Brian Sherwin: Leslie, you earned your BFA in Painting at Washington University in St. Louis . You then earned an MFA in Painting at Washington State University . Can you discuss your academic years? For example, did you have any influential instructors? Also, what can you tell prospective students about those specific art programs?
Leslie Holt: I did my last two years of undergrad at Wash U, having sampled a few other places. I was looking for a strong fine arts program within a strong liberal arts university so that I could take classes besides art. I really need to be around people who have multiple interests and let other parts of life bleed in to their art. Wash U was a great place for that.
By the time I decided to go back to grad school I had worked various jobs for 9 years, while making my art, having that common struggle of balancing making a living and making art. The work was intense - social work and advocacy, so it really drained me and left little room for art. So grad school for me was about having carved out time to make art, as well as to try teaching on a college level, which I was not sure I would like - I ended up loving teaching!
Washington State University was a great place for me – very remote, very independent, and financially doable because they offer full assistantships with teaching. You can actually get out of there without debt. There was a mix of young emerging artists and older school types on the faculty. The whole grad curriculum is individual studio visits and group critiques, by individual faculty members, so you get out of it as much as you can put in. I highly recommend it for students who want independence, teaching experience, and a remote, distraction-free environment.
Swallow (stills 1 – 4), 2004, oil on masonite, 6 x 9 inches each
LH: St. Louis is really exploding in terms of the arts. When I left St. Louis to go to grad school in 2001 it seemed like the art world here was dominated by a couple of galleries. Now there are lots of new spaces popping up, both commercial and nonprofit/alternative, as well as lots of folks blogging, a very active arts list serve, and a city wide open studio event that has been well supported. I feel like I have had a great progression as an artist here since I returned in 2004.
I started out by showing in group and solo shows at various galleries here and nationally. And this year I had a solo show at a great newer St. Louis gallery, phd gallery. That was fabulous in terms of getting great press coverage and exposure for my work, as well as generating sales. This exhibit was huge for me in terms of pushing my career to the next level. For me phd gallery epitomizes the new growth and opportunity in St. Louis art scene right now. I am even getting my first curatorial experience at phd - an exhibit that opens September 6, titled “Nervous Laughter,” containing artwork that uses humor to address serious issues.
Hello Prozac Spill, 2005, oil on canvas, 6 x 6 inches
LH: This work had a huge effect on my work in several ways. It took me getting some distance from it and having the time in grad school to reflect on it for it to surface in my work. For several years, starting in grad school, I have been making work about mental illness, particularly psychiatric medication. I tapped into my childhood experiences with a mentally ill family member and created these artificial narratives of pills spilling in various intimate locations, like children’s bed sheets, the toilet, rugs, and pills inside the mouth, at the moment before swallowing them. I painted from photos of actual pills spilling in locations in the house where I grew up. It was very personal work for me as well as work that had content I really wanted to share with an audience. I had no idea that people would resonate so much with the pills – identify them, talk about who they know who takes them, etc. That was such a powerful part of making this work that I found very satisfying.
Fruity Goodness: Hello Geodon, 2004, oil on canvas, 4 x 4 inches
BS: Can you go into further detail about your interest in the intersection between art and community as well as your interest in the intersection between childhood and the adult world?
LH: The intersection of childhood and the adult world has been of interest for a long time and the pill work is where I started to explore it most directly. There are things children see in the adult world that they don’t fully understand but that they still see and process on some level. They don’t have language for it necessarily, so images can sometimes describe these experiences best. And they aren’t supposed to see certain things – adults try to protect them, but they see it anyway! So a lot of my exploration of the medications has to do with looking at them from a child’s point of view. They look like candy and yet there is something very grave about them! And this direct connection between the pills and toys in the “Fruity Goodness” series developed out of that as well.
Art and community – I feel like grad school was the beginning of bringing my two “separate” worlds together – the social worker/advocate with the artist. I made baby steps towards reconciling these parts of my life that I had previously kept pretty separate. But I only touched the surface of what is possible. I would like to go further with this notion of making work that really resonates with people’s experiences, especially marginalized experiences you don’t usually hear about or see on gallery walls. I also have dabbled in doing arts and other creative activities with people with mental illness, which has been very rewarding. I would like to explore that more
Hello Masterpiece (art appreciation): Hello Matisse, 2006, oil on canvas, 4 x 6 inches
BS: Leslie, tell us more about your art. For example, your “Hello Masterpiece (art appreciation)” series. I understand that in the series you juxtapose the character, Hello Kitty, with famous images from art history. The paintings are postcard size, similar to those found in a museum gift shop. Tell us about the meaning behind this series.
LH: “Hello Masterpiece” is my most recent series that I started almost on a whim. I first started using Hello Kitty in my pill series to further emphasize that contrast of child and adult worlds. She also provides me a bit of levity in contrast to the very heavy content of the pills and “Unholy Ghost” series. Hello Kitty came on the scene in the 70’s and she has made this massive resurgence in the past 5 years or so - I affectionately refer to her as a commercial whore. I also see her as the toy version of Cindy Sherman because she is constantly changing identities (in this particularly girly way – its’ all about outfits!). I started teaching Art Appreciation and Art History and was revisiting all these famous Art Historical images. So Hello Kitty is touring art history (a la Sister Wendy Beckett’s “History of Painting”), wearing outfits that match (or purposefully clash with) elements of the famous paintings.
The work becomes a clash of high and low culture and a commentary on the commodification of art. I want her “toyness” and her obvious overlay on the image to disrupt any illusion that she actually fits in the scene of the artwork; in fact often she is casting a shadow onto the artwork. The postcard size of the paintings reinforces their appeal as commodities in a market and provides a satirical perspective on the paintings’ usual highbrow status. I like the questions the work raises for example: what is more “pop” – Mona Lisa or Hello Kitty?
Unholy Ghost III, 2004, oil on canvas, 32 x 46 inches
LH: I named the “Unholy Ghost” series after a collection of essays about the experience of depression. The ghost is a metaphor for the haunting quality of mental illness and memory, as well as a reference to the common childhood costume and experience of hiding. The ghosts are paintings of figures under Sesame Street bed sheets. They could be adults or children – it is unclear.
Unholy Ghost (Interior View Smurf III), 2006, oil on canvas, 8 x 10 inches
LH: I never think of a series as finished because I feel like I just touch on the surface of what is possible. I always want the option to go back and push something further. But ask me that again next summer when I am finishing my 300th “Hello Masterpiece” painting - I might have a different answer!
BS: What are you working on at this time? Where will your art take you next?
LH: I have been reorienting myself after my “Hello Masterpiece” show at phd gallery. I have another solo show coming up next summer at the Curator’s Office in Washington DC and that will be the “Hello Masterpiece” series as well. But I have another series in mind, and still want to push the Unholy Ghost series further.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?
LH: That’s probably more than enough. Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about my work, and I always appreciate feedback on it!