Artist Gabe Leonard: “What I decided to go after was self assured, obviously feminine and sexy, gun slinging women with implied stories of vengeance.”
Interview by Hank Leis:
The first time I saw your art was at the Jerome Grand Hotel in Jerome, Arizona. When I inquired about the painting the bartender told me a brief story about you and gave me a tiny photocopy of an article written about you in the local paper. Do you remember the occasion when you went to the hotel? Is this the way you market your art or was this more happenstance than clever marketing?
I’ve actually never been to the hotel. The painting was purchased through a gallery in Escondido, CA. It was part of a solo exhibit called “Right Side of The Dirt” in February of 2010.
What drew me to your art was the desperation in the face of the gunfighter. It is the desperation that I have felt at times when cornered and also in the faces of the people I meet when they reek of desperation. I thought that business people would love your art because they are the legacy of the western gunfighter. What is your take on my interpretation?
I think you’re more conscious of what I’m doing than more casual observers. What I’m after in any particular painting, including this one, is something beneath the surface details. There needs to be something a viewer can enjoy instantly and without further investigation or description, but to keep one’s attention I feel the viewer needs to feel empathy for the character. To do this there is generally a back story in my mind that I use to try and infuse the character with a particular body language that we regularly perceive in our day to day lives in other people. The backstories are often based on real historical events or people. For example the painting you’re referring to is based on a guy name Bass Reeves who came out of slavery in south Texas to become the first deputized marshal west of the Mississippi River. He was a highly successful bounty hunter and there are several accounts of him getting into unfights with a few people he was trying to bring in.
You paint women with guns blazing while in their underwear. Other than the obvious attraction to men who like pictures of naked women, do you have a storyline within the painting that relates to both the vulnerability and the strength of the women who first came to the West? Is there an implication that sometimes women had to shoot their men after sex?
The story lines for the saloon women are mostly fictional, outside of the historical fashion. Before I did them I had a painting of Calamity Jane, but she was a rather mannish character and most people didn’t recognize her as a woman in my paintings. I had a lot of people asking “where are the chicks”, but as I researched story lines from the late 19th century I found that the most compelling stories were either like those of Calamity Jane, which weren’t overtly feminine or stories of prostitutes stabbing each other in small gold mining towns. What I decided to go after was self assured, obviously feminine and sexy, gun slinging women with implied stories of vengeance. These were actually made to appeal to female fans and women are the ones who like these paintings the most. It is easier for a woman to connect and see themselves in these paintings than the paintings of male outlaws in my other paintings. The facial expression, the body language, the imagery to me seem so real, almost as if you know these people. Do you?
I get friends, family and anybody else within shouting distance to pose for the paintings.
The large hands of the gunfighters add to the fierceness of the moment. Is that your intent?
In my mind strong guys have big hands. It just makes sense to me somehow.
There is a certain unique rawness to the characters in your paintings. Growing up in Wyoming must have put you in contact with many people who’s challenges come from the out of doors and the respite from temporary relief from booze and tough women. Is Wyoming where a lot of the ideas for your art come from?
There is certainly a lot of history in Wyoming that has inspired a number of paintings, but I think my experience with the environment rather than any particular people I knew has helped contribute to my understanding and expression of the characters in my paintings. I grew up in a tiny town of less than 200 people. I spent a lot of time catching snakes and lizards in the summer and lived through a number of blizzards and long winters. Now that I’m grown up I look back at that and imagine not having electricity or air conditioning or any real civilization that was closer than 3 or 4 days by horse. Pile on top of that hostile natives and other settlers who may not have your best interests at heart. I think you would have to have a very strong mental fortitude on top of a physical toughness to be in that place and time.
Some of your characters are assassins, others are defending themselves, others are louts with tiny reptilian brains who just like to kill. What thought process do you go through in conjuring up these characters?
Most of them are based on some sort of real person or story. What I really try to do is find a way to understand them and to express my idea of who they might of been in a way that others might find entertaining or interesting.
It seems like almost every painting you do, has a background story and a future. What we see is a violent present. Do you yourself have any sense of their stories?
You’re right in that they have an implied backstory and possible future. I tend to put them in a transitional moment. I don’t always make it obvious if something has already happened or about to happen. The perception of violence is almost always up to the viewer. With the exception of a couple of paintings, I don’t show people getting shot or hurt, although there’s an implication that someone or something either just got it or is about to.
Are any of these people you actually know? Am I putting too much into the story aspect of it? When people react to your art is the story they see a common story or are the variances and interpretations fairly wide?
There are a number of ways people see and interpret some of the paintings. I leave plenty up to the viewers imagination. If I showed everything in the painting it would leave the view with nothing for them to figure out or interpret. In my mind that makes for a boring painting. It’s like seeing the monster in a movie, it’s not really scary anymore once you know what it is. Jaws was really scary to me as a kid and I think it’s because you never really saw the shark. The open ended aspect of the paintings also allow the viewers to see themselves in the role of the character if they choose. I think it’s important for people to find a way to personally connect to the art.
For me as a writer, when I interview someone I haven’t met before (like you) almost every time it opens up a kind of new life experience for me which may preoccupy my life for days, weeks and sometimes a lifetime. What does each painting do for you?
I look for something to learn about and try to find a way to connect and understand it. I’m not really interested in just a guy shooting a gun with a cowboy hat on. I want to know why he is doing what he’s doing and what his motivations are in context to his circumstances and the time he’s living in. On the technical side of making a painting I like to find new or better ways of doing something. I don’t want to do the same poses or same costume or slight variations over and over. I try not to worry about making mistakes or changing something when it needs to be changed compositionally or otherwise.
Almost every artist I’ve known has a collection of works that he paints to sell and another that he keeps and reserves to only show other artists who appreciate technique and the other subtleties of art. Do you have such a collection and what does it look like?
I don’t have anything that I intentionally keep secret or to myself. The paintings are made to go out into the world and be enjoyed by others. I do have a few pieces that I’ve done that seem to have a one man audience of myself, although it was unintentional. Basically it’s a character that consists of a nude fat white guy sitting in a tree pooping on pigeons, floating over the paparazzi; balancing effortlessly by his fingertips on gear shifters that are behind his back and other various scenarios that are ridiculous and somewhat sardonic.
What do you make of the business of art?
I’m very grateful and fortunate to have found a way to make a living on the sales of my art. There can be ups and downs like with any other business, but in the end I’m living the dream!
Are you, in your mind working on the penultimate piece of art that will finally express fully what you are trying to say? What do you hope to gain out of your art? Is there anything that you would like to add to this interview?
I think as an artist you always want to outdo yourself and improve over previous work. However, I don’t think that any one painting will ever fully express everything I have to say. I tend to say a lot of stuff and it tends to shift directions on a constant basis. I think the overall body of work is probably more important to me than any one particular painting. The artists who go crazy are likely the ones that take themselves too seriously or put too much pressure on themselves to make the ultimate expression. I try to make sure that the making of art is always fun. The thing I hope to gain out of my art is a life well lived. I’m working on it.