Exclusive Interview: Inside the World of Leah Haney’s Architecture-Inspired Abstraction

by Nathan SpoorPosted on

Working out of her Austin studio, Leah Haney makes paintings that aspire to create an experience akin to entering a work of architecture. Her mixed-media works are produced with the thesis that painting, much like architecture and design, can stand alone and be experienced on a purely visual level — without piled-on metaphors or subtexts. Haney began her creative journey at UT Austin, yet found a life-changing experience in visiting Florence, Italy shortly on graduating. These days, the artist can be found mostly in her Austin studio complex, constantly rearranging her studio furniture to achieve the best personal environment for creating each piece. We spoke to her about the ways architecture informs her work, her creative process, and her passion for science fiction.

We’d love to hear a little about you. Where is your studio and where are you from?

I’m currently living and have a studio in Austin, Texas. I graduated from UT School of Fine Arts in 2010. I moved here 8 years ago from LA, spending most of my adolescence in California. After graduating from UT, I continued making and showing art around the city. There’s an ease to Austin, allowing me to focus and mature my artistic sensibilities and style to be shared on a larger plane.

Tell us a little about your artistic background. What were your first influences to be creative and put so much energy into your work as a serious artist?

Since childhood I’ve always been distracted by ideas, always making something up, always enacting harebrained creative endeavors. Singing, acting, film, fashion — I loved it all, but retained a certain reverence for fine art, seduced by its white walls. My decision to fully pursue art was solidified in the months following graduation from high school, when I had the opportunity to live in Florence, Italy. I don’t need to explain how I came to this resolution, because well, it’s Florence!

Living amidst the most magnificent works of architecture and sculpture in history confirmed what I always knew: I was going to be an artist. I had no choice: Brunelleschi, Giotto, and Donatello forced me into it. Art school was crucial to my artistic identity’s development. Talented teachers and peers steered this wayward, distractible art mess to more solid ground. I was introduced to contemporary artists and studied modern architecture. I emerged hungry to make art, got myself a studio and haven’t stopped painting since.

Do you find that each piece is a full creative study, or do these works we’re viewing belong to some larger series of similar concepts or works?

Each piece is an independent study. There’s no blanketing concept dictating the results, no illusive ideal I’ve been chasing all along. Yes, the process is the same, even colors and materials. But I came to a realization a while ago: I didn’t want to shovel metaphor, or meaning onto my paintings. I wanted them to stand alone. That’s why I’m so drawn to architecture. The most impactful structures are the ones you have to be in to understand. My paintings dare to create the same effect on a two dimensional plane.

Your images appear to be predominantly design-oriented, but upon closer inspection tend to have a very architectural or furniture-based origin – where did these ideas begin?

The paintings’ origins are very important to my work and this is a great question. The idea began years ago, after completing a slew of conceptually over-burdened work, coated with verbal bullshit. I was tired of spending hours rendering photorealistic shallow paintings, and trying to justify them. I wanted to make something visually engrossing for myself. So, having a great appreciation for modern design and architecture, where what you see is what you get, I started there. The first drawing with this in mind, one I consider the genesis of my current work, happened late at night. Exhausted and questioning if I should even be an artist, I slapped an image of a skyscraper onto a dirty piece of paper, and extended the lines.

So how did you grow into a comfort level of not forcing the image to be as hyperreal as it could be? When did you overcome the need to tie yourself down to the source material?

As someone who spent years studying hyperrealism, mastering the art of oil paint and still-life, it felt wrong, like I was cheating. But I derived pleasure in creating new spaces, beginning with a photograph and using it to guide me, ending with an image rooted in reality, expanding into fantasy. Since then, my process has evolved, but the fundamentals remain the same. There isn’t much consideration in the source-image choice either, I scavenge for old interior decorating and architecture books and pick rooms and buildings I’m drawn to. I purposefully avoid over-thinking it. My paintings are not a commentary on current architecture, or a study in nostalgia for past design movements. When I stand in room, I don’t think about the architect’s motives, I simply experience the room. I notice if the light is warm or cold, if the ceilings are high, if a wall is intruding. Yes, context is important and meaning imbued, but that’s secondary. I approach my paintings as if existing within them, absorbing the space, and a moment in time.

What is life like in your studio?

My studio, on Austin’s Eastside, is in an old warehouse-turned-multi-disciplinary art space, crawling with the philotechnical. It’s open to all manner of expression; there I’ve been connected with a variety of artists that I’m now collaborating with. My personal space is a library of old architecture and design books with paper scraps, paint, and tape wads covering the floor. The studio’s lay-out is constantly changing, due to my tendency to reorganize when I’m frustrated with my paintings. When I’m wrapped up in a piece and can’t find a way out, I have to concern myself with another space to readjust my scope. Furniture placement is crucial. I’m pretty sure I’ve rearranged my studio for every painting.

We’re curious if you enjoy music, podcasts , having TV or movies on the background, or even perhaps silence while you create?

The audio aspect varies. If I’m working on a reactive, more intuitive layer, or at a point where compositional decisions are made, music is important, not too distracting, with electric rhythms, something to inspire and assist in atmospheric tone. If it’s a more monotonous, mindless phase of a painting, exacting stencils and tape lines, gloss coating, sanding, then I’ll listen to books — usually sci-fi classics. Then there are times when I’m so anxious to start, or so thoroughly engrossed in what I’m doing, I forget to turn on music or an audio book, and fail to notice for hours.

So what do you do when you’re not creating? Is there an alter ego of Leah Haney that works as a daytime professional then dons her artist persona and gets into the studio?

I’m happy to say there is no alter-ego to creative Leah — no professional/ real world persona. I live 100% steeped in creative process. Of course, there are financial and lifestyle consequences to existing in utter artistic abandon. But, I’m surrounded by people who believe in my desire to create, and support my sometimes crazy, impulsive artistic choices — my unwavering dedication to commit all of myself. With that said, I do have an alter ego within my creative self. Since 2011, I’ve been dreaming up an expansive alternate reality in the form of a science fiction series. I’ll forever inhabit other dimensions, either through word or paint. The two don’t purposefully intersect, yet both are part of my identity. I don’t force commonality between my sci-fi and paintings. If there is a connection between the two, I want it to be organic.


Do you think in terms of scale, the size of the work, when you start a new painting? How do you feel that the dimensions of a finished work affect the idea itself?

I definitely think in terms of scale. My surroundings affect my process, even down to the arrangement of the furniture. So the shape and size of the rectangle I paint on dictates the image. The process began as small experiments, then I quickly, instinctually jumped to large wooden panels. The paintings are about experiencing a space, so it was the bigger the better. I recently went through a phase of small paintings, for a change of pace and because I had a small studio. Small images are intimate, it forces the viewer to adjust their eyes and be physically closer to the image. I found myself treating the little works less like space, and more like objects. That certainly changed my approach. Now I’ve returned to painting large. It’s the way they are meant to be. My small paintings are like souvenirs, and the large ones an actual experience, a vacation from spatial reality.

You have an exhibition running currently, is that correct? Tell us a little about that and what you have coming up. Where can people see your work?

My current show mainly features larger pieces in the vast gallery connected to my studio. It actually solidified my choice to return to big works, seeing them in wide-open space with plenty of wall space between them. The future of my work is wide open. I’ve begun experimenting with paining on layers of glass, still sticking to the same process and aesthetic, but enhancing the spatial depth by creating large-scale three-dimensional versions of my paintings. I intend on showing these in the next year or so, and the venue is yet to be determined. I have a very specific vision for this next venture and so I’m taking plenty of time to perfect it.

As you notice more of the evolution of your work each time you create or publicly show your paintings, what new moves do you see coming up for your process?

I’ve come to a point with my work where I want to play with various interpretations of my paintings. Thus I’m collaborating with holographic, sound, and digital artists. I want to enhance the spatial experience using different mediums. Right now most of this is in the theoretical phase. So I’m also continuing to paint as I normally do, and expand that process. Taking advantage of any opportunity to show. I’ll have something along those lines in this month’s “Infinity+Infinity” exhibition and performance at the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin. That will feature a new interactive and holographic environment that I’ve collaborated on.

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