Interview with Artist Leif J. Lee

Leif J. Lee, a multi-disciplinary artist currently based in Portland, OR., has been busy. It’s exactly two years to the date since Lee graduated as an MFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art, and since that time, Lee’s studio practice has continued to expand and transverse a wide variety of media. Lee’s current body of work, titled: “Why a queer occult?” coincides with Lee’s practice as part of the Rainmaker Residency. This body of work includes: four drawings, a large scale embroidery piece (hand-dyed by Lee), a short animated film, four photographs, a floor sculpture, a performance, and a zine. Lee recently sat down to discuss this inclusive studio practice, as well as themes in Lee’s current body of work.

Woodward : Your practice includes drawing, performance, sculpture, print, fabric, film, and photography. Would you describe how you begin to choose each material for each project?

Lee: I would say that it always starts from drawing, that drawing is where I begin all my creative process, and often when I’m drawing I’ll be reviewing some of my drawings and certain aspects of [them] will kind of draw response out of me. So sometimes I’ll draw some lines, and then I’ll think: “I really want to get my hands around these lines, so that I can understand them.” So I’ll make clay sculptures out of certain shapes, and turn them into almost game pieces, so that I can turn them around and move them quickly. Other times, the drawings that I’m doing kind of tell me that I need larger pens, or bigger fabric markers or paint brushes or something- to tell me I’m expressing the movement of the line in more detail. Other times, the drawings I feel are kind of expressing animation or movement, so I’ll then jump into Super 8 film and start trying to animate them. And then there’s times that the drawings that I make – working with the clay sculpture that I made based on drawings – where I realize that the performance of using those sculptures becomes really apparent to me, and so then I will shift the work into performance. And photography, I don’t know that I would call myself a photographer, but now with iPhones, we’re all photographers, so in that case I would say I am, because I am always taking pictures of the work – I’ll cut up the photos, or I’ll enhance them, or I’ll zoom in on certain pieces, and I can do that really quickly with the phone. And sometimes the photos end up being the work, and sometimes the photos lead me to other drawings.

Would you please discuss some of the current themes in your work “Why a queer occult?”

I think that’s the most exciting piece about it for me. [The work] specifically centers around these specific ideas around occult as something hidden, and how that connects to queer identity. And so I showed in the exhibit a series of drawings that I did that were really private. I did about 50 or 100 of these little drawings and each time I created one of those drawings, it would be after sitting in a period of 20 minute meditation. I did that everyday for a few months leading up to the show. And what I found in those drawings that would immediately follow meditation, was that they were really free from judgments, or free from requirements or outside influence, and it just sort of came from a source within me, I guess, as opposed to being in response to politics or media or trends in the art world, (even though I think some of the work is on trend with some things that I see currently). But what I found in all those little drawings was a theme and repetitive symbols, that started to show the interplay between those symbols, and that to me is connected to this concept of the “hidden” and the “occult.” I see some of the symbols that I drew from my meditations all over, in the Illuminati and [Solomonic] Magic, and just a lot of different “occults” that I see, that I don’t necessarily say that I belong to, but that I see as these universal or collective consciousness of symbols. And so, I’m also just curious as a queer person, “where do queer people fit into a spirituality?” It’s interesting to see other artists that are simultaneously working with these really similar aesthetics – and I’m not attaching too much to that other than seeing it – and I think it’s interesting to see how we affect each other, especially with the internet, and specifically Instagram, and how rapidly connections are made because of that. I think simultaneously that technology is connecting other artists and it’s also connecting these spiritual, hidden ideas. I think that they are affecting each other and their evolution, and I think that we’re evolving very rapidly. And so to counter that with slowing down, and meditation, and actually looking at what is seeping in and what I’m drawing out of me – literally drawing out of me – making that the focus of the work, [ was ] trying to connect to my own sense of spirituality in a time where everything seems available to everyone all the time. What do I tether myself to in all of that? As a queer person asking, when religion specifically was really damaging to me? And yet I still long to find a place where I can feel like I belong or I connect to, and so the place where I find that to be the most welcoming is the occult. For better or worse.

You currently have a studio space as part of the Rainmaker Residency. How has that influenced your practice?

It’s been great [working so large]! I think having Rainmaker’s Gallery as a place where I can sort of expand these ideas into a container, and show them to people, has been really helpful to me and my practice. Otherwise, all that stuff just sits in my studio. It gave me a chance to try all of these ideas and push myself to do my best to show all of it, and then kind of pare down as I go – or edit as I go. Having a space to try out those ideas has been really, really helpful.

Selected works from Leif J. Lee’s past show “Why a queer occult?” will be on view in WINDOWWALL Salon during the month of July, 2016.

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