Hugh Leeman's art heavily features bold patterns juxtaposed with lived-in faces - the kind that tell you a story without opening their mouth. The thing is, these are stories that no one seems to want to hear. That is until Leeman paints them.
"They're self-portraits, they're people I see myself in - or maybe, more honestly, would like to see myself in."
This is a bold statement coming from an artist talking about the people he sees on the street, the characters that he befriends and then turns into art. Not many people would honestly say that they'd like to see more of themselves in a homeless person - it doesn't seem very aspirational. Leeman has taken the time to get to know the people he is talking about though and what he's found is a deep humility and awareness of our significance. If you spend so much of your life watching people pass, you're bound to learn things that others miss. That's something Leeman would like to have.
These lessons of life, the motion and commotion, the ebbs and flows, are all embodied in Leeman's art. The colours give the pieces a sense of motion and urgency - the sense that they're in your face but might be gone tomorrow. Then the portrait brings you back down to earth. The background seems to be forever changing - the face might age, but it ultimately stays the same.
All of our lives amount to the very moment that we are living in now. When Leeman talks to the people that become his artistic muse, he is bearing witness to their accumulated existence - it is this fact that he must convey in the painting. It must be faithful and truthful. It must tell a story without any words - the same stories that the subject has told him.
How does he do this then? Often with an expression. The pose or posture captured in the subject must carry with it significance and symbolism - enough to transcend what is captured in the image and become something that had a life before and will have a life after. He's capturing a moment that is as nostalgic as it is forward-looking.
To reach the depths of these people, trust is a necessity. It takes time, it's a process, like the artwork itself. As the person is coming out of their shell, their essence will shine through the image. At any moment it will hit the critical mass and encapsulate the power needed to make the audience feel the same thing the artist feels when he talks to them.
People's attitudes towards his art and the people tend to be contradictory. The people he paints and the places his work appears (usually wheatpasted) are the types that people would usually choose to avoid. They're places that have become rundown - hopelessness permeates the city through these pockets of boarded up fences and smashed windows. Yet when the same pieces are hanging in a gallery - people feel overwhelmed to see the city's downtrodden being treated with such respect. Leeman's work should act as a wake-up call to these very people. Their worldview is so limited and lop-sided that it becomes hypocritical. We all want to save the planet yet few of us are willing to pick up the litter.
Seeking to change perceptions of people and place isn't a superficial project. For a while, a lot of Leeman's work had a QR code attached to it. If you scanned this with your phone it'd take you to his not-for-profit page, Voice to Voiceless, where you could purchase a t-shirt with the corresponding portrait. With the money, Leeman purchased blank t-shirts in bulk, printed the subjects design onto it and gave it to the person who had posed to sell on the street. They got all the profit.
There's two ways that this made a change. First and most obviously, it gave people that didn't have much money a little bit more money. That way they could sleep somewhere safe or eat some food. Secondly, it was a boost to their sense of self-worth. One of the first things that homelessness destroys is the ability of someone to see themselves as worthy of anything - they feel lonely and abandoned, an onlooker to other people's lives. If they are selling t-shirts with their own faces and seeing the prints around the city - they feel like they're more than just a face that no one sees. They become a face that people are happy to see.
By choosing to elevate the invisible and forgotten, Hugh Leeman has given his characters, the homeless people that are as much a part of a city's streets as the art, a chance to be remembered. His posters might decay and get taken down, but the statement remains permanent. These people are here, they have a story and they deserve to be heard.
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