Jorge Leyva met with me three times during the past few months. Our first conversation happened in Joplin Avenue, my home office. Their new blender occasionally drowned our voices in the rest of the room’s white noise. We handled the second part while touring Jorge’s August exhibit at Spiva Center for the Arts. In the third, I followed Jorge around while he busied himself preparing for this invite-only show that wrapped up an October art symposium devoted to stone-sculpting friends Abraham Mohler and Bill Snow, among a dozen others.
Jorge’s personality summons one word: jolly. His gallery has room enough for Warhol-sized canvases of Tonka trucks and toilet bowls and soldier crabs, high enough ceilings to allow for huge metal sculptures, but it retains the shape of a Peruvian villa nested in Joplin’s attempt at hill country – the shell of his past surrounding a vibrant core, the three-dimensional reflection of this life he has created. Mark asked Jorge why he had a remote-controlled 4×4 monster truck in his gallery. Jorge replied, “Cause I like it.” Jorge walked around the gallery in white ankle socks, grey cargo pants, and his iconic black t-shirt. “This guy,” he drummed his finger at me, “this guy’s too serious. I don’t know if he has a goofy side.” He was a gracious host with many guests, a calm eagle feeding noisy chicks like me. I later found him in front on that yellow leather couch. With his nest painting. Before the tapestry of black bears. Foot on a red RV monster truck. King Herod among his sculptors.
I wandered around the gallery while they finished pictures. Chinese script hidden in the nest paintings high above reminded me of our first conversation in the coffee shop:
“If you stop the experimental, you might as well not write anyways. It’s an art form. That’s exactly the stuff that I do,” Jorge said. “Language is one of my favorite things. Language—”
“Are you bilingual?”
“Spanish, which is my native language. I love language because there’s primitivism there that you cannot find in anything else. Language can get… your emotions can be awakened in a manner that nothing else can do. You know what I mean? It’s a living thing.”
“The words are organisms.”
“Oh absolutely,” he said. “I mean – and I like when people like you use a tool that is kind of fickle in a way. It’s like… my God.”
“Like doing art with a frog,” I said.
“Exactly! The amazing part is when something works and the horrible, horrible thing is when somebody rejects you.”
The coffee shop blender came on and drowned out our conversation.
He raised his voice. “You have to rise above somebody else’s opinion… you have to be the worst judge of yourself, your best critic. Do you like your work? If you like it and somebody else says, ‘I don’t like it,’ you gotta keep doing it, you know what I mean? When I read your article, I had to picture you. I was picturing someone taller. Somebody with a beard.”
I asked, “With a beard?”
“Yeah,” Jorge said.
“That’s a compliment.”
“Somebody more… um… what do you say? Bohemian-like. But you’re such a nice-looking guy.” He giggled after he said that, but the giggle in him was a measured thing, some grounded laugh with lots of air support, cousins to a great chuckle.
“Someday I’ll show you a picture of my really long ringlets,” I said.
“That didn’t work out for you?” He grinned – teeth emerged. “There’s a guy that come in here – I don’t remember his name – but he’s a cool guy, long hair, Mohawk. He wears all of his jewelry all over his ears. That guy is awesome. He doesn’t make any kind of excuses about his own personality – that’s him. I like that in a person. You don’t trade yourself for somebody else just to make yourself feel better.”
“If you try to export who you are, there’s no you in the world,” I said.
“Absolutely. And we need you. ‘But everybody has to make a living.’ I don’t care about making a living, I want to do the work. What the hell is that?” Jorge raised his paws into the air. “Making a living… I’m already living.”
He mentioned these SATFO interviews. “I was taken with your approach. Usually people interview about something so specific so that they can submit it for publication. You’re writing about something you don’t know anything about – how do you do that? I’m responding emotionally rather than intellectually. It’s not a script. It’s not something I’ve told anybody else, but it’s completely new.”
“It’s out of the overflow,” I said.
That overflow affects the viewer of any given piece, in Jorge’s mind. The viewer creates a story. He gave a hypothetical example of some artist trying to force his audience to see his painting following them around like a puppy. If the audience misses it, “you’re the biggest fake in the world. But what if I do the work and say, ‘Go see how you feel about it.’ Then you go and you say, ‘Hey, you know what? That weirded me out. That piece follows me around like a little puppy.’”
“Like a dialog between the author and reader,” I said.
“Like a dialog, how wonderful. And that is why I like the artist’s studio. You know this thing? They interview all of the actors and—“
“Inside the Actor’s Studio.”
“Inside the Actor’s Studio. It’s AWESOME. It’s excellent. The format can change any moment. How come there’s not a book written like that? There isn’t a spontaneous book written about conversation other than that play they did, The Death of a Salesman, for example. That’s not a real conversation. Maybe a real experience, but it was not written as this.” He gestures to the airspace between us, generating wind.
“When did you paint your first stroke?”
“Oh my God what a wonderful question. Painting the first stroke. If anybody remembers that they should get a Nobel Prize just for—”
“That’s better. First memory of painting something. When I was in grade school—“
“Where was this?” I asked.
“Peru. I was just a little boy.”
“A wee lad.”
“A wee lad,” Jorge said. “I was probably ten years old. I remember my teacher putting my drawing on the bulletin board – which it was a really big bulletin board. And I saw the picture on the wall. And then I backed off, backed off of this.” He gestured to the wall, palms up and out. “And I saw my image was the most colorful.” He widened his palms to include the wall. “It was the biggest and it was the most ostentatious painting on the bulletin board. It was a lion in a jungle. And I had painted it in acrílic… acrílico… in…”
“Acrylic. Watercolors that came in the little Japanese boxes, about seven colors it came, six or seven colors with the little brush with three hairs. You had to paint with that. We didn’t have anything fancy or artist’s school or anything like that. The same room was used for everything from nursing to—”
“How many people?” I asked.
“About forty?” Jorge suggested.
“All different grades?”
“No no no. All same grade. This was a big school, we just didn’t have the departments like we have now: art department, biology department. That bulletin board was the gallery where they showed the work. My mother gave me a small paper. I said, ‘Mother, I want a bigger paper.’ And she said, ‘No, you’re going to have a little paper.’ And I cried. That should have told me right there how weird I was. You know? Crying for a bigger piece of paper.”
“This is too small of a canvas,” I said. “I need more space.”
“Exactly!” He said and chuckled. “It should have showed me that for the rest of my life, I was always going to want something big. And I also should have thought about my own, my self being big. That played a part later. I couldn’t convince anyone that I was a starving artist.”
We giggled. I sipped my tea and he shifted his weight to sit sideways in the barstool.
He said, “They would say, ‘You look like you eat too many donuts for a starving artist.’ Can you imagine not being able to sell that starving artist thing? ‘Oh please buy this I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten for three days.’ ‘Are you kidding me? You look like you just ate a whole pig.’ But anyways, I wish I had that painting of the lion. Know what the weirdest thing was?”
“Nobody came to congratulate me. Nobody said how wonderful it is. Nobody said, ‘Oh wow, that’s big.’ It was taken for granted. And I don’t think I liked it very much. I don’t know. I don’t know if I did or not, but I’m sure that wasn’t as valid as when I went back and I saw that it was bigger than everybody else and it gave me a sense of superiority immediately. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s bigger than everybody else, so I must be better.’” He chuckled. The fellowship laugh – the one that gets everyone else in the coffee shop going – that’s Jorge’s laugh.
“So where’d you move on from there?”
He mentioned how his family punished him from their poverty. Their principles were “based on necessity rather than indulgence.” None valued art. “Then later on, I decided I was going to become an architect. So drawing was important then. Everybody was telling me, ‘Hey, aren’t you gonna draw? Go draw something. Make a house.’ To find that doing it for pleasure should be so different than doing it as a profession… it was okay to be an architect but it was not okay to be an artist, even though you were doing the same thing. How do you justify that? How do you say that to somebody when it’s just a bunch of bull?”
“Copywriting verses fiction.”
“Exactly,” he said.
He gave up pre-engineer school, having to battle the language barrier in addition to waning discipline. Though he wanted to feel good for doing the right thing, he was studying what he “completely hated.” Shifting to Missouri Southern’s art department felt like providence. Dozens encouraged him, pushed him toward art.
“Your teachers say, ‘Oh my God, you’re good. This is really awesome. What are you majoring in?’ Engineering. ‘Why waste your time? Waste your life in art, don’t waste your life in doing something you hate.’ Approval is a great thing. We artists are suckers for rejection. No one else gets as much rejection as artists do. There’s a point in your life when that’s over – I don’t get rejected anymore.”
“For two reasons: because I stopped dealing with those people.” He chuckled. “And you have learned so much that you take it seriously. Then you can start being a critic of your own stuff.”
Rejection, in his mind, forces us to look beyond the surface and ask hard questions: Why don’t people want my work? Why were others accepted? “You can’t just live in a vacuum and say my stuff is good, my stuff is good. You have to give yourself the space.” Your name gains value – people believe in the authority of names. “They’ll say, ‘Jorge, I’m going to look at your work because of who you are.’ Once you start to listen, to change, maturing, then that would make a huge difference in how you are perceived and therefore your work becomes more important.” Artistic relevance flows out of any work that reflects personal identity, but that kind of honest experience takes time. “You’re not trying to convince people. People don’t need convincing.”
The loud, high-powered blender cut us off.
“People need to be given greatness. I don’t need to do a thousand things that are badly made. I need to do one thing that’s honest and well-done and people will respond. It’s kind of a reward – you work for so long and people realize this is nice. Has anybody told you that you look like Doogie Howser?”
The question catches me off guard. I laugh for some time. “Yeah. Y… yeah.”
“Well of course he’s not Doogie Howser anymore… you are a dead ringer for Michael Patrick something.”
Jorge became an artist in Joplin, educated locally. Family had restrained him from exploration because of their belief in the irresponsibility of art – an unworthy career. “Nobody was called Mr. Artist out of respect.”
All families stumble over that, he thinks. He could have done so much more. “It’s so important to encourage kids in what they’re good at. Even if you don’t like it. Eventually those kids will change the world with what they have done. All of those people – say Pablo Picasso. He was an apprentice to his dad and his uncles and he was in the studio since he was in diapers and he grew up to be a great artist. I mean I get to be twenty-five years old, I’m still thinking art is for Bohemians. Art is bad. Art is for hippies. If you haven’t the opportunity, what makes you think you can catch up? I don’t have time to catch up. I would have had so much to offer this world. It took three times the work to get where I am now because I started so late.”
Art is seldom salable these days when compared to the doctors who own a business that sells a service. “For the people that believe, I am blessed. For the people that don’t believe, I am lucky. I am both because both are true. I have had opportunities that other artists in my immediate circle have not had. It takes awhile to get there, because you have to like what you are.”
Outside resources enabled him to create works he cannot create on his own. He outsources to companies, but it took time to enjoy that freedom. “Do I just accept what somebody else does? Or do I tell them to change it? You are trusting somebody else to do what will represent you and you’ll put a price on. You have to learn how to say, ‘Redo it. I don’t like it.’ That’s something I don’t like to do, but I have to do it. That’s what makes me fortunate.”
“When did things start picking up?”
“In the last five years my work started getting a little more attention. Sometimes it’s not about sales so much as the response of people.” He gestured to the random people in the shop.
As an artist, he must contend with the reality of the market, which can be both friend and foe. In grad school, a Californian artist told their class that the poor among them would not make it. “Our ears went up and our hearts sunk into the bottom of our chests.”
The man told them rich parents can get ahold of supplies, teachers, and buyers. “If you’re poor, you have the neighbor and your momma to buy the work and they say, ‘Oh that’s wonderful, honey, I’m gonna put it on the refrigerator.’ And if you’re a professional artist, you know what you say to that? You say, ‘Oh gosh mom. I’m not five anymore. I’m sixty years old. I’m very famous.’”
No one enjoys hearing that only the rich can make a difference. “Is there a truth to that? Oh, hell, probably, you know? And so we work in art by the seat of our pants thinking, ‘God it would be lovely to sell your work and have $300,000 a year from selling your work,’ but it’s not every day that people are going to come and say, ‘Sure, $20,000? Why not, I love it.’ You’re lucky if you get one of those once a year. So you depend on galleries, you depend on other people to sell your work, and they take 50% and you think, ‘Oh my God. I’m only gonna get $5,000 and I already spent $4,500, so I walk home with $500 for three months!’” Few make “fantastic art” for this reason: no funds. Doctors and lawyers, on the converse, don’t care to invest time. And yet here he is, rich though he was poor. For Jorge, everything shifted when Juan Kelly asked to represent him – who owns a Santa Fe gallery named Nuart that sells work to museums all over the world.
When we went to Spiva’s main gallery, we saw the metal houses he had welded. “The houses are an evolution of that subject matter I had used before: the nest. I have painted nests and birds for seven years to express my feelings about people’s freedom. And also as a metaphor for life – we use the nest like the house, where life is created.”
Ladies go into nesting mode. Our elders become empty nesters. But nests felt insufficient as the locus of life’s creation. “It’s just modernism that says a hospital is where life is brought into the world. It was a house. A hut. A teepee. It was always in a shelter, right? So I had to move from nests to houses as a way to express in a more universal way all that people hold precious. That’s their value – having a vessel, having a holding place. That’s our identity. That’s who we are.”
I pointed to one where two inverted, elongated red houses hung beneath two normal-looking red houses. “Like a reflection?”
“Exactly. A reflection. These houses are more like lake houses. The same with the silver one here.”
I pointed to one that was twisted.
“It’s a vortex. A whirlpool in front of the house, so the shadow of the house is a whirlpool. This one with the silver reflection…
“…think of a hierarchy. We give a lot of weight to things that aren’t there. On top the house is falling apart, but here you have a beautiful silver reflection. How do we perceive ourselves? Reflections are normally flat. It’s only right here.” He waved in front of his nose. “But I’m giving them three dimensions which is kind of wonderful.”
“Like crossing the threshold to another world?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Jorge said. “We all have a three-dimensional reflection.”
PS > I believe everyone has something to teach me, so I try to sit at the feet of everyone I meet. Everyone spends a significant amount of time on something. Your experience is worthy of an interview, so drop me an email with your area of expertise in the subject line to lanceschaubert [at] gmail.com
Bonus images from both Jorge and 9art: