Here’s what I’m seeing, but tell me how you see it?
It’s the kind of conversation commonly overheard at galleries showing artist Leigh Suggs’ work — intricately crafted cut paper works that often double as optical illusions, 2D art that looks 3D depending on where you’re standing. Though her work encourages us to question what we’re really seeing in our everyday lives, the artist also acknowledges that it’s a tricky thing to try to communicate. While working toward her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University, Suggs became fascinated about how much language can fall short when we try to explain what we see, how the visual experience and the verbal representation of that vision rarely match up.
So perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that the personal experience the North Carolina native cites as pivotally foundational to her own art is drawn from memories of a time when she was very young, and likely not yet fully verbal. Back then she didn’t need words to describe what she now calls one of her earliest pleasant visual memories: closing her eyes and seeing an infinity of bright blue circles and dots forming patterns against the darkness.
“We are constantly bearing witness to the inexpressible, and this fleeting moment of pure seeing is something we should all revel in.”
Those visions made a deep and lasting impression. But she couldn’t have known that the doodles of circles and bubbles she habitually scribbled on scraps of paper throughout childhood would one day evolve into what is now a prolific and meticulous art practice — using folded paper, ink, paint, thread and puncturing tools to create dynamic, pattern-rich compositions that hang in galleries, museums and corporate collections. Yes, her mother is an artist and art history professor, but becoming an artist herself was hardly a foregone conclusion. Full of teenage angst and eye rolls when college applications came out, Suggs says the last thing she wanted to do was follow in her mother’s footsteps.
Nevertheless, just two years into her liberal arts “rebellion” at UNC, she’d taken so many art courses that she declared art as her major, almost by default. Today — several fellowships, residencies, grants, awards and solo shows into a successful career as an artist — Suggs credits her mom with being her greatest teacher and supporter. She also emphasizes the importance of community and points to the deep friendships she’s developed with other artists as playing an integral role in helping her sustain both her creativity and her sanity over the years. “On the days when I can’t show up or be consistent, I have a number of close artist friends who I can call on,” explains Suggs. “I can share my worries and concerns, brainstorm, cry and celebrate with them. My community is the foundation that I exist on.
How does your art explore the subtleties of sight and vision?
“I’m interested in an in-between space during the act of seeing, a space that lies on the spectrum of the reality in front of us and what our brain tells us. It is within this ‘pure’ space that an individual can experience an unaltered, unaffected and unchanged vision. While this purity can only exist for a fleeting moment, that moment defines the highest peak of personal experience.”
How would you describe or classify your work?
“I like to think I ride the borders of several different genres of art. I draw, I paint, I sculpt and I am very interested in materials — which typically lends itself to craft. I’ve spent the last several years questioning what ‘genre’ I fit into, and I still don’t have an answer — and I’m ok with that. I’m influenced by all types of art – from Inca quipus to contemporary video art.”
Tell us about something you’ve had to overcome in your art career.
“One of my biggest hurdles was acknowledging to myself that I was an artist. I never felt like I knew what that meant, or how to be that. I was 30 when I finally realized that’s what ‘I wanted to be when I grew up.’ It took me time to get there, but now I have no question about my direction.”
Any advice for new or aspiring artists who may be hesitant to show their work?
“Keep showing up — to work in your studio and to art events in your community. The combo of the two will provide you with an opportunity in one way or another. Stay in touch with teachers, mentors and other art friends. Always send a thank-you note when someone goes out of their way for you.”