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In The Studio: Leah Yerpe

by Allison Malafronte

Leah Yerpe in her Brooklyn, New York studio Photo: Jonathan Lucas AuchLeah Yerpe is a young Brooklyn-based artist whose bold vision and out-of-the-box approach to drawing and realism result in uniquely dynamic visual statements. Currently working exclusively in black-and-white, Yerpe’s large-scale charcoal drawings (which can reach up to thirteen feet high) show figures floating, reaching, falling, and interfacing in various states of emotional spiraling. Having received her B.F.A. from SUNY Fredonia and her M.F.A. from Pratt, Yerpe has been influenced by many different artistic styles, as well as other disciplines, such as history, biology, physics, and psychology. In her work, the artist pulls on these various forms of influence to offer a fresh spin on realism, using it as a tool to plumb the depths of the human psyche and experience. With her eccentric and optimistic attitude toward the profession and privilege of artist, Yerpe presents a straightforward, clear viewpoint on art-making and candidly shares some of those sentiments here in this month’s In the Studios. 

AM: Figures floating in aerial interconnectivity is a recurring theme in your work. I’m curious to know when was the first time you tried this figurative formation, and what was it about the way it looked or felt that clicked with you artistically?

LY: I first tried it during a period of creative frustration. Nothing I made was interesting to me, and I kept adding more stuff to my work to try to make it meaningful. Wrong approach. What clicked was this formation’s simplicity—it strips away information that isn’t relevant, like background, furniture, props, etc. Even color is gone. I’m left with just one person and his or her clothes. Anything else would be distracting visual clutter. Someone once told me artists need to regularly clean out their closets. That was not meant literally (although that's also good advice) but in the sense of not putting anything in your art that doesn’t have to be there. If an element isn’t serving any real purpose, it’s a distraction. 

<em>Thistle</em>, 2017, graphite and ink on paper, 50 x 38 in.

AM: I’m sure you don’t want to spell out or specify why the figures connect the way they do, but I’m sure they are both symbolic and literal. Are the people who are connected to one another different forms or personalities of themselves, like a “circle of selves”? Or are they representative of a person’s circle of friends or circle of influence? A combination? 

LY: I’ve never thought of the figures as anything other than one person. I’m intrigued by the idea they could represent a circle of friends or influence. I’ll have to think about that one. For me, I see one person. They have many parts/personalities/ideas, or whatever you want to call them. These can be broken down into individual pieces, but they also come together to make up the mosaic of who a person is. The drawing is not only a representation of individual bodies but also the larger shape they come together to form. My mood affects what I see in a drawing. Sometimes the figures look like they are coming together harmoniously, other times breaking apart. Or a little bit of both. The psyche is a complicated place.

<em>Kelp</em>, 2017, charcoal on paper, 72 x 72 in.

AM: You are part of a young generation of realists who are taking realism out of its traditional framework. Did your peers at Pratt or other artists you know (who work in other genres/styles) ever question your choosing a realistic style? Is realism among the twenty-to-thirty-something set something that you would say is respected or challenged?

LY: No matter what type of art you make, someone somewhere is going to question it. So yeah, some people have said negative things about my use of figurative realism. But so what? I mean, how many times has painting itself been declared dead? I think realism among the twenty-to-thirty-something set is respected when it is done well and is interesting. If you’re just making lame imitations of Old Master paintings, not many people are going to get excited about your work. If you’re using realism as a tool to say something fresh and relevant, people will get excited. I don’t think someone could make a credible claim that realism isn't respected today. Just look at the art market. Realism has an enormous audience and always has. 

Heron</em>, 2019, graphite and ink on paper, 50 x 38 in.AM: Did you paint a lot while working on your B.F.A. from SUNY Fredonia and your M.F.A. at Pratt? What made you connect with drawing and black-and-white for your finished work rather than paint and color? 

LY: I did a lot of painting in school, mostly oil. Painting was my “serious” artwork. And while I do love pushing paint around on a canvas, drawing is what really clicks with me. It feels more free and fun. I love how the simplicity of the material contrasts with the complexity of the finished product. I personally don’t find that color adds any clarity or useful information to the work. It took awhile for the younger me to understand that drawing can be just as “serious” (whatever that means) as painting. The market still tends to view drawings as less valuable than paintings, but opinions are changing.  

AM: Have you ever had an experience where you observed or overhead someone viewing your artwork in person for the first time after seeing it exclusively online? What did they say/what was their reaction?

LY: I think people are often surprised at the level of detail in person, especially up-close. That doesn’t always come across in photos. The scale of the large work is sometimes surprising too. But mostly I think it's just the power of a physical presence that most good artwork has. Like when you first experience a piece in person that you’ve seen in reproductions a hundred times. It may look the same, but it feels totally different. 

Fir Chlis</em>, 2016, graphite and ink on paper, 30 x 30 in.AM: What does a typical day in the life of Leah Yerpe look like? How many hours are you spending in the studio? How many hours do you spend on business/emails/marketing? What is your relationship to social media? What do you do for relaxation/inspiration? 

LY: On a typical day I wake up and walk my dog. Water my plants. Eat breakfast. Work in the studio. Take breaks to walk my dog and eat more food. I check email and social media a few times throughout the day. I stay in the studio until I decide to go to bed. Usually I get eight hours of sleep and repeat. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts while I work. Wildly exciting, isn’t it? Now and then I take a day off to recharge by hiking or wandering in a museum. Sometimes I go dumpster-diving in the evening, which is surprisingly relaxing!

I spend shamefully little time on the business/marketing side of things. Luckily for me, I have a great gallery [Anna Zorina Gallery in New York City] that handles a lot of that stuff, because I just don’t have a head for it. I do post on Instagram a few times a week, try to keep my website somewhat up to date, and don’t let emails go ignored for too long.

AM: What is the best thing about being a professional artist? The hardest/most challenging? How do you combat the inherently solitary nature of artist to keep balance in your life?

LY: The solitary nature is one of the perks! I don’t combat the solitude, I embrace it. All the social aspects of being an artist are the hard part. Going to openings, meeting with collectors and curators, opening my studio to visitors, attending parties, keeping up on social media—that stuff overwhelms me so easily.

The best part of being a professional artist is being able to spend my life creating things I actually like, and having my work acknowledged and valued by others. I feel like I won some sort of universe life lotto. Most people don’t find their jobs particularly fulfilling, they don’t feel respected by their supervisor or employer, and yet that’s where they spend most of their time. Life is too short and precious for that to be considered normal.

Heliotrope, 2017, charcoal on paper, 72 x 72 in.

AM: What advice would you give to young people looking to make a life and profession of being an artist? Specifically, if someone in their late teens or early twenties was looking into possible avenues of education, would you recommend a university program? Traditional academy or atelier? Workshop instruction? 

LY: My number one piece of advice is don’t go in to debt. Art school is great, but if you can’t go without burdening yourself with loans, don’t bother. There are plenty of other ways to learn for cheap. Libraries and museums are rich resources. Seek out documentaries such as Art21 and podcasts such as The Lonely Palette. Go to gallery openings regularly and get to know the people there. Reach out to professional artists to see if they’d like an assistant in return for teaching you the ropes. Check out classes at your local community college. Go to local life-drawing events. Draw a lot, whenever and wherever you can. 

I’ve never bothered with traditional academies and ateliers. I just can’t imagine studying in an environment where everyone is focused on realism. I draw too much inspiration from abstract and conceptual art. When I was in college I took a lot of classes outside the art department, such as history and biology. These ended up being enormously influential! You never know where inspiration will come from, especially when you are so young and just starting out. I think the traditional academies are good for artists later on in their studies, after they’ve tried other things and know they need to hone a specific set of skills. 

Sickle, 2017, charcoal on paper, 72 x 72 in.

AM: Do you create in any other forms other than fine art? What other styles/genres of painting are you interested in and what other types of artists do you find interesting? 

LY: Oh yeah, I enjoy making stuff. I garden and cook and like to mess around with different crafts that aren’t thought of as “fine art”. When I want to acquire an item, my first impulse is to think how I can make it rather than purchase it. So I make things like envelopes and pillows and deodorant.  

The paintings I’m interested in looking at is all over the place. I’ll take a good Robert Ryman, Mark Bradford, or Tomma Abts any day! But I think there’s a special place in my heart for paintings of weird, magical worlds like the work of Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Kiki Smith, and Klimt (especially his landscapes). Medieval art is also excellent for this. Art that has a little awkwardness and weirdness that manages to be simultaneously charming and terrifying—I could look at that sort of thing all day every day!

I also have a thing for painting with bold, juicy brushwork like Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell. That shared experience of smearing paint around a canvas is so visceral and thrilling. I can’t paint like that at all, so I suppose that’s part of the attraction. The most important thing is that a painting makes me feel something. Sounds simple, but it's a relatively rare thing.

Cradle, 2018, charcoal on paper, 72 x 72 in.