A woman to watch now in the art world is an artist with multiple roles. Leah Oates runs her own art gallery Station Independent Projects in New York’s Lower East Side. In the interview she sheds light on how she found her path.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your photography reflects multiple textures, showing light, contrast, opening up to magical worlds, how did you find your own medium?
Leah Oates: I started as a painter and printmaker, and I still see the influence of both in my current work with the layering and density of color and light. The common thread with my past work in other medias was always photography as I painted and printed from photographs but in the past I saw the photos I took at support materials or documentation. At some point I realized that the photography was the main and most continuous thread in my work so transitioned to how I work now.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you feel that memories, or where you come from resonates in your art? Your works have been also exhibited overseas, how was the experience in China, for instance?
LO: Where I was raised and my specific family definitely connects to my current work. My grandmother is a biologist who studied at Harvard and one of my uncles worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (he is now a private consultant on environmental issues) and another worked for the Army Corp of Engineers. Thus there was a lot of dialogue about the environment, nature, human rights and politics.
My mom, brother and grandmother are painters and my grandfather was a painter and photographer who ran a photo studio when he was young taking family, wedding and baby photos. He later became a real estate lawyer with a big Irish Catholic brood of six kids including my dad Danny who was a writer and carpenter. I have an uncle who is a successful ceramic artist in Maine and an aunt who is a glass artist in Massachusetts.
This mix very much informed my work as well as growing up in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts and in rural town in Sanford, Maine where my family goes back in both states to the 1600s.
Being and working in China was amazing. We all absolutely loved it there from the street culture to the food to the parks to the incredible energy there. It was wonderful to photograph there and yes its polluted and yes it can be messy but the light is wonderful and the people are friendly, sweet and almost old fashioned. We would go back in a heartbeat.
With China I had a lot of reverence for their history beyond Mao and the revolution etc. China is an ancient place and much older than the US or Europe with so much amazing history. China is a work in progress and like all places has things to work on but it’s a really vibrant, alive and interesting place.
My work there dealt with the changes happening in the culture related to climate change, random urban planning that is erasing local culture and customs and how nature reacts to all of this within a rapidly expanding urban setting.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Could you describe in few words how did your road lead to New York?
LO: My husband Pierre traveled to NYC on a few business trips and instantly loved the NYC. We where living in Chicago at the time and liked it but NYC is closer to both our families in New England and Canada and it has a thriving and large art community so we moved here when I finished up my MFA. At first I was not sure about living in NYC for that long but gave it a try.
I began ironically to love NYC after September 11th as the city just melted ones heart. I saw how the city came together in a way I would not have imagined as you know normally is like ‘get outta my way’, or ‘move it fast’, on a daily basis here. But the thing about New Yorkers is that in a crisis situation they have your back and this is what I learned about NYC that made me really fall for this city.
And the art community is the best I’ve experienced. People are energetic, they work hard and like to do so, are open to new things and they make things happen and quickly. It’s a hopping, creative, and no nonsense art city. Yes there is the regular nonsense you have in any city but things really get done here and in high volume and at top quality too. You see the best here and yes the worst too but here we move so fast that there is no time for that stuff. It’s a very discerning crowd here.
I’ll give an example. Pierre, my husband has shot films in other cities and it always move so much slower than in NYC and he often hits walls initially either from unions or agents etc. In NYC it’s the total opposite where he finds what he needs easily and hears yes a lot! It gets done here without the baloney. Here it’s a YES lets do it mentality which I really like, and opens things potentially for innovation, creativity and hybrids. I now cannot conceive of living anywhere else, and I’m now head over heals in love with this city.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It’s quite easy to imagine that last few years have been truly busy in leading your own art space. How do you feel the transition has been in terms of becoming a gallerist?
LO: I love running a gallery, and working with my artists to plan their shows. I’m really happy about the quality of the shows, level of press and number of curator visits and attention that the gallery shows have received and sales have been good.
It’s been an amazing experience all around. The first few months when I initially opened where very exciting and there was a bit of anxiety about how it would impact our family. Mainly it was our son Max who wanted his mom to be around 24/7 but he really got behind the gallery when he saw the space and saw that it made me happy. He even wanted to serve drinks and where a suit which was so cute! There has been a good balance between family, the gallery and my studio practice for quite some time now so it all good.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle> What is your secret in balancing between different roles in the art world?
LO: Most artists or art professionals have jobs so it’s the norm in most cases unless you’re very rich.
A quote I like is ‘A good artist studies art and a great artist studies everything’. My dream is to be an artist, curator and gallerist, so I’ve followed this to see where it leads. It’s an interesting and rich journey that is worth taking. What I’ve learned too is to plan out the week and get the work done. Just do it and don’t think too much about it. Get your self into studio and get working as through the work interesting stuff happens and if your not there it’s less likely to happen. The same goes for running the gallery.
Additionally, trust yourself and go for it, plan strategically and it’s ok to say no, rest when needed and spend time with those that make you feel good and even better loved.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You have also featured artists in the art fairs; do you find attending art fairs rewarding?
LO: The gallery participated in Pulse NY last year and it went really well with sales and press, work placed in a corporate collection and several private collections and so much great feedback and contacts. It was a complete buzz and reinforced that the gallery artists and program was as good as I thought it was. People who visited our booth loved it and where so positive. But with all of this great stuff we only broke even and fairs are expensive to do. But they are now so much a part of the art world that it’s a must to do them as a gallery and again I think it best to be strategic with this and keep to a budget. I have only good thing to say about Pulse from a gallery perspective. This fair is run very professionally and everyone is super nice and efficient. Everything they promised they delivered on.
As an artist I’m not a huge fan of fairs overall but I do love Pulse, Spring Break and The Independent art fairs. They are so different as fairs but seem to push the dialogue forward and are visually interesting.
As an artist at fairs I like running into so many people and taking about art but think that fairs can be too formulaic and favor art that is easy to process with too much surface and not enough depth. As an artist I think fairs are a survey of trends, are about status and art world hierarchy and not so much about art or pushing the dialogue ahead. But again as a gallerist, curator or as an artist participating in a fair you have to do it as it’s for the potential for so much attention in a short period of time and in a condensed fashion.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It is very delighting that Station Independent features Finnish artists. Could you tell in few words about the Finnish collaborations that are coming up this summer?
LO: Yes I’m pleased that the gallery will be hosting two guest curated shows this summer by Ilari Laamanen and Leena-Maija Rossi both from Finnish Cultural Institute.
Ilari has curated a group show of Finnish artists called ‘The Powers That Be’ which is on view from July 17-August 9th. This show is part of FCINY’s 25th Anniversary year’s program on Urban Nature and explores human’s relationship to the environment.
Rossi has curated a two person show that explores shifting ideas on dwellings in urban space called ‘(Un)livable’ with work by Kari Soinio and Janet Biggs which opens August 13th and is on view through September 6th.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How would you define your own curatorial motto?
LO: My curatorial motto is to not follow trends but to follow art and artists. I’ve been following the gallery artists from between 5-25 years. Also, it’s important to love the work your showing and to choose work based on its merits and not on if it’s easy to sell. It’s all about the artwork itself and about dialogues about art within a larger context of the past, present and future.
The gallery and artist websites: