond knew Leeman was sincere. Leeman ended up handing out a lot of T-shirts and getting a lot of photographs that day. The accident led to more relationships, and the T-shirt project naturally formed.
Leeman’s work has since moved on from depicting the homeless, but his new paintings still possess a rawness, albeit an imaginary one, that his homeless ones did. Leeman told me, “I needed the [homeless] guys as much as anything. I didn’t set out to change anything.”