To say Leah Giberson has an eye for detail would be an understatement. Her color-packed, punchy, photorealistic paintings are practically edible in their appeal, every exquisitely rendered visual morsel popping out playfully. The reflection on an airstream? Ambrosial. The latticework on a lawn chair? Luscious. It’s dang hard to look away. Naturally, we had all sorts of burning questions about her practice, her style, and her place of work. Giberson did us the honor of putting up with our prying from her Brookline, MA art studio. That she managed to stick out our interview despite being totally slammed by the flu is a testament to her tenacity.
Did we mention her illustrations appear on one of our favorite beers? We’ll drink to that. Since you’re probably as smitten as us, it’d serve you well to know Giberson also accepts private commissions, and is presently working on a large piece for a live auction in Boston slated for this Spring 2018. But let’s say you’re just in the mood to gaze upon her goodness—if you’re anywhere near New Hampshire, make the trip to Nahcotta gallery, where her work is currently on display in a delightful year-round group show. And keep an eye out for exhibition news from the artist this coming summer!
A lover of Loretta Lynn and looming deadlines, Airbnb browsing and obsessively checking the forecast, Giberson is oh-so relatable....and unfathomably talented all the same. We can’t quite wrap our brains around that, but we’re glad she’s giving us a shot. Below, Giberson fills us in on how she fends off her inner critic, the magic of a good night’s sleep + more.
Where's your studio?
In our third floor apartment in Brookline, MA.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
Most days it’s a paint-covered apron over jeans and a t-shirt. Also required are my noise cancelling headphones and over the counter readers.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
Whatever will keep the critical voices in my head distracted so I can get in the flow. I listen to public radio most of the day with some podcasts and audio books thrown in. My music playlist is all over the place, but this week has included: Loretta Lynn, M.I.A., Cat Power, Battles and The Pixies.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
Most days I begin on the couch with coffee, email, online wanderings and checking on the weather forecast (an obsession of mine). But I guess my actual “arrival” is when I put on my apron and headphones.
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
Most definitely fueled by looming deadlines and the focus/productivity I experience in the final stretch. I begin most projects early but then there’s usually a “simmering” phase where it’s slow and sporadic. The pace picks up again as the deadline approaches and I always work right up until the very last possible moment.
Your painting style is super idiosyncratic. How did you develop your process?
It grew out of the world of collage. As a kid I would spend hours combing through old National Geographic magazines, looking for images to cut out, glue down and alter with paint. In art school, I continued to use found images as the starting point - painting mixed in with photocopies or silkscreens of old advertising stock photos.
I first tried painting on top of ink jet prints in the mid-nineties, but the ink ran, changed color and faded quickly. As home printers and ink improved dramatically over the next ten years or so, I eventually was able to produce prints that could hold up under acrylic medium and paint.
I never set out to paint so realistically though. Up until about 2006, I was mostly adding paint just to simplify the image - isolating and accentuating the interesting parts while covering up anything unnecessary or distracting, but the line between photo and paint remained quite clear. Over time though, I began painting over more and more of the underlying image, eventually covering its entire surface.
By painting directly on top of the photographs and paying attention to the minutia in the underlying image, I learned how to paint “photographically” while also developing my own style and voice.
I think of my process then and now as an exercise in remembering. I’m interested in what we hold on to and what we get rid of; how the story changes over time as we edit, embellish, over-simplify, distort, and distill in an attempt to make sense and find meaning in our experiences.
What's your go-to source for painting inspo?
Wandering around taking photos of things that catch my eye.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
Making travel plans. I honestly love every part of the process: browsing AirBnB listings, using Google Maps street view to find neighborhoods I want to photograph in person, figuring out where/what to eat, researching the history of the area - and of course keeping an eye on the weather forecast as the trip gets closer!
Most recently I’ve been procrastinating by making plans for a SoCal trip I’m taking with my mom in late February. We’ll be heading out to the desert to take photos at the vintage trailer show during Modernism Week in Palm Springs, but also planning excursions to Salton Sea and Joshua Tree and then a few days at the end exploring some neighborhoods in/around LA.
Which artists' 20x200 editions do you most covet?
It’s a long list, but here are a couple to start with. I need to get a piece of Jenny Odell’s work. I share her obsession with Google Maps and love the way she isolates, collects and pieces together these objects to create patterns and meaning. I’ve also been a fan of Hollis Brown Thornton for a long time and am particularly drawn to his pieces with ornate wallpaper and VHS tapes.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how did you get there?
My parents are artists/craftspeople so my two sisters and I grew up making and creating and we just figured we were artists too. There were other areas I thought about pursuing along the way (East Asian Studies, geology and architecture), but art was a constant throughout.
Even though being an artist has always been a core part of my identity, there were definitely times when making art took a back seat as I tried to make a living. For about ten years after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art, I worked as an interactive designer and art director. It was wasn’t until 2008 that I really started trying to make a living from my art work and then about a year later at the age of 40 I made it official when I turned down my final freelance job.
How do you get over creative blocks?
I typically have lots of pieces in various stages of progress, so if something’s not flowing with one, I just switch to another. It can also help to step back physically from a piece, which for me means walking into the living room and looking back from there to get a new perspective.
Also a good night's sleep can work wonders!
What do you like best about 20x200?
As a 20x200 artist and collector, I’m wowed with the quality of the prints - they are always stunning. There’s also the talented 20x200 team, who are truly a pleasure to work with. (Ed. note: Awww, shucks!)
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
It’s definitely helpful to have a dedicated space to make your work, store your supplies and live with your work in all its phases, but it’s also critical to find a solution that works best for you and your particular circumstances.
Years ago I had a beautiful studio in a neighborhood filled with tons of other artist studios. I loved being there, but getting there was a nightmare - whether I was squished onto a crowded train or battling Boston traffic in my car, it took forever and I would be frazzled by the time I arrived. I also had young kids at the time so had to leave the studio early enough to pick them up from school, which meant staying late wasn’t an option. As the months passed, I was going in less and less and after six months I gave up the space, moved all my supplies back to my apartment and got to work.
At first my studio was just a corner of the dining room, then it took over the entire dining room and then after one more room swap, moved to the largest room in the apartment. I admit I would love to have a larger studio (and a dedicated dining room for that matter), but working from home suits me. I’m used to the rhythms of weaving together home and work throughout my days. And since my studio is easy to get to, I’m there early and often.
The 411 on Leah Giberson
Though her work typically depicts suburban scenes, Leah Giberson was raised by artists deep in the woods of New Hampshire. She received her BFA in painting from Massachusetts College of Art in 1997 and has lived in the Boston area ever since. She made her living as an interactive designer, animator and art director for over ten years, but now paints full time.