Leslie Kerby creates mixed media collages, installations, and diverse collaborative work with nuanced commentary on current social and cultural climate. In her interview with Art Spiel she sheds some light on her diverse professional background, art-making process, ideas, and plans.
AS: Tell me a bit about your background and how you got into art.
Leslie Kerby: I have a varied background that includes social work, then positions at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell and as Assistant Director at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, NJ (formerly Art Center). I was involved in development, some exhibition coordination, arts education, marketing, public relations, and art sales.
When I moved into NYC, I worked for a few years at a division of Saatchi & Saatichi coordinating market research panels and leading focus groups for many Procter and Gamble clients. I also led a corporate communications effort for a financial printing company where I contracted with and met several small graphic design firms. When I left the printing company, I formed a group of graphic design firms, commercial illustrators and photographers – representing them under my consulting company Payne Associates. We came together as needed to create marketing programs for clients in just about every industry for about 18 years. During the association with these firms I became interested in creating my own art work.
I started making small abstract collages and developed a greeting card line called Ornamental Cards that I sold through reps to museum and theater gift shops across the country. I had the card line for six years and during that time I was introduced to printmaking by a friend who is an artist. As the imagery developed into single narratives with figures and the works became larger, a gallery local to me in Brooklyn exhibited and sold the work for six years until they closed. Eventually I did less consulting and started spending more time in the studio.
AS: What do you consider as major experiences in your art journey?
Leslie Kerby: The work I did as a social worker has had a real impact on my art making all these years later and definitely has helped define me as a person- how I think of my place in a community and in the world. I was in my early twenties, newly married and working in a poor farming community referred to by the local radio station as “the world’s largest peanut market”.
My clients, many of whom had only completed first or third grade because their families needed them to work, relied on the agency’s services in the off season. There were stark contrasts between my life and theirs. The process of negotiating the two to create affirming options for my clients, was challenging (sometimes a matter of life and death), as well as gratifying. The relationships demanded common sense, empathy, compassion, and an ability to extricate myself when the work was done so they could move on with their lives.
The experience of working with other professional artists throughout my time at the museums and in the commercial art world taught me about craftsmanship and art making. Basically, I draw from all of my past experiences—my life is one big collage, including my degree in American Studies, an interdisciplinary major.
AS: It seems to me that drawing, printmaking, and collage are central in your work. Do you agree with that and can you elaborate?
Leslie Kerby: Yes, I would agree that drawing, printmaking and collage are all central components of my current work.
I have employed each individually and collectively to create several bodies of work. I enjoy the processes involved in printmaking which enables me to experiment outside of traditional printmaking using editions. Collage as a way of working also just makes sense to me. I like researching and pulling elements together to create a narrative – I draw on my background which is like a giant collage.
AS: Tell me about your work process. How do you start a project?
Leslie Kerby: I think about my work in three categories all of which have a narrative component- Figures, Elements, and Text. Within these three categories I have created work all of which has a social context whether I am literally using figures, abstract elements, or text to develop the narrative. All of the categories are linked and focus on how we lead our lives as individuals, and how our lives are invariably connected to, or changed by the broader networks and communities within which we live and interact.
I’m particularly interested in social ideas that I feel are at a moment of change—for example, the changes that container shipping has brought to our global trading system and one that the current President wants to change, our healthcare system and its impact on the individual as well as how we provide healthcare to other countries, social media and how that has impacted individuals and communities, the shift in how we talk and think about real estate as an investment instead of just a decent place to live, issues around the immigration debate for instance.
I read widely for a year or more on a variety of topics before I feel that the time is right to develop the body of work. I draw and write in notebooks, edit the ideas and come back to them from time to time as I figure out whether a series will include collage, sculpture, and animation. Since often these topics have difficult and complex subject matter, it’s important to me that the work would be accessible and somewhat humorous.
I’m not interested in hitting people over the head with these ideas. I develop the pieces with nuance, packing many levels of thought on the topic, so that the viewer can tease out their own opinions with the hope that the work sparks larger conversations.
AS: Can you give me two examples?
Leslie Kerby: In the series Me & You and Everyone We Suspect, I considered the immigration debate around the time of Obama’s inauguration, observing it is often like a game of roulette—one or more groups of people is either in favor or out of favor depending on the political or economic winds. In each of the seven mono prints in the series, the central figure positioned next to the Statue of Liberty figure changes or rotates out to the rest of the group on the page.
For an exhibition at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn with a real estate theme, I made a series of oil pastel portraits of couples that I created from mixing and matching people found in the wedding section of the New York Times, working with the assumption that this is a time in one’s life when you are most aspirational in looking for a home. Using language and terminology generally used in real estate advertising, I describe each of the couples in the same way that real estate brokers might describe a property, like Grand Modernism, the new definitions of homey, xxx mint or another, Crazy, sexy, cool, massively proportioned with geothermal heat.
AS: You have also worked on some collaborative projects, including ballet and video. Can you tell me about some of them?
Leslie Kerby: Norte Maar for Collaborative Projects in the Arts in Brooklyn has been very supportive of my work, inviting me to be involved in a few collaborative projects. One was an opportunity to make a limited edition artist book. Norte Maar encouraged me to invite a short story writer I had met at a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts to collaborate on the publication that included imagery from the Border Lines series. The imagery paired nicely with John Talbird’s stories about New York.
I was also invited to create a large sculpture for a Norte Maar sponsored exhibition a few years ago—between a place and candy: new works in pattern + repetition + motif, an exhibition at the 1285 Avenue of the Americas gallery in mid-town Manhattan. I had just finished a series of collages referencing shipping containers and their use in our global economy. The collages were the starting point for the resulting 10 x 8 foot sculpture, The World Contained II.
AS: How did animation enter your work?
Leslie Kerby: At the time I was invited to create the sculpture I was already considering animation to further articulate the shipping and containing process. Almost two years later I began to work with a theater and video designer Lianne Arnold who I met through another artist at BRIC Arts | Media. I photographed pieces from the sculpture to use as the basis for the imagery in the animation. Then Lianne and I wrote a storyboard/narrative separating the story into four quadrants—referencing the stacking and movement of containers in the yard by the workers, sending the containers across the sea on large container ships, re-stacking the containers at their destination and re-using containers for community applications: tent cities, designer homes as well as for markets and mobile hydroponic farms to service communities in remote locations.
Lianne introduced me to Elisheba Ittoop with whom I collaborated on the sound piece. We started with a group of sounds. Elisheba built the piece in small segments and Lianne married the sound with the visuals to complete the work. The three of us worked very closely and fluidly together on all aspects of the final animation.
AS: And the project with XAOC Ballet?
Leslie Kerby: Subsequently, for CounterPointe 5, another Norte Maar program, I was invited to work with XAOC Ballet who was receptive to choreographing a dance around the concepts presented in the The World Contained II video animation. The program which pairs artists with women choreographers creating dance for the pointe shoe, has been a very successful collaborative program for a number of years.
I was fortunate that XAOC was interested in creating choreography around my project vs. the other way around – the artist responding to a choreographed dance. We talked about the concepts in the animation and the dance was built with a series of corresponding movements. XAOC also found the perfect costumes to complete the composition.
AS: Can you tell me about your collaborative project prior to Norte Maar?
Leslie Kerby: Prior to the collaborations with Norte Maar I worked on another project with a composer I met at an Artists Residency. His contemporary compositions are based on a database of recorded sounds. He had secured large metal panels that he planned to hang in a Chicago gallery and had initially planned to record individuals reciting poetry to bounce off of the panels. However, as we talked and he read a series of tweets I was developing for another project, he decided to instead record individuals reading a series of tweets that I wrote for the piece. .
AS: Can you share some ideas on your upcoming project on cemeteries?
Leslie Kerby: I’m working on several ways of looking at cemeteries in the context of community. Here’s a preliminary statement that I’ve written about this upcoming series.
Like in life—in death—we also assemble into distinct communities whether we are the founding families of a town, belong to a particular church, club, association or labor union, etc., we are bound or organized according to these hierarchies within the cemetery. I started considering the community life of the cemetery because we are possibly at a significant moment of change.
The Victorian model, a memorial park for the living may have out lived itself. Many communities have physically run out of space and are looking at various ways to use that space with tiered interments, use of grave sites on a temporary and rotating basis, coupled with more people seeking options for cremation which comes with its own set of variables. New discussions are evolving around natural burial grounds, more ecologically sound ways to cremate. For instance, in a 07/02/17 article in The New York Times, Motkoko Rich writes that in Japan there are “corpse hotels” – rooms for a DYI service for families to grieve and remember their loved ones.
How then, do we look forward to memorialize our loved ones, families and communities in these new ways? Installations of these ideas are not intended to be morbid in tone, instead, uplifting looking forward to the way in which we will carry on past traditions and give life to new ones.
AS: Can you tell me a bit about your public housing project?
Leslie Kerby: In 2012 I made a series of drawings using graphite, relating to public housing and the way in which this type of housing is often viewed from people who live both inside and outside of these complexes. I purposefully used an abstract polygon-shaped element (instead of using figures). I worked like a “planner”, using a pre-defined area on each sheet of paper, to suggest some of these issues. The repetition of the polygon shape also mimics the mostly repetitive nature of public housing architecture.
I may be re-visiting some of the concepts in these drawings as conversations progress with an organization which is planning a long-term series of arts programming and events for a large public housing complex in Manhattan over the next few years.
AS: What else are you working on now?
Leslie Kerby: I am also teasing out some ideas around the weight of objects and inheritance to create a portrait of inheritance. I’m interested in the artifacts that may have little monetary value but have sentimental value to an individual. I’ve been collecting quotes like this one from The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal—
“if I choose to pick-up this small white cup with its single chip near the handle, will it figure in my life? A simple object, this cup is more ivory than white, too small for the morning coffee, not quite balanced, could become part of my life of handled things. It could fall away into the territory of a personal story-telling;the sensuous, sinuous intertwining of things with memories.
Or I could put it away. Or I could pass it on.”