Leigh Hyams: Art is Life!

Creative expression is available, one way or another, to anyone at every stage of life, in every culture, and it is accessible at any time. We have only to learn how to access it and to use it openly and freely, by overruling conventional, limited ideas about what is acceptable, giving ourselves permission to fly with paint, with dance, with music, with poetry or film. Attitude is everything. Draw or paint or sing because you want a richer, fuller life, and it will happen...
.--Leigh Hyams from How Painting Holds me on the Earth.

Last Sunday, April 21st, it was brilliant and sunny, balmy even, warm enough for summer clothing--always a rare treat for San Francisco. I spent the afternoon at the Meridian Gallery downtown on Powell Street at a memorial for the Bay Area artist, Leigh Hyams, the mother of one of my dearest friends, Gina Hyams (read an interview with Gina here on xpoetics). Many years ago, I visited Leigh at her studio/loft in the old Sears building on Ceasar Chavez here in San Francisco and bought from her a little painting which still holds court in our living room. Here it is:

When she was a teen, Gina lived at the one room loft/studio with her mom. That must have been an unusual adolescence! Probably everything about Leigh was unusal.

photo by Richard Whittacker
You can read Leigh's obituary here.
At the packed memorial, at least 125+ persons filling the three floors of the gallery, people told stories about Leigh. Many had been her students. Many seemed to think of her as a spiritual as well as artistic guide. As people got up and spoke, I was reminded how years ago I would hear from Gina that people, mostly women, would take one of Leigh's classes and they'd end up quitting their jobs, changing careers, leaving lovers and spouses. They would devote themselves to painting; they'd travel. Leigh did not have a lot of financial resources but cobbled together what was required and seemed to think that if necessary, one should "sell the couch" in order to paint. She did not go quietly through the world. And I suspect she was a powerful role model, advocating a feminist recognition and pursuit (whether or not she called it that) of one's own ambitions. She was a provocative voice advocating a studio of one's own, art of one's own, and travel, travel!
I was surprised to hear from Dale Djerassi who spoke warmly and highly of Leigh that she was the first Executive Director of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program and functioned as the program's selection "committee," really getting that program off the ground. Leigh was also responsible for the large table with a drum in its center that is still a part of Djerassi. The idea for the Meridian Gallery took shape at Djerassi and was shaped by Leigh who was also a participant in the Solid Tunnel Society, a group of artists who regularly met and talked. A number of people referenced Leigh's Friday night critique sessions. As Djerassi noted, Leigh had a spectacular network and clearly loved community, though Mary Hull Webster, who was a colleague of Leigh's at John F. Kennedy University, told us she didn't really know Leigh as the extroverted figure many at the memorial referenced. For Webster, who has written about Leigh's work, Leigh was introverted. Webster offered that Leigh knew herself through her work. You can read part of Webster's review on Hyams' work here.
Some of the quotes people attributed to Leigh included:
"Go in deep. Don't be nice. Fuck that canvas!"
When one woman told Leigh she was worried about whether or not she was a good enough painter, Leigh said, "Get over it!"
Another noted that Leigh was "the perfect goad."
Another that, she was always up for an adventure and would go to the fish market with you at 4 a.m., just to see how beautiful the fish were.
Another noted Leigh said "skill is the enemy" and was always seeking ways to keep herself and everyone off balance.
Leigh's direct and perhaps sometimes acerbic wit and cool demeanor were balanced by her respect for those she encountered. Someone noted that Leigh often met people in moments of vulnerability, sometimes when they were in their darkest moments, and she was able to offer them something. She had, someone noted, "total faith that art was life."
Annalena, Leigh's granddaughter quipped that her grandmother was a "badass," and Gina concurred! Dave Barrett, Hyam's son-in-law, noted that at the memorial in San Miguel De Allende, where Leigh had been living the last 12 years, the mariachi band spontaneously played a Mexican version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," a song that aptly characterizes Leigh and the way she lived her life. Dave and Myles Boisen of Splatter Trio then treated us to their version of the song.

During the memorial, I was pleased to catch a glimpse of Fran Herndon, an enchanting San Francisco artist who was urged by Jack Spicer to pursue art school. Herndon went on to work with Spicer creating lithographs for his The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether. I chatted briefly with Herndon, reminding her of a time when I had come to her house to speak a little French (see earlier xpoetics post on this here) and she told me that Leigh Hyams had been her teacher. What a small world. She said that she Leigh wanted her to go with her to purchase some dishes, Spanish plates that Herndon still has. Leigh had trouble picking these out and Herndon was good at it. You can find out more about Herndon here.

 Here's another excerpt from Leigh's book:
"The Power of Painting in One's Head"
At night, I lay awake in bed painting in my head, trying out different background colors and textures, adjusting color values and intensities, making definite decisions for changes to make on a canvas the next day. The decisions are seldom valid when I see the painting in the morning, but rejecting them after the night's work leads to reckless wild trust in painting the disputed area in previously unthought-of-ways. This new unthinking commitment, made possible by exasperation, usually results in the perfect solution (83).

No comments: