Visual Arts

Visual artist Leah Hewson getting creative to display her work

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In 2020, while so much could be translated to a virtual world and be brought online, the arts were virtually decimated. Galleries closed, gigs were banned, as were exhibitions, shows, and gatherings of any kind.

In an industry that survives on public attention, the inability to connect with an audience was fatal.

But leaning into their innate creativity and innovation, some artists found a way to exist in this new normal.

Visual artist Leah Hewson, whose work is collected around the world by famous names and private collectors, found several ways to operate during the pandemic.

Between selling prints online, being part of a ticketed exhibition as opposed to a free-for-all, and taking a gallery outdoors on Culture Night 2020 was surprisingly kind to the artist.

“When the economy is potentially going to go down, the arts are the first to go,” says Leah. 

But as an artist, we are used to living precariously anyway, this feeling of unstable is not new to me, working in isolation is not new to me, so my immediate universe hasn’t changed.”

As well as outdoor exhibitions, her work was picked up by three large companies this year, including Facebook and a drinks brand.

Leah Hewson. Picture: IPut Real Estate

“Waterford Distillery commissioned me to do a label,” she says. “It’ll be for their whiskey. They’re a new enough company. So I had an initial meeting with them and I loved their ethos. They’re not going for this old-world heritage whiskey vibe.”

Another piece of surprise work to come in for the artist during the pandemic was with NPP, an Irish packaging company founded in 1984.

“Up in their factory, they’ve asked me to do an installation for them on their lobby wall, like a mural for their entrance,” says Leah.

Facebook’s new office in Ballsbridge is another company where Leah’s work will adorn the office wall. The company runs an artist-in-residence programme, where artists come in and have their work displayed on the atrium wall. It took Leah two weeks during the last lockdown to complete her work.

“I had finished doing the murals and no one is going to see the work until July next year,” she says.

In the more traditional art world, exhibitions are the norm, and Leah was set to take part in the Atelier Maser exhibition last March.

“The show in Atelier Maser — that was the day we went into lockdown — the work was already up and ready to be seen,” says Leah.

“So we had the show in August and managed it in a different way. Openings usually happen on Wednesday or Thursday evening from, say, 6pm to 8pm, but it was moved to Saturday 12pm to 6pm and it was now a ticketed event. I thought it wouldn’t have the same buzz.”

Instead, there was a different, but equally positive, atmosphere.

“I was able to have long conversations with people and I met new people. And people were able to see the work. This is in comparison to a two-hour opening where everyone is rammed into the room to drink free wine. It was more relaxed. 

“You could tell people were slightly unsure of themselves, like they didn’t know how to socialise — that’s bound to happen when you’re stuck at home with your cat all day!” 

And what was the effect of a slower and ticketed exhibition?

Vogue Williams bought one of Leah’s laser-cut perspex pieces, which the influencer then shared on her Instagram page of nearly 1m followers. Vogue’s purchase aside, Leah received six commissions out of the exhibition.

Come Culture Night, the artist was getting used to thinking differently about the display of art.

“We did an outside projection-mapping video on Harcourt Street,” she says. “It was a direct response to people not being able to get into galleries on Culture Night, which is usually a massive night for the arts, and this year was totally different.

So we were like: ‘let’s put art out on the street’. It was brilliant, and it was the night before we went back into lockdown.” 

In 2021, there will be more art outdoors — she and street artist Kurb Junki are painting a mural on the side of a house on the way into Ballinskelligs in Co Kerry.

Would she call 2020 a good year?

The artist believes it forced us into finding new ways of doing things, which is not a bad thing.

“I think there’s the obvious way of doing it — you put an exhibition up, photograph it, and put it up online — but this is a really good opportunity for creative people to see how the arts is presented, to find new ways of experiencing the arts, to present it in a completely different way,” says Leah.

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