For many artists, the digital sphere has been a necessary tool in reaching larger audiences and sidestepping possible gatekeeping from institutions. Instagram, with its emphasis on all things visual, has been particularly helpful.
Since the 2018 rollout of a feature that allows users to share other peoples’ posts in their Instagram stories, profiles on the social media platform have become reminiscent of the blogs on LiveJournal or Tumblr, with personal posts placed between music suggestions and images meant to boost an imagined aesthetic. Queued after videos from, say, a hike or a meal, you may catch the work of an unknown artist your old friend or little cousin admires — and find that, after visiting the artist’s profile, you admire them, too.
ALL ARTS has always been a platform meant to bolster the work of artists through a supportive community that transcends genre, and the ALL ARTS Instagram is no different. Every week, we feature posts from creators in the digital space on our Instagram stories. And now, with the aim to foster our arts community, we’re talking with a new artist every week in our new series: Artists of Instagram.
Meet Gwyneth Leech (@gwynethleech), a 61-year-old painter based in New York City.
Leech comes from a family of artists, including her grandparents, who met at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Design in the 1920s. Her grandfather, Michael J. Gallagher, was a “noted printmaker on the Philadelphia WPA print project in the 1930s,” according to Leech, and her mother was also an artist.
“I detoured from [an art career] path only during my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, earning a B.A. in Anthropology and French in 1981,” Leech said. “On winning the prize for best senior thesis in Anthropology and being encouraged to pursue a Masters in that subject, I promptly decided beyond a doubt that I was going to go to art school!”
She went on to apply for a British-American exchange program in 1981 and attended the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland, completing her post-graduate studies in 1984.
You may recognize Leech’s work from her virtual “One Vanderbilt Rising” exhibition, New York City’s “Art on Link” public art project or the award-winning short documentary “The Monolith,” directed by Angelo Guglielmo.
We spoke to the artist about her pieces, her inspirations and what art means to her.
What does art mean to you? How does it fit in your story?
Making art is an essential way for me to process the world around me. After 17 years living in Scotland (mostly in Glasgow), I moved to New York City in 1999 with my Scottish husband and our four-year-old daughter. The experience of my daily life in this city has been the inspiration for my artwork since I first arrived. My subject matter is generally local and seemingly ordinary. My construction sites painting project is a good example. It dates to 2015, when a building began to go up in front of my studio window on West 39th Street. My first impulse was to move. Instead, I decided to stay and make paintings of the process as the new building went up past my 13th floor workspace and blocked the view. It eventually reached 42 floors! I started calling it the Monolith. It had this slab-like quality, this immovability — and it began to represent other monolithic things in my life that couldn’t be shifted.
Once the Monolith was finished, my new interest in construction took me outdoors, painting at a travel easel on sidewalks around Midtown Manhattan. I am now actively following numerous building projects that are dramatically changing the cityscape, such as Hudson Yards, Billionaire’s Row on West 57th Street, the new MoMA tower on 53rd Street, and most recently, One Vanderbilt, a super tall tower rising next to Grand Central Station on East 42nd Street.
How would you describe the type of art that you create?
I paint and I draw, although I have had significant detours into printmaking, installation and video art over the years. Now, with my focus on the rapidly changing urban landscape, I have recommitted to observational painting and three point perspective. Skies are where I cut loose a bit and employ strong color and gestural brushwork. I am as likely to paint in water-based media (acrylics, watercolor, gouache) as in oil paints, on wood panels, canvas or paper.
When painting construction sites, I work from the same vantage points multiple times over months and years. It is the in-between building stages that capture my imagination. In 2017, I became fascinated with the construction of One Vanderbilt, as the structural steel began rising above ground level. I painted that project more than 20 times over three years from a variety of sidewalk locations in East Midtown, finishing the canvases in the studio. Despite COVID-19 slow-downs, work continued at One Vanderbilt, and they cut the ribbon on the building in mid-September 2020. I have launched my current virtual gallery exhibition to coincide.
How has social media and the digital sphere helped you with your art career?
My art sales used to come through brick-and-mortar galleries, but all the ones I have worked with closed their spaces some years ago. The pace of gallery closures has definitely increased in New York City, even before the pandemic hit. So like many of my fellow artists, I have increasingly used online tools to build my own following and a market for my artwork. When I started using Facebook in the mid-2000s, I immediately saw the power of social media to expand the network of people who knew about and could see images of my artwork. I have [also] used Tumblr, Twitter and kept up a blog on Blogger from 2009-2013. My blog, Gwyneth’s Full Brew, featured artwork I was then doing on used paper coffee cups. It generated a lot of international press interest and led to exhibitions, sales and several important commercial collaborations, one with Anthropologie and one with Faber-Castell.
I have had intermittent sales through Facebook and from online galleries like Saatchi Art, but it is on Instagram that my business has picked up significantly. Many more people are now looking for art to buy online, and Instagram is the visual arts platform of choice. I have a very particular niche of collectors — people in construction who value original art. In the last month, after a sales drought connected to the pandemic, I made three international sales, all unexpected, to people involved in construction — in Australia, Ireland and Germany. They all found me online. I have also been approached numerous times about doing commissions. Not everything reaches fruition, but the more conversations I have, the more likely it becomes.
How has the current global climate affected your art?
The COVID-19 surge left us all reeling in New York City. The last time I was out and about in large crowds was while going to art fairs in early March. Then everything shut down – galleries and museums closed, all art fairs were cancelled around the world. There was an abrupt and rapid art-world shift to the internet. Entire art fairs moved online by late spring. Digital “viewing rooms” and virtual 3D galleries appeared, a sudden increase in platforms and tools available to galleries and to artists as well.
Since September, art gallery neighborhoods in New York City have been slowly re-animating with art walks and doors open to masked and socially-distanced visitors. I have enjoyed visiting galleries again immensely, having missed looking at art in person more than I knew. There is nothing like painting in the studio all morning then going to galleries in the afternoon to study your peers’ use of brushwork and color. Everything seems enhanced and vivid.
The biggest change is that there are no international tourists and few out-of-town visitors. I know the situation is financially devastating for the arts and entertainment sectors and many art galleries have closed permanently. But when I go to the Museum of Modern Art, which I do pretty regularly these days, I can’t help but enjoy seeing the collections with so few other people around.
The virus upended the global art market, and it has affected the making of my art in that I am not painting outside around the city this year. But I am extremely fortunate that my painting studio is only eight blocks from my apartment. I have been able to walk there and work throughout this period, though the demands of remote school for my younger daughter, who has special needs, was a limiting factor.
Beyond this, my community of artist friends and colleagues matters more than ever. For over 20 years, I have been involved with the New York Artists Circle, a group that has met monthly in person without fail to exchange business information and provide mutual professional support. We held our first-ever Zoom meeting in March. The plus side was that many far-flung artists have been able to attend for the first time in years and our most recent Zoom meeting was attended by 114 of us! In addition, our group had already been working on a new website when the pandemic hit in March, and continuing with that has been an important focus. We are extremely grateful to our developers at ClearDev for soldiering on [and it’s] now live.
How do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration everywhere I look in New York City! I am an avid user of the Citi Bike share program and I love to cruise around Manhattan to check in on a dozen or so construction sites I follow. There is change and drama to be seen every time I go out — new effects of light, color and structures taking shape. This was true even during the slow lock-down period this spring because activity continued on a variety of “essential” construction projects, in contrast to the generally empty streets, lined by closed businesses.
What other artists inspire you?
I am attracted to 20th century prints and paintings of industrial themes. John Marin did a series of watercolors I especially admire about the construction of the Woolworth building back in the early 20th century. The Woolworth building was massive compared to the low sheds and warehouses around it. There is so much lively optimism in those paintings.
A wood-engraving by the artist Howard Cook from 1920, depicting the Chrysler building under construction, is definitely an inspiration. The spire is covered in black netting and the new skyscraper dominates its neighbors. That view still exists on East 42nd street and I have that composition very much in mind as I paint One Vanderbilt, the new skyscraper rising right into that iconic skyline.
I also love the paintings of Elsie Driggs, best known for her gloomy steel mill depictions from the 1930s when she was a practitioner of the Precisionist style. Late in her life, in 1980, she painted the I.M. Pei Javits Center in an abstract manner. Those late paintings intrigue me, since the Javits structure was then the only building of any size on the far west side of the city. Now it is being dwarfed by the massive towers of the Hudson Yards, many still going up. I am currently working on a new series called “100 Small Paintings about Big Forms” which explores the relationship of this changing architectural landscape to the Javits.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
For the last five years, I have been both challenged and inspired by the dynamism of a non-stop building boom across New York City. Seeing the work sites fall silent in the spring was a shock and a kind of relief from the relentless drive to increase density. I wondered, what if the building boom had abruptly ended? Will the myriad half-finished projects resume or would some languish unfinished? Would these structures become monuments to resilience or fall into ruin?
The ribbon cutting at One Vanderbilt in September suggests that the sector will continue to grow, at least for now. All over the city, there are signs that buildings in process will push on to completion, trusting that the slow-down in sales and rentals is only temporary.
The countercurrent is increased vacancy rates all over Manhattan. Artists are renegotiating leases at lower rents. An extraordinary turn of events! Perhaps affordable spaces are opening up once again for artists in a city that has become all but unaffordable. If so, it will be an unanticipated pandemic silver lining!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Top Image: Courtesy of Gwyneth Leech