Tuesday 16 July 2019

Artist Leah Hewson: 'I think Bono is a good role model for somebody who has gone full force into something'

Leah Hewson (30) is an artist. She also works on set design. After failing her first year university exams, she decided to follow her true passion instead - art. Her exhibition is currently on at the RHA. Born in Dublin, she lives in Kimmage with her housemates

Artist Leah Hewson. Photo: David Conachy
Artist Leah Hewson. Photo: David Conachy

Ciara Dwyer

I wake up to the noises of the house. I live with two girls in Kimmage; one of them is dabbling in acting and the other is a musician, but they both have day jobs. There is a nice mix of creativity in the house.

Since I started doing a seven-month artist residency in the RHA [Royal Hibernian Academy], I've realised that I am a morning person. I work better earlier in the day. It's not the romantic notion that people might have of the artist - staying up all night, drinking wine and coming up with their best works at 4am. When I get up, I like to go to the studio in the RHA as soon as possible. It's very easy to get up in the morning when you're doing what you love.

In the mornings, after I shower, I do some meditation. I started doing this because I have a fear of public speaking. I want to get a handle on it, because I'm going to have to speak about my work in public. I do a guided meditation through a YouTube video. I'm only two weeks into it, but already I've noticed that it helps me in the way I approach my day. It sets you up right. I'm living more in the moment, and appreciating what I have. I cycle into the studio.

My exhibition, Scintilla, which is currently on at the RHA, is about a small spark of a specific emotion. It's about something that happened in my unconscious mind over the last six months. I took time off to regroup. I needed to think about going down the route of being a full-time artist. Could I handle it? I spent some time with the artist Sean Scully in New York. He is at the pinnacle of his career. It gave me a good perspective of the artist's life.

A few years ago, I was overwhelmed thinking about big goals. Then I realised that you just have to keep ticking away at it. At least once a week, I would apply for competitions, exhibitions or residencies. Then I'd get the paint out. The studio in the RHA is so big that it has allowed for my work to become bigger. In the past, I always had studios which were isolated, but being here gives me the chance to be part of an artistic community. Everyone is very encouraging. It is the small things, like the conversations while making coffee in the kitchen. We're all here to make art, and we're passionate about what we do.

I try to have a strict routine. First I check emails, then I read. I did quite a bit of research on psychology and Carl Jung for this exhibition. Before this project, I used to be really frustrated. I had all these ideas in my head, but when I tried to put them on paper, they wouldn't come out right. I used that as a starting point. Now I try to create work before it becomes an idea. I'm working from my unconscious.

Sometimes I stop off in Evans Art Shop on the way and pick up some new materials. If I have a new colour or a new canvas, that's the most exciting thing. Just as some women are drawn to diamonds, I am drawn to fluorescent colours. They are very uplifting. I put on some music and work away. I like acrylics, because they work faster. Then, all of a sudden, it's the end of the day.

Since starting this residency, I've begun to take myself more seriously as an artist. Neither of my parents are artists, but my grandfather used to paint. At home, I was always encouraged to make things. But I had a circuitous route to art. I did one year of an arts degree, but it wasn't for me. I tried to fit in, but I felt lost. After I failed, my dad suggested that I do a portfolio course with the idea of going to art college. At that point, the idea of becoming an artist was an unrealistic dream. But my dad encouraged me to do the things I loved, and to find a way to do them. He always wanted to be a pilot, but ended up in the restaurant business instead. Now he runs an app, Bizimply, which came out of that.

Bono is my uncle. I think he is a good role model for somebody who has gone full force into something that he always had a passion for; when it's so close to home, it becomes more of a reality, something that is possible. One thing he said was - hard work now pays off later. That resonated with me in the way that I work now.

I'm still quite a bit away from being able to support myself full-time as an artist, but I hope to get there at some stage. In the meantime, I also work on the TV series Vikings, doing set design. I'm at the bottom of the ladder there. Before that, I was waitressing three days a week. Through no fault of their own, people assume that I am rich and privileged. That's quite a common misconception when they hear my surname, but we're a different family.

I also do portrait painting, and I've done an album cover for a new band called Columbia Mills. These are interesting collaborations. The hardest thing about being an artist is putting a price on what you do. When you do a degree in fine art, they don't teach you about being a professional artist - pricing, making a website and having a business card. I graduated in 2010, and it has taken me six years to grasp that whole side of it.

I leave the studio around 6pm. Because I'm in the centre of town, I might go to some gallery openings, or I'll meet a friend for dinner. Then I go home and chat with my housemates. Then I'm in bed by 10pm. I love sleeping. It's all very normal stuff.

I'm on the dating scene, and I'm casting my eye around Dublin these days. I used to be on Tinder, but I've given up on it. I met some really interesting people on it, and after doing it for so long, you become so good at small talk that you could talk to a brick wall. You meet all kinds - from shallow to shy to people who make you angry. Then I realised that I'm just sitting at home, swiping right and left on my phone. It's so unnatural. I got to a point where I forgot to go out and meet people in real situations.

Scintilla is at the RHA, Dublin, until March 12. See

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