By Becky Raspe
For Elyria-based artist Leigh Brooklyn, the idea that an individual is the culmination of all of their experiences rings true. She’s working to rewrite her own story – and the story of women generally – one piece at a time.
After first discovering her talent for art while attending Elyria High School in 2004, Brooklyn stepped outside of her immediate community. She’s moved more than 15 times and lived in major art markets throughout the United States to gather inspiration for what would become an art career that is going on 19 years and counting.
Now, on the coattails of a “very busy few months,” Brooklyn just finished her solo exhibition, “LEIGH BROOKLYN: Battle Scars, The New Protagonist,” at the Mansfield Art Center which ran from March 19 through April 16.
All of these experiences, including what she calls a “personal upheaval” in 2019, inform her illustrations and sculptures in an effort to show that women are more than what is traditionally expected of them. Brooklyn tells Canvas about her start in the arts world, her desire to break down the boundaries surrounding traditional gender roles, and finding light and creativity in darkness, no matter how dark it might seem.
‘BLUE COLLAR’ BEGINNINGS
Brooklyn was born in 1987 in Elyria, a western suburb of Cleveland. Finding support for her artistic endeavors in her high school art teacher, Fred Farschman, she says he noticed a talent in her that she had previously been unaware of.
“I don’t come from an artistic family, it was very blue collar,” says Brooklyn, 35. “Most people in my family didn’t go to college. There are a lot of farmers, factory workers and former military. I didn’t know anything (about art) and never went to an art museum growing up. All of our family vacations were to historical battlefields.”
While Farschman pushed her to enter contests as early as 9th grade, Brooklyn recalls in 10th grade he submitted a copy of an “old masters painting” she did into a competition. The painting was originally meant to serve a dual purpose – both for a grade and for a Mother’s Day present, she says.
“I got best in show,” she says. “I was so worried I would get in trouble for copying, and then it was sent to New York for judging. I won in nationals, too. At this point, I’d never even been to an art gallery, and I was still worried I’d get sued for copyright.”
As more people recognized her talents, Brooklyn says she figured she was “better at it than I thought,” and opted to enter the contest again the next year.
Brooklyn explored realistic portraits, replicating any existing famous artwork she could get her hands on. Those portraits soon morphed into surrealism, and she “kept winning,” she recalls. That success informed her desire to apply to art school, enrolling in the Columbus College of Art & Design.
She later transfered to the Cleveland Institute of Art after being inspired by the work of forensic artists who helped break a missing person’s case, earning a degree in biomedical illustration in 2011. During that time, she worked with several hospitals, museums and research facilities including Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Case Western Reserve University and NovelMed Therapeutics.
But soon after college, Brooklyn decided to leave home and travel the country. She sought inspiration from other artistic communities, including in Los Angeles working as a street photographer.
“A lot of the time, my stuff was boxed up, so instead of working for someone else, I decided I needed to figure it out,” she says of moving around and exploring art communities. “The fine art world is so different from medical illustration and it took this huge learning curve to figure that out. I saw a lot of stuff, met a lot of crazy people and that really influenced my view of things.”
Since then, working as an artist has won Brooklyn a variety of awards. Her work has been displayed in galleries, museums and art fairs around the country, including at District Gallery in Shaker Heights, which also represents her locally. Karen Chaikin, District Gallery co-owner, tells Canvas she and co-owner Richard Uria first discovered Brooklyn’s work a few years ago.
“We were immediately impressed with her talent,” Chaikin says. “Her work inspired by her street photography and people she met along the way has an incredible attention to detail. I personally love that each of her pieces has a great story to tell. …
We are proud to represent Leigh and are very happy that she is a local.”
CHANNELING STRENGTH INTO ART
Fast forward to 2019, Brooklyn experienced a “personal upheaval,” she explains. It changed more than just her day to day life, but also the art she wanted to create, she says.
“I decided I needed to surround myself with strong women,” she says. “I was going through some things, and I got these women (and) dressed them up as soldiers. I wanted to build this army of women and take their pictures. It was just so beautiful to see. They were so empowered, and even stood taller and got emotional about it.”
These photos, many of them featuring her friends, would serve as inspiration, including for her series “The Women’s Militia.” The series seeks to establish unity and representation among women, despite society’s habit of overlooking their strength. Two of those pieces include “pietà,” an oil on linen painting made in 2022 inspired by the Michelangelo sculpture of the same name, and “American Portrait,” an oil on linen painting from 2018 that features a modern day tank girl, which Brooklyn says is her favorite recent piece.
Both pieces touch on the complex nature of being a woman and the role of women in modern social and political commentaries, Brooklyn says. Other recent pieces, including her 2021 “Love Bomb” series, touch on elements of abuse and toxic situations, referencing the manipulation technique of love bombing used by abusers to overwhelm victims with over-the-top displays of affection.
“A lot of people go through struggles on their own, completely isolated,” she says. “That’s why a lot of women relate (to my work) because it is empowering to them. We’ve all kind of been through something and know the feeling of it.”
Taking it a step further, Brooklyn says she uses both her painting and sculpture work to explore women’s empowerment outside of what society may typically expect.
“Women are represented in art as a subject matter as either a sex object, a seductress, a mother or a monster, and that’s all you get,” she explains. “I am tired of that. I am tired of seeing the passive female that looks delicate because I personally don’t know a woman who is just that. They’re out there working, they’re smart, they’re empowered. I wanted to change the narrative around women.”
SCULPTING THE FUTURE
Though the heart of her artistry remains in painting and illustration, Brooklyn has recently taken an interest in sculpture as a new way to explore her ideas on femininity, identity and strength. She’s researching those concepts throughout art history for future artwork and shows.
“I feel like I am a better sculptor than a painter,” she says. “I came into sculpture very quickly, as opposed to painting which took me more time to get used to. I am very excited to see how that progresses into the future.”
District Gallery is also excited to see Brooklyn try new mediums, Chaikin says.
“We appreciate that her work is very different from many of the other artists we show in the gallery,” Chaikin says. “Recently, her work has moved from illustration and oil painting to more sculpture. It is fun to see her branch out in a different medium.”
Along with researching, planning and staging her shows, Brooklyn says she is looking to branch out even further with hopes to continue developing her welding skills and dabble more in cross hatch drawings – the technique she’s used in several recent pieces including “Raquel,” “Wanida,” and “New Beginnings,” all created this year. But, when she might get that time to experiment, even she doesn’t know, she jokes.
“I’ve had so many shows this year, especially in March, it was so crazy,” she says. “I also teach and have been working on a mural project in Toledo through Graphite Design + Build.”
Brooklyn says she also hopes to travel and obtain more residencies overseas. She is currently preparing for one in France in July. She also has several Ohio shows planned for this year and next year.
“I’ve never been to Europe, and I feel like I am going to leave there feeling so inspired,” she says. “After that, I’m going to go to Italy. The walls of my home studio are just covered with papers filled with ideas.”
Full with ideas and ambition, Brooklyn tells Canvas in our late March interview, she just hopes she can accomplish it all.
“I am one person, and even mid-level artists have ghost painters,” she explains. “I have to consider what I can get done. I have these big ideas, but what can I really do in this time frame? I think one week in March I slept about 20 hours total, and I don’t have a day off until May at this point. But, I still want to do more.”