Art, self-doubt, Bono and me
After a two-year hiatus, artist Leah Hewson is back with a new exhibition and a new style. She chats to our reporter about her decision to take a different direction, and the life lessons she has learned from uncle Bono
When can a person start calling themselves an artist? Does the title have to be earned by accomplishment or patronage, or is the knowledge that you can't do anything else enough?
It's a question that artist Leah Hewson has struggled with for the better part of her career and, whether right or wrong, it took two solo exhibitions and a residency before she became comfortable using the word to describe her occupation.
"I'm happy to tell people I'm an artist now because I believe it," she says as she shows me around her studio space in the RHA gallery. "Whereas before, I kind of felt like I was spoofing it."
It could be said that the six-month residency at the gallery, which culminates in her third solo exhibition, marked a turning point in her career. It gave her the space to produce a prolific body of work, just as it gave her the confidence to start thinking of herself as a credible artist.
Her stint at the RHA also dovetailed with a reinvention of sorts. After abandoning art for two years, the 30-year-old from Wicklow came back to the canvas with a new style and a clearer sense of her artistic identity.
"I took a huge step back from being creative and that gave me the time to work out where I wanted to go next," she says. "I was a bit unsure and unsatisfied by the work I was making. I knew it wasn't 100pc what I was about. This time I've moved into abstraction and it's given me the space to put more of myself into the work. I'm definitely working towards being the artist that I want to be."
Hewson's transition from surrealism to abstraction must have been at least partly inspired by Sean Scully. She interned for the Turner Prize-nominated Irish artist in his New York studio for three months in 2015 while living with seven people in a loft apartment in Williamsburg - "Extortionate rent... Prison cell-sized bedroom".
"It was amazing observing someone who is so well established," she says of her time with Scully. "He was there for three weeks and then he, his wife Liliane [Tomasko - also an artist] and son Oisín went on a world tour as he had a retrospective in China, and shows in Germany and Spain.
"He brought me out to his house for dinner and then he offered me the house and his car for a few weeks while he was away. He even put me in touch with his immigration lawyer to try and sort out a visa for me. I remember he said, 'What are you doing here working for me? You're an artist. You should be in a studio painting'."
Hewson finished three paintings while in New York and came back to Ireland with a renewed energy. When the RHA residency opportunity came up, she had to contemplate the work of a front-facing artist. She always had a fear of public speaking - part and parcel of a residency - so she joined Toastmasters, an organisation that improves social confidence. She also started meditating every morning.
She broke up with her boyfriend during the same period and says being single has given her a new-found appreciation for her own company.
Other doors have since opened. She's leading workshops with schoolchildren and working on an album cover and a number of private commissions.
The self-doubt is still there but she has now accepted it as an inherent part of the artistic process. "If you see it as a temporary lull, you'll be fine. If you see it as a permanent thing, then that's the battle lost."
Hewson isn't quite the starving artist, but she isn't flush either. She previously worked part-time as a waitress in Wagamama, Dundrum, but soon discovered that the three days on/three days off schedule wasn't conducive to creativity. Nowadays, she works for one week each month as a trainee buyer for the Irish co-produced TV series Vikings. "Sometimes you're buying 20 cooked chickens for extras; sometimes you're sent to the Guinness Estate to dress sets," she explains. "There are six of us in the office and they're really supportive of what I do."
Hewson is now well ensconced in the art world - and making inroads in the film industry - but she admits that there was a stage when she hadn't the faintest idea what she wanted to do with her life.
After graduating from Holy Child Killiney in 2004, she started an arts degree in UCD. "I had all this new-found freedom and I didn't know what do with it, so I ended up in the student bar most of the time. Then I started missing classes, and with that I started missing opportunities to make friends. It was a downwards spiral."
It didn't help that the arts degree in UCD is primarily populated by SoCoDu's young elite. "I was trying to fit in in a physical sense," she says. "There were all of these tall, pretty, blonde girls and I just felt inadequate."
After failing her first-year exams, she decided it was time to pursue her passion. She enrolled in a portfolio preparation course in Sallynoggin College and felt instantly at home. "I remember thinking, 'this is a whole room full of weirdos. Deadly!'" The following year, she started a four-year BA at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire
It was her father, Norman, who suggested that she swap arts for art college. Career prospects were of course a concern, but creativity runs in the family. Hewson's older sister, Lorraine, works in film production; her other sister, Emma, moonlights as a singer and Norman, who worked in the restaurant business for most of his life, is a woodworking hobbyist (he built Leah a studio in the back garden during her third year of college).
Her granddad on her mother Geraldine's side wrote poetry and her granddad on her father's side painted. Cousin Eve is an actress and her uncle - Norman's brother - is, well, Bono.
"He's a really open-minded person," she says of her famous uncle. "I remember him saying, 'hard work now pays off later'. That really stuck with me and then it changed my mindset to keep ticking away instead of having a huge goal that is really intimidating because it's so far in the future. Give yourself smaller ones and keep working towards them instead."
Hewson is a big believer in the healing power of art and thinks everybody should try to nurture their creativity. However, she is quick to add that not everyone has the support system that she has.
"That's easy for me to say because my family has been hugely supportive. What are the chances of you trying to support yourself as an artist? They are very, very slim.
"Still, what gets me every time is when someone says 'I can't draw'. They put themselves down without even trying! My idea is that everybody can draw. Every mark is a creative thing, whether it's correct or not doesn't really matter. Realism is a huge skill of course, but what needs to be nurtured is the play and experimenting."
This spirit of playfulness shines bright in her latest exhibition. While her earlier work had an ominous quality, this time around it's relentlessly optimistic. The young artist has always been interested in "everything to do with the brain that you can't see" and while her earlier work honed in on the imagination and the importance of preserving it, her interest has now shifted to the antechambers between the subconscious mind and the conscious mind.
"I started researching Carl Jung and his process of individuation - how something moves from your subconscious to the conscious mind based around your personal experiences, your dreams and your repressed memories," she explains.
"It led me to this self-explorative project. I know there are lots of things going on up there so why not try to get it out?"
As always, there's a riot of colour, only now she's exploring geometric shapes and repeating patterns. There's also the start of an ongoing study - a series of swirling concentric circles that have the hypnotic quality of a spinning top. She studied optical illusions and visual perception for her thesis, but says it was a happy accident that they turned out the way they did.
The work is fresh, contemporary and a touch esoteric. This suggestion elicits a slight grimace. "I could have gone down the spiritual rather than the science end of it so I need to be careful. They do overlap, but in an artistic sense, science merits more than the hippy-dippy.
"There is definitely a meditative thing going on," she concedes. "Doing the repeated patterns was kind of therapeutic in a way… and it really satisfies my OCD."
It should be noted that the OCD she speaks of is more an idiosyncrasy than a disorder. "I think everybody has something," she says. "I definitely have interesting ones that I'm aware of, like the volume on a stereo. It has to be multiples of two or five.
"It's not that I get really uncomfortable or irritated… it's just that it's a better place to be... Sometimes I'll challenge myself and say, 'thirteen, yeah - go on!'" This revelation is followed by a hearty laugh.
Hewson, who is pleasantly devoid of the chin-scratching, naval-gazing tendencies of other artists, laughs easily and often. She's a happy-go-lucky type and one could easily lose an afternoon in her company.
"I think if I was making dreary, politically-heavy work, I'd feel it," she says. "I want to be happy. Everything is so serious. I'd love for people to look at my work and smile, to look at the colours and see something brighter."
Leah Hewson's exhibition Scintilla opens on Wednesday and runs until March 12 at the RHA Gallery, Dublin; rhagallery.ie