What do you get when you mix training in traditional American studio ceramics, knowledge of ancient African pottery techniques and a strong education in philosophy?
You get an artist like Simone Leigh ’90.
Leigh works in multiple media, combining handmade objects with found materials (like bright colored plastic buckets) along with digital video to explore the character of Lieutenant Uhura on the television show “Star Trek.”
Reviewing a recent exhibition, The New Yorker noted, “[Leigh] isn’t the first to pair ceramics and video, but, judging by this powerful show, she’s among the most original and engaging.”
Bringing together disparate materials and approaches, she says, allows her to enter a discourse with the images she is creating and the materials she is using.
“Some critics have referred to my work as ‘Afro-futurist,’” she notes, “but I think that comes from a confusion around visual culture. I am very interested in using ancient motifs from African art in my work, but African art was also very important in the development of modernism. So the works actually draws from varied histories, and seem out of time, which perhaps is why people think it looks like the future.”
Leigh says that her own work represents a “collapsing of time” similar to what happens in science fiction movies and television shows.
“If you look at something like, ‘Planet of the Apes,’ you can’t tell when it is coming from. People are dressed as if they are in an ancient civilization, yet there is a futurist conceit that is created by the confused epistemologies of a forward and backward looking society,” says Leigh.
Leigh says many aspects of her Earlham experience have influenced her career as an artist. Studying with Michael Thiedeman, retired professor of art, was “hugely important” to her development.
“My work is very handmade, and I’m sure that had a lot to do with Mike,” she says. “He was very good about introducing all of his students to the tradition of American studio pottery, but he also got out of my way. That was great for me, but it was also risky, because my work was unusual. I’m not sure how he managed to set clear standards yet allow his students great freedom, but I think he had that relationship with many students.”
In her philosophy major, she found courses in feminist philosophy particularly influential. “I still draw on texts from that period of study, like Luce Irigaray's work, all the time,” she says.
Born in Chicago to Jamaican parents, Leigh earned a B.A. in art and philosophy from Earlham. She has built a successful career in the New York City art world. Leigh has had solo exhibitions at such venues as The Kitchen and Tilton Gallery.
Her work has also been featured in group shows at The Whitney Museum, Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, AVA Gallery in Cape Town, South Africa, and many others.
Her work has been supported by many fellowships or residencies, including: the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, New York Foundation for the Arts, Center For Contemporary Arts in Lagos, Nigeria, Henry Street Settlement, Hunter College and School for Visual Arts.
Reflecting on her time at the Earlham, Leigh says that she found the experience of studying art at the College to be, “incredibly supportive.” That proved important later when she moved to New York and found that she was mainly greeted by negative feedback.
“I complained the whole time I was [at Earlham],” Leigh admits. “But I’m so glad I had a rigorous liberal arts education. It’s an unusual pedigree for an artist — having a liberal arts degree and never seeking an M.F.A. — but I know how to research and write, and that has been very beneficial for me.”
“At Earlham, I learned about living my life with integrity, and I was able to keep that as a mandate,” she says. “Michael emphasized that for an artist, living a life with integrity is the reward. I’ve done my best to hold on to that.”