Gwyneth Leech began drawing on coffee cups—as in the take-out paper ones ubiquitous to a New Yorker’s existence—in 2007, at a monthly gathering of artists. She says, “There’s a lot of energy during those meetings, and some tension. I started to draw on my cup, almost as a response to all the stimulation. Drawing helped me to stay focused.” Then, she started to draw on coffee cups at other times. Soon, she couldn’t stop. Leech explains, “I love the continuous image around the cup. It’s so much more intriguing than a rectangular, flat sketchbook. Who knows whether this leads me in a more sculptural direction?”
One of the places the coffee cup drawings lead is directly online: Leech began a very particular artist’s blog this spring, Gwyneth’s Full Brew (subtitle—Art and Life in New York City, Cup in Hand), on which she showcases her cups and chronicles her own New York stories. As you speak with Leech and get to know her work, you realize Full Brew encapsulates the essence not of all her work but of how she approaches art-making—and her life as artist, mother, daughter, New Yorker, friend, sister. A few things matter most up front. They don’t compete. They are coexist. Leech cares about the place where she lives, the people in it, the landscape, and the way she sees and responds to all of it. Her work—including short videos about artists and dancers she’s gotten to know, paintings of diverse families, images of familiar landscapes viewed from different vantage points, photographs of playgrounds and parks—weaves together her world and her intimate, seamless responses.
Of course, it’s not like that. A mother of two (her daughters are 14 and seven) and active caregiver to elderly parents - duties she shares with her sister, costume designer and artist, Kitty Leech, as well as her husband, sound editor, David Wilson—she professes to work in different media in part to stay a step ahead of becoming blocked. She says, “To let things take you where they go, jump on different projects, that’s like being carried by the waves. Because, raising children, there’s so little time,” she explains, “It’s hard sometimes to stay focused. My attention is so often fractured. I find it helpful to move in different directions as an artist. I regularly make a sideways move. It’s like I’m always strategizing a way back in.” She adds, “I do a lot of work on the go.” An example of her work on the go: the coffee cups.
Around 2005, having worked on a large installation project—Stations of the Cross, at St. Paul’s on the Green Church in Norwalk, Connecticut—Leech wanted to do something very different. “Working on Stations of the Cross, I attempted to take those iconic stories and imagine how they appeared to different, contemporary people. It was a mournful project. After that, I wanted to do something that responded to my everyday world.”
Leech, who lives with her family in Hell’s Kitchen, also found herself considering diversity in new ways. Her second daughter, Grace, born in 2003, has Down syndrome, and Leech describes how Grace’s arrival made hers a “conspicuous family.” She explains, “When for some reason you are seen as ‘different,’ you find yourself becoming public property. Before she was born, I knew nothing about Down syndrome. I, we—my husband and myself—were fearful: we didn’t know what we were in for. We were worried that people would be critical of us for having a child with Down syndrome. We were fearful of going out with the baby, what the response would be.” She barely stops for a breath. “We were overwhelmed by positive attention. A truck driver stopped to lean out his open window and say something. A trash collector told us about his sister. We were, through Grace, opened up to other people in a way that was so different than with our first child, Megan, when we were so much more self-absorbed and insular.”
She describes being opened up to new, different conversations, too. Leech says, “I have friends, many in Hell’s Kitchen, who have adopted across racial lines, friends in same-sex relationships raising children.” Leech started to paint portraits of her friends’ families. She discovered that simply showing varied families could move a conversation about diversity along. These portraits, she says, “celebrate all the positives about family, most importantly how family members love one another.”
Her initial series was, it turns out, a leaping off point. Leech continues, “I started to see how our family with its visible difference was enmeshed in a cultural conversation. Obama’s election and his family becoming the First Family brought diverse families into public focus in a new way. The lawsuit in California over Proposition 8 is pushing a conversation about same-sex marriage to the forefront. Same-sex marriage is simply a civil rights issue. That’s why I painted these seemingly differently different families, to show it’s all the same story.” In response to this broadening of her perspective, Leech’s portraits evolved. She says, “I became less focused in the most recent series upon specific families I knew. I started to paint hands. It was as if to say, ‘See this, family, it’s about loving children.’ I’m presenting a life-affirming, positive perspective.” Six of Leech’s hands paintings are on display at the Islip Art Museum and Carriage House all summer.
It’s not only a greater appreciation for the fact of diverse families that has changed Leech’s perspective since Grace’s birth. Leech describes how parenting a child with special needs has altered her priorities. She says, “I’ve become more aware of different ways of being, different learning styles. I’m less focused upon achievement than I used to be. I think this has been good for my elder daughter, too, less drive simply to be ‘best,’ more appreciation for being focused and engaged and compassionate.”
Some of Leech’s most recent work, too, seems influenced by this greater opening of arms into her community and a newfound attentiveness to issues surrounding the beauty of process rather than simply outcome. In March, Leech participated in the Pool Art Fair. She says, “The fair is held in a hotel. Each artist gets a room. The Studio on a Bed evolved out of my concerns—fear—about being a dealer for my own work. Most exhibitors paid to have the hotel furniture removed. I decided to keep it all and work with the room, making it more attractive with lamps and bedspreads and then involving the public in making their own images of family. I enjoyed being there as an artist and facilitator.” Of the drawings, in which people depicted their family relationships, she says, “There was a lot of love. There was some anger, some bad feelings, too, which I was somewhat surprised by.” In June, Leech created a similar project for Figment. This festival of participatory art projects was held on Governor’s Island. At Leech’s art picnic around the foot of a big oak tree people drew family pictures, she then pinned around the trunk’s base, to create an expansive take on the family tree. She says 150 participated in the spring event and 135 in June.
Besides thinking about family relations in work she creates, work she invites others to create and how she lives, Leech is appreciative to be one member in a family of artists, including her costume designer and artist sister, their mother, and both grandparents, who met in art school. She says, “We’ve done some family exhibitions at Susan Teller gallery.”
For Leech, family also instilled a keen sensibility about place. A Philadelphia native, Leech spent time each summer on the New Jersey shore, near Cape May. The marshlands there, not far from Long Beach Island towns like Avalon and Barnegat Light, resonate especially to her, places she knows exceedingly well “at eye level.” Interested in having her work move beyond the up-so-close focus of portraiture, Leech became particularly intrigued by images depicting the view from afar of the marshlands she loved obtained on Google Earth. “From above, you start to see the earth as a body, the organic, systemic feel it has,” she offers.
She found herself seeking different perspectives of landscapes from trains, boats and airplanes—including a small one over the city and Northern New Jersey’s marshlands. The photographs she took from above, she’s been using to create landscapes of the marshlands. These on high perspectives make her think about “how we live in the world,” while the series—both thematically and visually—feels like a natural next step after her series of hands. She says, “It’s a branching out from the hands, although I have been going back and forth between landscape and portrait.”
Leech rounds out her work life by singing professionally (with her husband) in the St. Bart’s Church choir, something they’ve done for nearly a decade. In the spring, along with everything else she does, she spent a few weeks as a census worker. Like the coffee cups she draws upon and the city’s stories she tells, Leech really has created her own art and life in New York.
For more about Gwyneth Leech:
Check out Sarah Buttenwieser’s blog, Standing in the Shadows: