We had the good fortune of connecting with Eric Joseph Leffler and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Eric Joseph, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Oddly enough I feel like I am very open to risk-taking in my life, yet I can get a little risk-averse in my practice. That seems completely backwards to me, but when I reflect on my life so far, from when I was a trouble-making teenager until now, I’ve done some pretty risky things that I don’t suppose many other people would have done. I’ll skip the details about the teenage mischief (I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on some of those “risks”), but I moved to Spain when I graduated from Indiana University, and within two months of living in Spain, I fell in love with a local girl out there who also took the crazy risk of falling in love with me. I stuck around Spain for 3 years, deciding to study an MFA in Painting, and scraping by on teaching/tutoring English classes to pay for rent, meals and beer/wine. I don’t know if it was out of financial desperation or just having a generally open-minded disposition, but I made a decision around that time that I was going to say “yes” to any and all opportunities that came my way. I knew that I was strong and resourceful enough to handle the bad stuff, and that the good stuff was going to make the bad more tolerable. Either way, the risk would be worth it because it would lead me to have a more interesting, adventurous life. It may sound cliché, but I have always been terrified of having a life that would be unremarkable and full of regrets. If I had been closed-minded about taking risks, I would never have met any of the most interesting, remarkable characters in my life nor would I have lived or learned any of the adventure stories that have made my life exciting to me. Since then, that Spanish girl and I got married in 2013, and we moved out here to L.A. in 2014. It was another huge risk for my wife and me, leaving behind our friends and family in both Spain and Indiana, but I was able to get a dream job: teaching Drawing, Painting and Art History classes at a beautiful community college down in Newport Beach. That never would’ve been possible without the MFA degree that I got while in Spain, which I never would have been able to afford to study at a university here in the U.S. Most of the risks that have led me here in my life so far have been worth it, I think, but I want to continue taking more risks and staying open-minded about new opportunities, because I never know who I’ll meet or what path I’ll take that will lead me to the next great adventure. In my studio practice I sometimes really struggle with risk-taking. I try to maintain that same mentality of always saying “yes” to new adventures, but in art-making the risks and rewards are much more personal. For me, there is always the urge to just stick to what I already know or what I feel like my strengths are, but then I worry about becoming too complacent and/or redundant. It seems advantageous to have a recognizable style, trademark, or other identifier to make my work stand out from the rest, but I think it would be a nightmare to be stuck recreating the same work over and over, without any growth or variation. In moments of vanity and weakness, I want to be successful and get recognition, but I also can see how reaching a certain level of success as an artist can also be a huge hindrance to risk-taking, especially for a young artist. I imagine success can be like a prison, when you’re under the weight of expectation from galleries, dealers, collectors, etc. when they want you to deliver what they can sell, rather than what you want to create. I really have so much admiration for my fellow artists who are able to be successful and make a living off their studio practice without neglecting the urge to take risks and experiment with new approaches, ideas and/or media. In an ideal world, an artist would never have to sacrifice risk for reward, nor vice versa.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Currently my paintings are colorful, fractured, geometric landscapes which incorporate patterns from buildings, pyramids, boats, trains, planes, as well as quilt and rug designs, I will always remember, during my first critique in the BFA program at Indiana University (another big SHOUTOUT!), I was making color square paintings that used Crossword and Sudoku puzzles as templates, and there was a professor who kept referring to the paintings as “quilts”. She was one of those professors who wanted everyone to be figure painters, so her way of degrading these abstract works was to refer to them as “quilts” which she almost certainly considered “lesser than” painting. I was going through a phase that I would compare to The Magic Theatre sequence in Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”, where doors were opening up in every direction and I was sort of stumbling into every room of the hallway, trying to fit in whatever space I was in, rather than trying to create my own space. I had a sort of revelation when she referred to the “paintings” as “quilts”, which was that I actually LOVE quilts. Obviously, I love paintings, too, so why not fully embrace my love of both of those things and try to translate the color interactions and patterns that I admire in quilts, rugs, etc, into acrylic and oil paintings on canvas? It’s funny that for that professor, who was a lovely person, and fiercely-passionate about painting, some throw-a-way insult she made about my work ended up being a real inspiration, and a story that I think about to this day.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Long Beach is perfect, but we don’t want a bunch of people from L.A. coming down and ruining everything, so I will just mention that our Artist Co-op space here (at 1330 N. Gladys) is the place to be! We are right next to Orizaba Park, which has some good pickup basketball in the afternoons. They temporarily took the rims down during the pandemic, unfortunately, but once those rims go back up you can catch me hanging on them after posterizing someone with a righteous dunk After coming to see our beautiful artist co-op, I would recommend riding bikes down to Marina Vista park with a cooler, and enjoying some beverages with a nice ocean view, or if you are sporty, you can play basketball or tennis there as well. Before the pandemic hit, there were some big games of cricket going on down there on Sunday afternoons, too! For food, you can’t go wrong with any of the taquerias around town, or any of the Cambodian (“Sophy’s” or “Phnom Penh Noodle Shack”), Vietnamese (“Pho Hong Phat”) and Laotian (“Tasty Food To-Go”) food spots here in Long Beach. I also think the Retro Row area of 4th Street, basically from Cherry all the way to Temple, is the best place to walk around town and find nice, 2nd-hand records and clothes and stuff. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Yes! I want to send a big shoutout to my wife, Lena Vieiro, for being the BEST! Not only as a life partner – She is such an inspiring artist, too, and whenever I need it, she knows exactly how to give me supportive, insightful, and objective feedback on my work, which means the world to me, because I value and respect her input so much, even when we disagree. I always trust her observations and opinions because I know that she has truly exquisite taste (obviously… look who she married). I also want to shoutout Juan Gomez, my studio mate, for being such a great artist and friend to be around and talk to about art and life (and basketball) whenever we coincide at the studio. His wife, Lupita, rules, too! I can’t wait until we can all hang out again after this stinking pandemic is over.
Eric Joseph Leffler