A member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, artist Leo Monahan creates works of art that truly stand out. The bold, vibrant colors used in his pieces are just as extraordinary as his medium – paper. His paper artworks, however, are far beyond your typical elementary school art project. Leo creates his masterworks by intricately cutting, folding and texturizing paper of various weights and superimposing the pieces to create an artistic dimensional collage that cannot be depicted on a flat canvas. The Arboretum is fortunate enough to have his newest exhibit, Shadow and Color, on display in the upstairs gallery of the Education Center through Sunday, September 18, 2016. Composed of paper that has been manipulated using a variety of techniques, Shadow and Color features scenes focused on nature and still life.
How did this brilliant artist discover his passion for paper? We had the chance to interview Leo and learn more about his past, present and design aesthetic.
1.) When did you first discover your passion for using paper as an art medium?
I graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute in 1958 and started my career as a graphic designer in Los Angeles. In 1960, a photographer, Murray Garrett, asked if I could do something different for an ad for Liberty Records. I told him that I knew about the art of paper sculpture, nobody taught it, but I was aware of it. I did my first paper sculpture illustration for Liberty Records and they gave us the opportunity to do their record covers.
I was the art director and designer of a new company that we started called Studio Five. There were three partners and half a dozen employees. “Design and Photography” was our basic business. Over the next five years, I did a paper sculpture now and then, but not often. However, we did produce covers for about 1,200 records. Only two or three were done with paper.
When I left Studio Five after five years, I was known in the city as a designer and as a paper sculpture illustrator. I didn’t develop a passion for the art until I was represented by Jae Wagoner as a paper sculpture illustrator. Jae represented me for 32 years. I also had reps in Germany, Japan and another in the USA.
2.) Your resume is quite impressive. What is one of your most memorable jobs?
My most memorable assignment was the sculpture of a Chinese warrior standing ready to throw a spear with a rocket attached. This was done as a magazine cover for Hughes Aircraft in 1970. They donated the figure to the Smithsonian Institution, and it remains there in the early rocketry section of the Air and Space Museum. The last illustration job, entitled “12 Days of Christmas” was done in 2006. That was when my agent Jae retired, and I began my career as a fine artist in earnest. I had been in shows in California and other western states since 1987.
3.) I know that color is very important to you in your works; however, there are some pieces in Shadow and Color that are white-on-white. What is your reasoning for this?
I am known as a colorist, having taught color at Chouinard, CalArts, USC and Disney Imagineering. The essence of paper sculptures is white-on-white. That is cutting and manipulating of the paper to create images that rely on depth and shadows to define them. Nearly a quarter of my work is white-on-white. All of my work depends on shadows, and color enhances and defines the work.
4.) Your pieces contain so many details. It is mesmerizing that they are all made out of paper. What tools help you achieve this attention to detail?
My work is detail-oriented, and the tools to achieve it are simple. The primary tool is the X-Acto knife. You could say that I draw with the knife and not with a pencil. I also use scissors of many types. Burnishers and straight edges round out the tools.
5.) What inspires you in your designs? Do you sketch out your works before you make them?
Inspiration comes from many sources. Subjects appear from nature, mechanical objects such as trains, old cars, etc., and Native American elements. I grew up in South Dakota’s Black Hills near the Sioux reservations with Mount Rushmore on the hills above us. I had a mentor named Ben Black Elk.
6.) Why did you decide to exhibit at The North Carolina Arboretum?
I had my first exhibition at the Arboretum several years ago. It was a success, and it helped to establish myself in the Asheville area.
7.) What do you hope visitors get out of your exhibit?
I hope that my audience goes away with an appreciation of art done in my ways. Viewers and collectors seem to be fascinated with the dimensional use of paper and the uninhibited use of colors.
Located on the second floor gallery of the Arboretum’s Education Center, Shadow and Color is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until September 18, 2016. To learn more about artist Leo Monahan, please visit www.LeoTheColorman.com and click on blog.