Inspired by Bauhaus design and color principles, as well as Japanese and Chinese paper arts, Leo Monahan creates modern masterworks of cut and folded paper.
By cutting, folding, and texturizing paper of various weights, and by superimposing the pieces in dimensional collage, Leo gives the objects in his works a palpability they would not possess depicted on a flat canvas. In an old country kitchen, large spoons lean out from their utensil holder, as if hankering for a cook's hand. A decaying rowboat poses in fugitive relief against the water that threatens to engulf it. Leo's use of relief is such that some of his most arresting art is white on white.
Most of Monahan's works, including the kitchens, are prodigies of color. An object's relief is often heightened by intense tone. Using hot colors liberally in harmony with a few cooler ones, Leo often achieves some of the effects of an abstract. For example, his bigger- and more-colorful-than-life fishing flies seem intended to lure your inner eye.
In recent years, Leo has also enjoyed exploring the sensuous and emotional power of rusts and earth tones, often in images from his boyhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Leo's work has appeared in galleries in California and across the Southwest. His pieces are in numerous private collections and the Smithsonian Institution. The Art Academy of Los Angeles held a 40-year retrospective of his compositions. Leo holds a Life Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators.
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Born in 1933 in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Leo was graduated from high school in June of 1950, the start of the Korean War. He then spent the next four years in the Navy on Far East operations.
Shortly after his discharge, he entered Chouinard Art Institute where, with the exception of his first semester, he was a Disney Scholar. In fact, Leo was the first to receive the scholarship offered by Walt Disney, and indeed was awarded the prize every year of his college career!
In 1960, he began his career as a graphic designer, and created his first professional paper sculpture for Liberty Records, for whom he went on to do over 1200 record covers. His work has been used by numerous clients in publishing, advertising and promotion and he is still very busy in these areas of illustration.
His fine art began in about 1980, and for the most part is based on his memories of life as a young boy at the foot of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills - a life peopled with miners, loggers, cowboys, farmers, and the Sioux. The work is entirely symbolic of the elements that were around him at that time, especially the plants, animals and artifacts. Unique in portraying these images with the paper-sculpture collage medium, Leo's techniques are a blend of both Impressionism and Surrealism.
The recipient of numerous awards, Leo is twice past-president of the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles, and a recipient of their Life Achievement Award. He is also a 35-year participant of the U.S. Air Force documentary art program, as well as founder of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's documentary art program.
He currently resides in North Carolina with his wife, Karen, and his dog, Straigh.
It is difficult to know where to start writing about the career of Barnardsville, NC artist Leo Monahan. Leo shares in this interview how the many threads of his life led him to Western North Carolina. He transitioned from commercial art to fine art upon moving here ten years ago. Now 83 years old, Leo continues to create his colorful cut and folded paper sculptures in his home studio on a daily basis.
Leo is also the creator, along with his friend John Otto in California, of the Local Hearted logo, for which I will be eternally grateful.
In this interview with host Meredith Adler, Leo talks about his 50 years as a commercial illustrator in Los Angeles, where his company designed 1200 record album covers in a period of 5 years, and NBC was his largest client. Leo taught color and design at Disney, and is now a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. Now that I have started writing about Leo, it’s hard to know where to stop, but I would rather you listen and let Leo tell you the stories himself!
On the first day of Leo Monahan's workshop The Unexpected Image I he tells me and the other students, "A collage is never finished - it is abandoned." It is with this straight-shooting wit and wisdom that he leads us through techniques such as collecting inventory, experimentation with design elements, arranging and rearranging, and finally letting go.
With a resume that includes teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, Walt Disney Imagineering, Toyko and Osaka Communication there is no doubt we are in good company. Of course he is also an internationally recognized paper sculptor with work currently on display at Grovewood Gallery. Visit his website to learn more about his paper sculpture.
The three day workshop offered time for students to experiment with techniques and helped us see the ordinary in a new way. A blank canvas became a base of images held together by structure or theme, depending on the exercise. Ultimately we learned that collage techniques promote creativity, visual awareness, and is a personal process that helps the individual overcome the fear of beginning any project in any medium or technique.
On the first day he challenged students to only work with typography. By cutting strips of text we learned the artful ways letters become shapes through positive and negative space.
On the second day our task was to build structure in an abstract collage. Armed with dozens of magazines we began building an inventory of images. We separated ourselves from the content of the periodicals by turning them upside down and using a frame to isolate color, texture, whatever caught our eye in an interesting way. After compiling the inventory we built our structure onto the background. Leo gave us feedback along the way and helped us consider design elements and coordinating principles as we worked, sometimes pointing out what we had done without realizing it. (And just when we were taking our task and ourselves a little too seriously he told us a joke...)
On the third day our assignment was to create a collage with a theme in mind. His beginning instructions were simple, "Do something. Do anything." With the freedom to experiment, arrange and rearrange we worked focused and joyful. We appreciated our final product but also realized the importance of the process. In a helpful handout provided during the workshop Leo writes:
"The process is more enriching to the artist than the final result. The process is the reward. Search, experiment, innovate and reinvent yourself through art, whatever that art might be."
In addition to The Unexpected Image I, Leo also teaches The Unexpected Image II. Check the Grovewood Gallery website to learn more about these workshops. To learn more about Leo's paper sculpture visit leothecolorman.com and read about him in the Laurel of Asheville.
"Concept is EVERYTHING!” Leo Monahan exclaimed during our recent conversation.
I had the distinct pleasure of hearing these words directly from the man himself recently at his Western North Carolina studio. We were surrounded by all stages of his colorful paper sculpture illustrations, and I noted to myself that I was also standing amidst all the elements of awesome works yet to be.
I first became aware of Mr. Monahan in the 1980’s while in design school in Colorado. One semester, we were graced with visiting instructor Eugene Hoffman, who pushed us to notice, appreciate and feel strategic ideation. He also pointed out Good Stuff in the art world, including Leo’s paper creations, which leapt at the viewer off ad pages and magazine covers, reinforcing for us the notion that designing isn’t always a flat process.
Fast-forward to 2012 (Whoosh! Dizzy?). I’m in Asheville, a town of huge artistic talent and culture wrapped in a vortex of synchronicity. At an art event in Constance Williams Gallery, I was introduced to a “Leo Monahan,” and the name was… familiar. And then paper sculpture was mentioned, and it all started to gel. After getting past being a slobbering, fanatic idiot, I have now gotten the chance to learn more about Leo The Colorman’s take on things.
Leo, a color expert, taught at Chouinard, CalArts, USC, and lectured world-wide. He opened and ran successful design businesses, working in major industries. Over time, his fine art paper sculpture illustrations went from a few, to many, as well as from white to full color. He uses very basic art tools (X-acto knives, scissors, paint, brushes, airbrush and fine art papers ), and fueled by “memories, interests and desires” as inspiration for his concepts, Leo considers his works to be continually fluid, each one an experiment in shape and color.
A few select questions and answers:
Greg Vineyard: From whence does your creativity flow?
Leo Monahan: My creativity flows from my experience and fear of poverty.
GV: Do you have a favorite zen-type moment during your creation process?
LM: Zen moments are few and far between… I write zen poetry, haiku, and zen is difficult.
GV: What in your art life makes you feel free or joyous?
LM: At my age, I feel joyous waking up on the right side of grass.
GV: What in your studio inspires you to keep working?
LM: Other artists’ work inspires me to keep working.
GV: Were there any pivotal moments in your life and work that altered what you make or how you make it?
LM: Every project with new content alters what I make, because I experiment on every new concept…sometimes successfully.
Via emails and in-person, Leo is personable, engaging, sharing, funny, humble and gracious. His favorite art has stories and connections and history. He’s a man with a sincere appreciation for the view from his porch. I’m reminded that an artist’s life involves engagement, endurance, commitment and making. I’ve now met yet another inspiring concept of who and what I’d like to be when I grow up.
Leo Monahan, America's foremost paper sculpture illustrator, has lived among us for several years now. The Silver Fox Gallery represents him in Hendersonville. He lives in Barnardsville, enjoying a stunning view across a cove toward a rising forest of mixed hardwood and evergreen trees. Among the many greens on the slope are touches of gray-brown: two very old, very tall, very dead trees to whom Monahan speaks from time to time. "They have gone to a place where I will eventually go," he says, adding that perhaps the trees know some things that he does not.
It is not a large jump from admiring dead trees to creating a series of paper sculptures with the title "Autumn Leaves and Butterfly Bones." He likes to explain, with a straight face, that the spidery forms left by decaying butterflies and other insects are their skeletons. Thus fall is a time of finding "butterfly bones" among the fallen leaves. This is an ongoing project, creating works that combine paper leaves with delicate and intricate insect outlines. The series' whimsical title is characteristic of this artist.
Monahan was born in Lead, South Dakota and would likely have followed his father and grandfather into the mines, had he not served in the Korean War and then used his GI Bill educational benefits to study art at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles County (now the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia). Walt Disney's estate was the college's largest benefactor, and Monahan became involved in various Disney enterprises. Over nearly fifty years, he taught color to Disney employees and was an independent contractor for Disney amusement parks. In his latter years contracting for Disney, he was creating paper sculptures that were then measured, digitized, and through Computer-Aided Design became large-scale metal figures that you may have seen at Disney parks.
Monahan's studio and storerooms take up most of the lower level of his house in Barnardsville. There are many bookshelves, some obscured by pegboard hanging completed and framed paper sculptures. Cabinets clutter the ancillary storerooms, filled with found objects and with pieces of folded, torn and painted two- and three-ply Bristol paper that will be incorporated into future sculptures. Also on file are hundreds of his poems, including many haikus. Alongside the studio there is a small office for his wife, Karen Martin. But as she is a life member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and spends much of her time commuting between Los Angeles and Stuttgart, her husband has even appropriated some of that room as storage space.
Among the framed pieces of finished work are some that remain as mementos of past projects in California. For lobby art during a Ventura production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," Monahan created sculptures representing characters associated with Godot. (You will recall that Estragon and Vladimir, who await the arrival of Godot, don't really know much about him. Monahan created a mythical back-story.)
South Dakota, Southern California and Southern Appalachia have little in common except for the five letters s-o-u-t-h. But the first two locations figured importantly in the artistic development of Leo Monahan, America's foremost paper sculpture illustrator, and the stimulus provided by our region will shape his future output.
Monahan was born in Lead, S.D. HBO devotees know that Lead (which is pronounced "leed" and means an outcropping of ore) is just a ten-minute gallop from Deadwood. In 1874, General George Custer's expedition arrived and two cultures collided. The new arrivals, with a philosophy of "Manifest Destiny," discovered gold and soon were fighting each other over the titles to gold mining claims. The Sioux felt they too had claims, albeit of a different nature. Their nomadic culture (appropriate in a region with less than 20 inches of annual rainfall) had no concept of land ownership. Cutting into the face of the Black Hills was like cutting into your mother's breast.
Monahan's grandfather and father were both miners, and Monahan might have followed in their footsteps had he not served in the Japanese occupation forces during the Korean War. Using his GI Bill, he then studied art at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Walt Disney had taken an interest in the school, and when Monahan received a Disney Scholarship, a long involvement with the Disney enterprises began. The Chouinard Art Institute merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music in 1961 to become the California Institute of the Arts ("CalArts") on a splendid campus in Valencia, built with funds from the estate of Walt Disney.
Monahan was involved with Chouinard, Disney and/or CalArts for 50 years before moving to North Carolina. He taught color, served as a Disney contractor, and had access to the model shops and the specialized techniques used for set construction for Disney amusement parks. Fresh out of school with a few other designers and photographers, he started a business that created cover art for over 1,200 records. Selling that business, he did freelance illustration for 10 years, then began an advertising agency.
He began paper sculpture in 1960. By the late 1970s, paper sculpture had taken over his life. Since 1987, he has done nothing but paper sculpture, both as an illustrator and as a fine artist. Generally using Strathmore 2-ply and 3-ply kid finish papers (and sometimes using watercolor paper or handmade papers), he tears and cuts the paper into three-dimensional sculptures to which he applies color with an arsenal of techniques.
His fine art has primarily been topically based upon his childhood in the Black Hills and especially on symbols arising from the Sioux or from nature. Masks, feathers, pottery, boats and birds appear frequently. Now that he has relocated to Barnardsville, his art is influenced by his new surroundings. He is currently working on sculptures inspired by the autumn forest floor in this region. Patterns representing fallen leaves but with distorted scale will be prominent.
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