Leo Monahan

Paper In Dimension

Leo Monahan artwork: Pun Fried Fish


About The Work

Fly Rod & Reel magazine cover

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.

About The Artist

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Leo Monahan

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.

In The News

Leo Monahan - the medium is paper sculpture and the process is the reward

Teaching Artists: Collage Workshop With Leo Monahan

Color and Concept - an interview with Leo Monahan

Monahan creates a fun atmosphere

Creating sculpture in paper

Leo Monahan

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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