For the past five years, Hugh Leeman has lived and worked in the Tenderloin. Over the course of his tenure there, his work has grown to center around his relationships with his homeless neighbors, specifically through what he calls the t-shirt project. For this project, Leeman draws portraits of his homeless friends, prints them onto t-shirts and gives them the t-shirts to sell. In this interview, SOMArts communications fellow Lex Kosieradzki talks to Leeman about the t-shirt project and his installation at SOMArts’ exhibition Dial Collect, on view April 5–2, 2013.
So you’ve been working for several years on a project that straddles the line between art and a non-profit organization where you make t-shirts and give them to homeless people who live around your studio to sell. Can you explain exactly how this works?
I draw portraits of my friends who are homeless and then I print these images onto t-shirts. The t-shirts then are given to the very person whose face appears on the front of the t-shirt. For example, Bernard sells t-shirts with his face on the front and Blue [pictured above] sells shirts with his face on the front. They then keep 100% of the profit from these sales. The financial incentive is meant as a platform for communication, as the t-shirt recipient now possess their own merchandise. In the past the project was marketed through street art posters that were downloadable and printable through my site. Site users would print these off and paste them up for free, in each poster’s bottom right corner was a QR code. Once these posters were pasted onto city street walls, the passerby could scan the QR code and open a site where they could be introduced to the t-shirt project and its homeless vendors, in addition to purchasing a shirt right there on their smartphone while standing on the street. The idea of introducing a demographic who could own a smartphone to a demographic who was homeless was exciting for me. Additionally, I like hearing from the guys after they would sell some shirts as the project incentivized them interacting with demographics they might not otherwise. It often seemed the project was a real life Facebook.
How has keeping a studio in the Tenderloin influenced your practice?
I started painting on a regular basis once I moved here. I had no idea what the tenderloin was. I was beautifully lost and wondering what to paint. Having people who hang out outside your studio and have no real schedule to keep, that will work for art and on ideas was perfect. I loved the depth and flavor of the homeless’ stories. I had stopped here on a layover from three years of traveling around the world and living out of a backpack. Staying with strangers or in strange places made moving to the tenderloin feel like home. I had my own place for the first time in years and it was huge in my perception both literally and figuratively. I was working a lot of jobs and I lied about my credentials to work in order to keep running with the wind. I knew no one and had two backpacks when I got here. I was looking to be sober and the only escape I had from myself was art. The people that populate the streets of the neighborhood were very much the intrigue that kept me here. I was headed for saving a couple of bucks and then was wanting to make overland plans to Rio in order to work on a sailboat to Capetown. I’m still in the same studio, making art and Blue, my closest friend and collaborator, is still a part of the art at SOMArts [in Dial Collect]. In a way he will evolve into the art itself.
You mentioned when we spoke on the phone that the piece you’re showing in Dial Collect is a significant departure from your earlier work because it attempts to depict your relationship with a person, rather than the person themselves. What has it been like for you to work in this new way? What have you learned from it?
I see the projects going from a literal past to a metaphorical future. I’m having a great year, I love life now, a lot is wonderful, there are a lot of small things making up this whole. One is that I have been painting more from my imagination, with less of a source, simply feeling as there is no right and no wrong. I felt more anxiety in the past as I would be very competitive with myself. I sit in the dark and try not to think and feel self-conscious about calling it meditation. I have found that with less stimulation ideas come to the surface.
Do you think you’ll continue working this way?
I have no idea on the future, I get ideas all the time. My mind is very much into thinking but I have been trying to do less of that. I’m coming to terms with what I think this in fact is. In fact I don’t think I can know what this is until it happens. As I see it this piece is about the precise moment it is created, and the idea that this will never happen again, and trying to figure out what exactly this moment is and, via that, who exactly we are. The life behind the physical that is the emotional world that is unseen yet shapes our perceptions of relationships and reality.
Your work involves forging extremely intimate relationships with your homeless neighbors. How did you come to this part of your practice? Was it something you planned, or did it evolve organically?
I didn’t plan much, it has gone from painting the homeless to painting people I know to working with my friends. Blue is a good friend of mine and it is a piece on my relationship with him. It is beautiful and abstract in nature as the idea in itself holds no right or wrong and is told based on my perceptions of what I have been told by Blue himself or what he has wanted me to know, and that is a big part of what the relationships are that make up our reality, based on perceptions of others projecting themselves. I read somewhere the other day that non-fiction doesn’t exist. It took me a second but I think I know what this means and it seems to apply here.
There are some who would refer to your work, specifically the t-shirt project, as participatory art, socially engaged art, or social practice. How do you feel about these labels?
I’ve never been to school, and I don’t read online anymore other than sports. I like the numbers of sports and the perceived emotional attachment that you are a part of something, but I don’t know anything about these practices. I like people a lot and I love the idea of communication and I also am an artist. Ironically, I spend a lot of time alone creating ideas of communication or pieces of art.
You also mentioned that your installation for Dial Collect will involve one of your collaborator/neighbors as well as your father. Can you comment on how you came to involve these two people and why it’s meaningful for you for them both to be present?
They would be great together. They spend time together in my head. Blue and my Dad are the same age, and Blue has a son my age. There is the perception of freedom, but I don’t know what will come of it, and I fear this unknown and its potential. This is what these relationships are like for me with my father and Blue. This is personal and beautiful because it is personal and creates feelings of vulnerability. It feels like emotional honesty and that is challenging and by pushing the edges of this emotional challenge we can further shape and define who we are to others and to ourselves. This edge changes the physiology of our perceptions, these two men are collaborators of whom I have intense perceptions.
About the interviewer: Lex Kosieradzki is an Oakland-based artist currently pursuing his MFA at the California College of the Arts.
Pictured above: Blue in the installation “Love and Luck” by Hugh Leeman, photo by Matthew Schoonmaker