Above: The work of Julie Leidner courtesy, the artist
SPEAKING: Julie Leidner
with Kevin Warth
Julie Leidner’s artistic endeavors are multifaceted and diverse. She oversees Sheherazade, a garage-turned-art-gallery in Old Louisville that Leidner founded in 2018, has taken on multiple positions in art education, and maintains her own studio practice. Blending fantasy and history in her paintings, Leidner explores the nature of humanity through a proto-human character named Pebbles. Kevin Warth sat down with Leidner in her Old Louisville studio adjacent to Sheherazade.
KW: So Julie, I always like to ask local artists what it means to be an artist in Louisville. How would you describe your experience here?
JL: Obviously, it's different for every artist, but for me, it can feel very private to be an artist in Louisville. It can feel a little bit inward-facing.
KW: Can you elaborate on that?
JL: When you're an artist here, there aren't as many opportunities to do things that put you in the public eye. So, it sometimes ends up being about you working in your studio.
KW: And as someone who has lived and worked in other places, do you think Louisville’s privateness is good or bad thing at this point in your career?
JL: I never know what’s a good thing for my career. [laughs] I don't always make the right choices for my career or even think that way. It's a double-edged sword. I believe that it's good for me personally, but getting out of Louisville on a regular basis is important as an artist. The world is changing and it is possible to live a life as an artist in the public realm even from a place like Louisville. You can live here and be engaged with the larger art community just through the internet. I follow tons of artists and art galleries on Instagram and that’s kind of what you have to do as an artist here—just eat up what is going on in the art world.
KW: Instagram is a great resource and it creates new modes of viewership for people in mid-sized cities like Louisville that may never get to see certain exhibitions in person.
JL: I can’t afford to go to New York right now and see the Hilma af Klint show before it comes down, but at least I can look at it on Instagram. I’m not going to lie, I’m scrolling through Instagram all the time looking at art. I get a lot out of doing that.
KW: So can you elaborate a bit about your artistic practice? What media do you use? What ideas does your work engage with?
JL: I'm a painter. I love painting and everything that I do pretty much coincides with paint in some way. I am currently creating a body of work that involves a specific character. The character is somebody that I'm discovering as I'm painting her, but it's a character without a specific narrative. I call her the Pebbles character and she's a prototypical cave girl. This person has appeared in some paintings that I've done and at least one performance where I donned the Pebbles character and created some paintings in public. That has been part of my studio practice, but I also consider what I do with Sheherazade to be part of my artistic practice. As an artist, I have a lot of different arms, kind of like an octopus. Even though Sheherazade is a curatorial practice, and it's other artists that show their work in that space, it's very creative for me. It feels like it is a collaborative art project.
KW: What’s the process for selecting artists like?
JL: It's really organic the way that it happens. I don't plan things super far in advance, as a number of different things have to add up in my mind to make that selection. It has to do with what came before, what feels right for the time of year, or what relates to something that's happening in the world. Even if it's just a vague notion, like some kind of political feeling in the air, that can inform my decision of what kind of art would be best. I do get a lot of people contacting me, asking me to be a part of it, but I only have room for 6 shows a year, maybe seven. I'm really interested in artists who take their work very seriously, who live as artists even if they have a day job, and who consider their true work to be their art. It means a lot to ask someone if they want to create work for Sheherazade because I literally share a space with it.
KW: If that barrier wasn’t there, we could look right into the gallery space, so you’re constantly surrounded.
JL: I am, and it feeds into my studio practice like osmosis. Yoko [Molotov]’s show last March had a sound component and anytime I was down here making work, I could hear the sound of her piece. That was almost a year ago and I can still remember the melody of that song in my head. It's a very personal and intuitive decision for me—that's why I feel like it's a part of my artistic practice. I'm still trying to figure out what that really means. There might even be some artists who have been involved with this that would raise an eyebrow at that idea that I consider it collaborative.
KW: Not only do you run Sheherazade and work as an artist, but you’re also an artist-in-residence at St. Francis High School. Is that a separate persona or is it also interconnected?
JL: They are all kind of related. The teaching part fed into the idea for Sheherazade because one of the things I really like about teaching, as I discovered, was sitting down with another person and getting to hear their ideas, becoming excited with them, and then helping figure out how to realize it. That can be collaborative too. And again, I sometimes think of my role as a teacher as being part of my artistic practice. There are some projects that I developed as a part of my own curriculum at St. Francis that are pretty much a collaborative work of social practice. For example, we had this project where everybody came up with an idea for a public art piece in Louisville. Each student group found a site in Louisville, came up with an idea for how to create a work of art that it engaged with that site, and then presented their ideas. We also did a piñata project where whatever was inside had to be conceptually related to the form. I have fun with it, but it is also a creative act.
KW: Where else do you look for inspiration?
JL: I'm really, really interested in history. That sounds super nerdy, but it is one of my biggest sources of inspiration. I started getting interested in history through visiting Mammoth Cave as a kid and learning about prehistoric people, artifacts, and things that shared this space with us. The idea of people, who had lives that are so different from ours that we can't even imagine, shared this same space is super fascinating to me. I’m writing a book with Katy Delahanty called Sisters of the Lantern, which is a work of historical fiction that follows a group of women around this area in Louisville as they time travel to the past and see what happened before us.
KW: That sounds really fascinating. Do you consider your studio practice, particularly this series with Pebbles, to also be a work of historical fiction?
JL: You know, I have actually never thought about it that way, but it is. In this project with Katy there is a narrative, but in my painting I’m interested in creating a character that we can see but experience outside of any narrative. I think that that's kind of what painting does and should do, as it differs from something like a graphic novel.
KW: You mentioned earlier that it was important for local artists to travel. Can you talk about your experience with Residency Unlimited last year?
JL: I was very fortunate to be given that opportunity through Great Meadows Foundation. That was the first residency I have ever gotten into.
KW: Really? That’s so surprising!
JL: I've applied to tons of residencies over the past 10 or 15 years of my life, but I've only ever applied to the ones that are free, and the ones that are free are the most competitive. Maybe I got waitlisted or something, but most of the time I've gotten rejected and then I couldn’t afford to apply to the ones that you pay for. So this was the first one that I've done and it taught me a lot about residencies. I think a lot of people do have a romantic idea of what a residency is: something like an idyllic landscape where you go to your studio every day and you spend the time just focusing on your work and having this wonderful, transformative experience where people bring picnic baskets of lunch to your door. For months you don't have to be distracted by any realities of life, that kind of thing. There are residencies out there like that, but that's not what Residency Unlimited was like. Because of the fact that it was in New York City, first of all, you're in this place where there are literally hundreds of art events going on every single day.
KW: I imagine it’s overwhelming, like, “Oh god, I have twenty options at any given moment.”
JL: That's one of the frustrating things about it, but also a great aspect of living in New York. I had to learn how to balance working with also making the most of my time there. Not only was I there to see New York and make work, but I had to make work specifically for a show that was going to be on display in Brooklyn. That was a great experience, but also very stressful because you’re expected to make something good enough to show in six weeks.
KW: What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?
JL: The most valuable thing was getting to know the feeling of what it's like to be a practicing artist in such a high frequency place. Living as an artist in New York feels like being a fly versus the feeling of living as an artist in Louisville, which is more like being like one of those big, fuzzy bumblebees. Things just move so quickly and you have to catch up until you start moving quickly. You talk faster, you make art faster, and you make conversations, deals, and connections faster. There is a lot to be said for knowing how to harness energy in that way. I also met a lot of amazing people, and those are friendships that I'm hoping to have forever. That in and of itself is a good reason to do a residency, to just expand your network. The more artists that you can know personally, the better. It is really nice to just meet other people that can validate your life goals and reasons for doing certain projects, but also show you different ways of doing them and give you new ideas.
Engage with Leidner’s artistic practice further at www.julieleidner.com and with Sheherazade at www.sheherazade.org.
Beginning February 2nd, Sheherazade will feature the work of Alex Schmitz, a Brooklyn-based painter from Northern Kentucky.
Managing Editor, Contributor
White Odessa, Simultaneous Portraits.
Left: Kevin Warth, Right: Julie Leidner
Dirty, Ain’t I? (Seafoam), Oil on canvas.
Dirty, Ain’t I? (Milky), Oil on canvas.