Following his October exhibit at ARTBOX, Indiana native Hugh Leeman has once again settled into his new life as a San Francisco artist and resident. We caught up with him recently, standing amidst the clutter of his studio apartment in the Tenderloin District, hair tousled and clothes splattered with paint, looking every bit the part of a bohemian street artist.
There's more to Leeman than looking the part, however. He is an artist who incorporates social justice and awareness in his work in the hopes of breaking down class barriers. It's an ethic and aesthetic he's brought from the midwest to west coast, with hopes of extending even further.
Shortly after moving to the Bay Area nearly five years ago, Leeman began working at a soup kitchen near his 6th & Market apartment. "I assumed initially that it was a methadone clinic," he admits. "My perceptions of the neighborhood had become a little bit discolored and more based on ignorance."
It wasn't long before he started talking with the regulars, sketching and taking pictures when they would allow it. "Once you got talking to people, you're like, Jesus, this isn't at all what I thought it was," he says.
His self-funded T-shirt Project was born of a thoughtful gift idea, thanking one of the portrait subjects. Leeman began screen printing t-shirts en masse and passing them out to residents loitering outside of his studio. This practice evolved into something of a business enterprise, though the artist doesn't actually profit from the individual exchanges.
In addition to frequent impromptu giveaways, Leeman distributes the majority of the t-shirts in bulk to his soup-kitchen acquaintances. They then sell the shirts for a dollar a piece, keeping the money for themselves. The small price is perhaps an arbitrary decision on the artists' part; patrons can also pay $10 if they purchase online. He gives a nod to Street Sheet, a free publication put out by San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, as the inspiration for his project. The pamphlets have a similar policy of optional payment. "I think I'm one of the few people that buy 'em," he says. "It's a good thing for sure, but not many people want to buy them."
Recent work: Hugh Leeman
Since launching this venture, Leeman has become a neighborhood character himself, similar to the residents we met as I shadowed him on a recent giveaway. The men and women who frequent the streets surrounding his studio clearly have come to appreciate Leeman's generosity.
As we stand beside a fold-up table and cardboard box full of shirts, people flock to talk with the artist, bum a cigarette and pick up their apparel.
One man, Adib, stops to express gratitude for Leeman's work after hurrying to grab one of the last shirts. "We want to see him win," he says. "He's in the right place, the right community." Adib invites us to a dinner for the Muslim community just around the corner; the artist enthusiastically agrees to swing by later.
But Leeman wasn't always so popular on 6th Street. "When I first started giving the stuff away, people kind of thought I was a cop," he recalls. His first attempts at connecting with the community included offering hand-me-down clothes and supplies, asking if residents would let him take their pictures and perhaps paint them. This tactic was generally unsuccessful.
It wasn't until one of his first portrait models, Ray, vouched for him that he was accepted, then embraced. "Initially the clothes were simply my old clothing, but from there it began to take on a life of its own as people would ask if I could paint them," he explained in a later correspondence. "This urge to be heard inspired putting their portraits on the front of the clothes."
The artist now splits his time between the studio and the street. His creative process typically begins behind a lens; Leeman takes photos of the people he finds most compelling, creating sketches or paintings from the captured images. He then uses digital printing to copy the portraits for multimedia production. These homeless faces become iconic in postcards, murals, shirts and paintings. Leeman circulates the images, putting up murals and distributing shirts, to draw attention to his neighbors and foster curiosity in more affluent populations.
"The beauty of it was, you just introduced these totally disparate demographics to one another," the artist muses. "I think there's some real potential for something beautiful with that."