Gwyneth Leech is a New York City artist whose pieces have been inspired by the city she has lived in for the last 20 years. Currently, she is focused on the ever-changing skyline and architecture in the city as it goes through a continual transformation.
She’s previously been featured in a documentary as well as the New York Times and was, somewhat amusingly to her, featured on TripAdvisor as a “What To See” attraction in the Flatiron Building (see Question 13).
She was a pleasure to speak with and learn from. I’m glad she agreed to chat and I hope you can learn something too.
[Featured Artwork: “Hudson Yards Rising with Encampment, View from West 30th Street, 2021” by Gwyneth Leech. 36″ x 44″, Oil on canvas.]
The following responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.
01. Rock, paper, or scissors?
02. What are three interesting facts about you?
A. Although I was born in Philadelphia and grew up there, I spent 17 years in Scotland. I went to art school in Scotland after finishing at the University of Pennsylvania. That was a big chunk of my life. Now I live in New York.
B. I have two daughters; one is 26 and one is 19. My 19-year-old daughter has Down Syndrome. She has been an incredible education to her family and she’s an amazing, wonderful, independent, young woman. She’s a big part of my life.
C. Although I’m a full-time artist, I have a part-time job as a church choral singer. I’m on the payroll of St Bart’s Church at Park Avenue and 50th Street in New York City. My husband is too. He’s a baritone and I’m an alto. We have been singing in that choir for over 20 years.
03. What is the main medium you use in your art?
I principally paint in oils on canvas or wood panels. When I go outside to paint, which I do regularly, I use watercolors, gouache, or acrylic. When I’m in the studio, I use oils and I can work on a painting for months and months. It’s a much slower process.
04. What inspires your art?
New York City inspires my art and it has since I moved here in ’99. I’ve done quite a wide range of projects that have to do with the city.
When I first came to New York, I had a small child and we spent a lot of time in playgrounds. So, playgrounds and climbing structures were a subject for quite awhile. After my second daughter was born with Down Syndrome, I grew to appreciate the diversity of families that formed our community in Hell’s Kitchen. I decided to paint portraits of these families and their children. That took up a number of years.
Then I segued out of that to making art on my used paper coffee cups. I was always on the go and couldn’t be in the studio as much as I liked. I discovered paper coffee cups were really useful to draw on and I always had one at hand. I did that for a number of years, and they became extremely numerous. So, I presented them as installations. I hung them. My largest project was an installation of 1,001 coffee cup artworks.
Eventually, I was done with making art on coffee cups. Principally because they started constructing a building directly outside my studio in the Garment District and that redirected my attention. My studio is on 39th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan. The Garment District was re-zoned and a whole bunch of skinny hotels started going up all over the neighbourhood. I’m in a 16-floor building, but the building that was going up outside my 13th floor window was destined to be 42 floors tall!
I was really sad about it because I had had a really great cityscape view. I thought: “Either I’ll leave and find another view somewhere or I’ll make art out of this.” I decided to stay where I was and thought I could do lots of drawings and make it into a stop-frame animation of the construction process. So, I did hundreds of drawings and paintings of this building starting in 2015. Eventually, my next-door neighbour in New York, Angelo Guglielemo who is a filmmaker, said he wanted to make a documentary about my story. I said, “Oh sure you do. People say these things all the time.”
But, he was serious. He came to the studio, interviewed me, and got me on camera. Later, his video editor asked about supporting material that could be used. I provided something like 1,000 jpgs. His editor was very, very excited. *laughs* It became a short documentary called The Monolith.
05. Is your art your career or a hobby? Something else?
Art is my career. I knew that this would be, ever since I was very young. I come from a family of artists. My grandparents met at art school. They were studying illustration at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Design in the 1920s. They both became professional illustrators.
My mother went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and received a Masters from Tyler School of Art and became an art teacher but then committed to being a full-time artist.
So, I grew up in that environment and as far back as I can remember I was an artist. It was a little scary when it came to choosing art as a career path because my mother, at that point, was not encouraging; having experienced a lot of financial insecurity in a family of artists. But once I finally set foot in art school myself, I was all in; no looking back.
06. What household chore do you actually enjoy?
I actually enjoy washing the dishes. I prefer washing the dishes to cooking. My husband has done most of the cooking for the last three or four years. I sense he’s getting restive though.
07. Are you more productive at night or in the morning?
I’m forced to be a morning person because I have children. My youngest is still getting up and going to school every day. I usually spend an hour writing by hand in the morning and then I spend a couple of hours doing computer stuff and things I need to do at home. Then, I drag myself to the studio and I paint in the afternoons. No matter how hard I try to get to the studio first thing in the morning, it never happens. But when I’m here, in the door and focused, I paint very solidly in the afternoons and I love it. By the evenings and nights, I’m shot.
08. What app do you use most often?
09. What is the most unique thing about the city you live in? (New York City)
To me, it’s the fact that it’s never finished. They keep tearing things down and putting things up. Just when you’ve gotten used to a new skyline you discover some crazy plan afoot for a 100-storey building. It’s just nuts what goes up, but I find it fascinating.
You tend to think of architecture as something static but this is a city where there’s always something going up and something coming down. Suddenly, there will be a big hole in the middle of the city on a block you’ve walked along for years. You’re looking at the backs of things and at unexpected vistas before they build something new and wondering what was there just a few weeks ago.
10. What is your go-to band or singer?
Because I have a teen daughter and she’s in charge of the pop music I listen to, it’s currently ABBA.
11. What kind of training do you have?
I went to University of Pennsylvania in the late ’70s on a faculty scholarship (my father was a professor in the law school) with the initial intention of doing something more “sensible” than pursuing an art career path. I ended up majoring in Anthropology and French. But I found that my life long impulse to make art did not go away. Although Penn didn’t have an undergraduate Fine Art major at that time, there was a pre-architecture track, which offered drawing classes. So, the very first university level classes I did were free-hand architectural drawings with pen and ink. We would wander around campus and then the rest of downtown Philadelphia drawing buildings.
Beyond that, I have a BFA and a Masters level post-graduate degree from Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland that I received in 1985. So, tons of drawing and painting from the life model, composition classes, printmaking, art history — it was four years of very formal academic training at Edinburgh.
I always had a pull towards making art about architecture, which I moved away from over the years, but now have come back to full circle. I feel very comfortable doing this. It seems very natural to me. I find these unfinished buildings fascinating, they have to be unfinished for them to grab my attention.
12. What is your favorite drink?
Decaf Chai Tea by Stash.
13. The art is one thing, but what’s your secret to generating interest and ultimately selling your art?
One of the things that has worked very well for me is being in public. Especially when I was doing the coffee cup project, I was often in a window making art somewhere. I did some very big projects.
Back in 2011-12, I was on the ground floor of the Flatiron Building in New York City. It’s at the crossroads of the city — Broadway and 5th Avenue. It was a public-art venue for a while, and I did one of my installations in there, or over 800 suspended coffee cup artworks . I was in the window making art for five months. I was there five days a week and everybody saw me. It got to the point where taxi drivers recognized me. I became internet famous. I didn’t have a smartphone then but tons of people were posting photos to Instagram and I was even in TripAdvisor under the “If you’re going to New York City” advice as the artist in the Flatiron Building. *laughs* Eventually, the New York Times picked it up. That got a lot of attention and a lot of press.
Through a very bizarre, chance encounter, I met a senior executive from Anthropologie while giving a talk at a high-school reunion. There was a very small number of people in the room, but one of them was a chief executive from Anthropologie. She said, “Let’s do a collaboration.” Anthropologie ended up producing several series of my coffee cup artworks in ceramics. They flew me to London in 2012 to do one of my window installation residencies in their flagship store on Regent Street, like I had done in the Flatiron Building, to launch the first collection.
With my construction-site project, I’ve been outside a lot, especially before COVID. It’s surprising how many people notice you when you have your easel on a sidewalk next to a construction site. Everyone who was working on the building began to follow me on Instagram. They all came down off the construction hoists at lunch time to eat their sandwiches and would wander over. So I would meet the iron workers, electricians, project managers, engineers, safety supervisors. I actually sold some work right from my easel.
I’ve sold work from the street. I’ve sold a lot of work from Instagram. I show with art galleries and sell through them. I also have a website, gwynethleech.com, where people can go to see my price points and shop online, if they want to, but most people like to have a conversation first. People have reached out to me and we can have conversations that go on for quite a few months, which has led to many commissions. Occasionally, I’ll also get inquiries from the deep waters of the internet, as I call it, people who find me through SEO (search-engine optimization) using keywords like “construction site artwork.”
14. What’s something you’ve been meaning to try but just haven’t got around to?
This is a little geeky, technical but there’s a stretcher maker in New York City, Simon Liu. He makes the most beautiful custom-stretched linen canvases. I have been meaning to order a set of these. I’ve visited his workshop in Brooklyn. The workmanship is exquisite. He has a dozen or so employees and they make stretched canvases for the art stars. I’m going to try these and spend the money for the best stretched canvases of my life sometime soon.
15. What is one common misconception about being an artist?
That we’re disorganized. I think artists are incredibly organized. You have to juggle so much these days. I think people often don’t understand that artists are entrepreneurs.
16. What do you hope people get out of your art?
I hope they see the city in a new way when they look at what I’ve been documenting — what is essentially an intense building boom. Before I started this, I was like most New Yorkers scuttling past busy, noisy construction sites; not wanting to look until the buildings were finished. One building going up right outside my art studio window changed all that.