June Leaf with John Yau
Recently, while June Leaf was having an exhibition of paintings and sculptures at the Edward Thorp Gallery, Rail Art Editor John Yau stopped by her studio to discuss the show and her recent work.
June Leaf: You know why? It’s because I’m working. And that way, you can think and I can think.
John Yau (Rail): We’re conducting this interview in June Leaf’s studio on February 17th. She’s making the gears for the scroll, as we talk. Is the scroll in your show the first one that you did?
Leaf: That’s the second scroll. The first scroll, which I don’t have anymore, is a boat. You know there’s not too much you can make on them. I’m questioning myself all the time since it isn’t a movie, and we can’t make much going around, because nothing goes around, except maybe people dancing in circles. Or nothing. So I wonder why I make them.
Rail: We were talking earlier about the sculpture of the bell, with the woman and bell, and you were trying to figure out how to make it work the right way.
Leaf: How can the bell ring without making the brass bell, which is the only thing that will ring, and I don’t cast anything. Actually I bought a little brass bell and it’s in the bell I made.
Rail: So you don’t cast anything. But you make things?
Leaf: I pretend that I can do everything by myself. I imagined that I cast it myself. Because that would mean going to somebody and sitting down and talking to them, and waiting for the cast to come out, so I just go around pretending that I can make this bell by myself. But I didn’t, so I had to buy a little brass bell, because I don’t have a foundry next door to me. If I had one, I would have said, ‘Make me a bell. Inside.’ So, all the time, I’m thinking about the cast.
Rail: You have made sculptures for years, and they’re all handmade.
Leaf: The first sculpture I made was because I was bringing Vermeer up to date.
I made quite good drawings. And all the time, I was thinking there was a dimension that’s missing. I guess, time. Real time. So, I described to myself what I was trying to paint. I said, ‘Well, the woman is drinking from a glass, and there’s a gentleman in a room by the window. But, the woman, is actually made of mirrors, she’s made of glass.
I just kept trying to paint it. And I had all these thoughts, like post-cubist thoughts. Because those are thoughts cubists would have, except they did it already. I was going somewhere else. So I said, ‘I’ll make her out of mirrors!’ That was 1965. And that’s how it started. So I made her out of mirrors. And then I made the chair, and then I made her hips out of mirrors, and then I saw that the mirrors and the hips went around in a prism! And I suddenly remembered this obsession I had at the beginning of my artistic moment, when I was a child, in a penny arcade and I wanted to get all these treasures out of these mechanical boxes and I was just feverish with, really it was a kind of ecstasy. Money or toys or dolls, and I would put pennies and more pennies in and this big claw would come down and they would only drop. Anyway, so when I looked at her hips, I said, ‘I’ll put money on her chair!’ So I put a dime on her chair, and it is reflected in her hips. Then I said, ‘Okay. That’s done. She’s made of mirrors.’ Which means you can’t really see her ever, and that’s bizarre enough. And then, well now, she has a gentleman. And he’s standing over her. I started making him by making a set of his teeth. Because I wanted to make the inside first, so I counted how many teeth… So I guess this was the beginning of the crazy way my mind works, as if to verify the fact that there really are teeth. There really are thirty-two. There are thirty-two if I make them. So, I made a set of teeth. And I made him standing over her. And instead of making him a gentleman, I made him a little bit ferocious. Then! And by this time, I’m feeling happy, because I realized that what I really want to make is animated furniture. So anyway, then I made the table. But on the table I made a puzzle. Out of comic strips. In other words I was swimming in my ocean. That excited me, because she’s made of glass and the glass is made of wood. And everything made sense to me, because it was all about the things that you don’t see that exist. And that’s what cubists do. They make the things that you don’t see, but they exist. It’s beautiful. So then, I thought, I have to make a floor. And if you make a floor, you have to make a house. So it ended up a box, which is a room lined with mirrors. The floor is made of mirrors, and there’s a chandelier and it goes in to infinity. And it’s really quite ugly. It’s so ugly, it’s so crude. It’s cut glass.
Rail: But that’s also true of your paintings. I remember when I first came over here, more than fifteen years ago. You would show me the backs of the paintings and they were a certain length and width and then you decided that it wasn’t big enough, so you would sew on another section.
Leaf: The only object I ever wanted to own in my whole life was a sewing machine. That’s the only thing I have ever been interested in owning. I once bought an old sewing machine and I took it back home and I smashed it.
Leaf: Well, I’m embarrassed to tell you, I didn’t really mean to smash it. I wanted to take it apart. But that goes back again to this old story. I was given a toy grass-cutter when I was about three or four. And I got so excited; I threw it out the window because I wanted to see it break so I could see what it was made out of. And then I waited until the next morning and I thought I would find it and see all the parts, see what it was made out of. But of course it was gone. Someone had found it and picked it up. So in other words, these passions, these things which… I’m lucky to have these passions.
Rail: Yeah, it’s lucky to have these passions, and, in your case, you can trace them all the way back to…
Leaf: Yes. Almost every one. I have such an absolutely perfect line of memory to these five to ten moments that I think, everyday, show themselves in my work. What was it? I had a thought yesterday about that… what was it? It was about my mother. What was it about? But it all started with the love of my mother. That’s all. I just wanted to present her always with things. And it’s all connected to that. But of course she wasn’t interested in anything I did. She would only have destroyed my enthusiasm probably. How did I get to this story?
Rail: What about that figure over there? Are you going to put her in the painting?
Leaf: I don’t know. I never know. You see, everything comes… I wait until the moment when something is, when it’s absolutely impossible to prevent myself from doing it. That’s the only way. Even if it means destroying the picture or project. And those moments come once in a while. It’s very tricky. That’s why talk is scary sometimes.
Rail: Ah, that’s why you don’t like to be interviewed.
Leaf:: Well because it’s obvious that everything I said has little bits of truth in it. Maybe the best thing that I said was what I said about my mother, somehow that seems to be true. But that’s because that’s the latest thought. That doesn’t make it true at all.
Rail: It only makes it true in this moment. It may not be true two weeks from now when you stand up to make your painting. And you’re reworking your painting. And that has nothing to do with any of the stuff that you said.
Leaf: It’s nice how you understand! It’s beautiful. You do. I see that. Well, I think poets are somewhere along those lines that we’re talking about. They exist only in that realm of things… things staying precious and vital.
Rail: And have you been doing a lot of drawings.
Leaf: What I would do these last few months, sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep. And I would go into the washroom and make a self-portrait. Because I wanted to draw the lines in my face. In fact, I’m going to show you. I started with these little ones and then I make them bigger. See look. Isn’t that nice? All the lines. As it turns out, I’ve decided to make them in a larger sketchbook.
Rail: So you’ve drawn all along.
Leaf: Yes I’ve drawn all along. I’m always drawing. Actually that’s not true. I used to draw a lot. It’s unusual for me to start drawing again; I don’t know why I said I’m always drawing. I think it’s a shame for me not to draw more. I feel that when I make these drawings of my face, that’s what I’ve been put here for. I love drawing, I always have. I’m most happy when I’m drawing. And actually, the landscapes that you like probably are good because they’re about drawing. They’re not very complicated. Many people don’t draw anymore because when you draw, you make a vapor of life and that means you have to work very hard and create that vapor. It’s more than space or depth. It’s vapor, it’s the moments. The moments.
Rail: It’s the moment, yeah. Which is different than the thing.
Leaf: Yeah. It’s the moments. I didn’t want to do any interviews, I just wanted to work on gears.
Rail: No interviews, just gears [laughing]
Leaf:: If you turn the scroll, it’s like touching the water. You’re touching the water. And that made sense to me. And thousands of artists are saying that today and that’s why painting changed. That’s why there was cubism. That’s why there was Cézanne. Because there had to be some physicality if you want to bring in the experience of the world. I mean look at the world now. Look what’s going on with the cell phones. People don’t even look at each other anymore. They look at their cell phones and they send a picture. Maybe it was all a prophesy of that.
Rail: Right, right. What was all a prophecy?
Leaf: Cubism and these thoughts about higher experiences of realities. Maybe it was all getting ready for this other kingdom. I don’t know. All kind of electric things are attached to you and I don’t know…
Rail: We are very disconnected.
Leaf: I don’t know what’s going on. So I guess there is nothing original about what I’m doing. I’m just as mixed up as the next one about what’s going on. The thing to do is to solder these two together first. It will be very hard but I’ll do it. Do you think anybody’s going to make sense of what we’re talking about? No, just you and I.
Rail: I worry about that sometimes. I think it always makes complete sense, what you and I talk about.
Leaf:: Let’s see. What can we say as a title to this talk? “It made sense to June and me, I don’t know what sense it will make to you.” That would be a good title. There’s nothing wrong with that as the title, is there?
Rail: No. Are you going to have a museum show anytime soon?
Leaf: I don’t know. Who knows what they’ll do with me. I don’t know. Anybody who has to work the way that I work, who has to throw things out of windows and stuff like that, just isn’t destined for any logical career.
Rail: I see.
Leaf: Should we have the noise of the solder on the interview?
Rail: Absolutely. We said you were working and I don’t want to seem like we are making that up.
Leaf: And you know what’s going to happen? The tape will run out at the most important moment.
Rail: No. We will turn the tape over.
Leaf: You can turn the tape over?
Rail: I believe it has two sides.
Leaf: This is really the best time. Because what will happen at the end is I will make the scroll and I will say, ‘what will I put on it?’ And then I won’t put anything on the scroll and I’ll just have a blank scroll.
Rail: So you don’t know what you’re going to put on the scroll?
Leaf: No. I just want to move it. That’s all. That’s not so special, what I’m telling you. It’s sort of saying, this is so you don’t know what you’re going to do. Because whenever I know what I’m going to do—we talked about this—it won’t happen, it won’t visit me. It says; do the hardest thing you can think of because the most important thing is that you must be brave. Courage is everything. Do something that takes courage—either by destroying the painting, or announcing to yourself that you don’t know what you’re doing, or jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Once you can do this, and put yourself through this misery, what you do will be real easy.
Rail: This is after you jump out of the plane.
Leaf: Yes, you must show that you will risk absolutely everything first. That’s all. I’m in the process of jumping out of the plane.
Rail: But that’s sort of similar to what we’ve been talking about. You start a painting but then you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Leaf: Yeah. Every painting has to have that. So you have to erase all those times that it didn’t fall out. That’s a painting that I’ll probably work on again, unless it gets bought by a gallery.
Rail: Right. Let’s hope it gets intercepted.
Leaf: I don’t really think like that anymore.
Rail: I don’t think you ever thought like that. Come on, June. You never thought that paintings of yours were going to be sold.
Leaf: That’s why I have such a strange career, the best art that nobody knows about.
Rail: That should be the title of the interview. “The Best Artist that Nobody Knows About.” Hello tape recorder, are you recording? I hope so, because if you’re not, we’re in trouble.
Leaf: [laughing] Perfect. That’s the story of my life.
Rail: So you went to Paris in 1948 the first time, and you’re 18…
Leaf: Yeah. I was 18 and I went because I decided that, I’d gone to art school and I found out quite soon that the most terrible thing to do would be to go to art school. Not so much because you couldn’t learn from these nice people, but because the teachers were so unhealthy there. And the only healthy people were the regular artists. So I decided that I’m going to leave school and become a regular artist.
Rail: Right. And you decided to visit Paris.
Leaf: No, I figured that would happen much later. And then I went to work in a candy store. I had a girlfriend there, and she told me she was going to Paris, to Europe. She said, ‘would you like to go?’ And I said ‘yes.’ I told my mother and she was very happy. It was the first time I showed any signs of any sense of direction with my life. I went to Paris with Lenora. And I went to this hotel. And I am convinced that the decision not to go to art school came at the same time when I knew every day what I was going to paint. It all had to do with sidewalks. I just looked at sidewalks. I looked at them in New York, and I looked at the canvas floor on the boat, and then I got to Paris and I looked at the cobblestones, and I just made paintings coming from that. And then I got a room at the hotel and I could see that I was for them kind of exotic. All I did was work. You know, I had all the naive and unintelligent thoughts that an American girl would have, and I learned a little French, I saw that that was necessary. Then I got pneumonia, and the people in the hotel wanted to take care of me so they put me on the second floor—I was on the sixth floor—so they could bring me soup. There was a Canadian woman looking after me, and she let me stay there. And she loved my work. She couldn’t get over it. She kept saying, ‘I don’t understand at your age how you can do such great work.’ So she put my work up to make a little exhibit. And then there was a man in the hotel and he was an art historian, an expatriate. And there were other well-known critics and artists there, stragglers. And they told him to bring me the soup. So he came in the room and he saw all these paintings, and I could see right away that he liked some of them. Not in a good way. He was bowled over, probably more by me than by my work. He called me the next day and had me bring all my work, which could all fit into a suitcase. Said he wanted to show it to people. He shows it to this critic, one of his friends, one from an art magazine, the other one’s a poet, and they go crazy over my work. And then he calls me up. I didn’t want to hear what they thought because I heard this wasn’t going to be good. So I went over to meet him and he said, ‘You got it. We decided you got it.’ And I said to him, ‘You don’t understand. Someday there will be lots of girls like me.’ I already knew that. And I could see they didn’t. They gave me a really beautiful studio. And they’d come over every couple of days to see me, and I couldn’t work. I’d cry. They took away that feeling that I had while I was working. One day I went to the Musée l’Homme, and saw Inuit art. I said, ‘I have to paint on something white.’ And I returned to the apartment, looked at the bathtub, and thought, ‘my God, it’s perfect.’ I took a big India ink brush and painted graffiti-like tiles on the bathtub, and thought, ‘it’s come back, I’m free again. They’ll come and I’ll show them what great work I can do. And they came, and declared me insane. I was so happy, I thought, ‘Oh good, that will get rid of them.’ They sent me to a psychiatrist. I said, ‘If you’re going to send me to a psychiatrist, send me to one that speaks English.’ They sent me to a German one, and everything poured out of me. He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ And so I said, ‘I want to go home. Nobody will believe me anyway, especially my parents.’ I mean, I tell them I’ve been discovered in Paris, by these critics? So anyway, it totaled up that I had to pay them fifty dollars for the destruction to the bathtub. And that’s my story.
Rail: Then you went back to Chicago and then you went back to Paris in 1958. Where did you go after that?
Leaf: To New York.
Rail: Oh, I didn’t realize you got here in 1960. Why did I not know that?
Leaf: I told you, because nobody knows that.
Rail: [laughs] Oh, that’s right. How could I forget?
Leaf: And after this interview, nobody will still know it. Just you’ll know it. Nobody’s going to read it. And nobody’s going to pay any attention to it.
Rail: So no one’s going to read the interview, you think, no one’s going to pay attention, and no one will know about you after this interview is printed.
Leaf: Maybe three or four. That’s a lot.
Rail: Yeah. So I want to talk about the painting you did of a man sitting in a chair because you’ve done other portraits of a man sitting in a chair just looking out.
Leaf:: I think that’s one of the things I’m supposed to make, is men in chairs.
Leaf: That’s all. I just know that I have a feeling for men in chairs. Does that make sense?
Rail: It doesn’t have to make sense, does it? It just has to be truthful. I remember the last time I came here there was a red painting of a man in a chair. I thought that was a beautiful painting.
Leaf: I think I destroyed that one.
Rail: You destroyed that one?
Leaf: Yeah, because I tried to push it further. I know, it was stupid. That was the last time I ever did that. Last time I ever pushed anything. Shame on me, I says to myself.
Rail: Oh, I loved that painting.
Leaf: Isn’t that horrible?
Leaf: You get punished, you get punished, and you get punished.
Rail: So this one, you didn’t try and push?
Leaf: I don’t push anything anymore. I wait, that’s the difference. I wait because I learned that if it doesn’t come, it’s because you don’t know enough. There’s no other reason. You know, that’s the reason. You don’t have enough information. So, you wait. And you have your own information.
Rail: But at the same time, you work all the time, right?
Leaf: Yeah, but then I go to other things. Because you know, there’s always something else you could do. Like you can go shopping.
Rail: I don’t think of you as someone that goes shopping, June.
Leaf: Oh, I love to shop—I mean shopping for dinner.
Rail: Oh, shopping for dinner. [laughing] I was going to say, shopping is not something I would ever associate with you.
Leaf: No, shopping for dinner. You understand.