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B20 Artist Interview with Leah Hamel

B20 Artist Interview with Leah Hamel

B20: Wiregrass Biennial is a juried exhibition that encourages innovative and progressive work and showcases the South’s most talented contemporary artists, illustrating the region’s rich cultural heritage. Selected work utilizes a variety of art forms and media, including paintings, sculptures, mixed media, new media, and installation art. Three jurors chose from a field of over 130 entries for this year’s exhibition — the first virtual exhibition ever for WMA — featuring 39 artists from 11 states.

We’ll be sharing a series of interviews with B20 artists during the run of the exhibition, and our fifth is from Hoover, Alabama-based artist Leah Hamel.

Where do you find inspiration for your artistic practice?
Inspiration for my artwork is primarily found in my time spent in nature, but I also find inspiration in the people who are a part of my life. The experiences I share with these people often spark many of my ideas.

Your work explores ideas of belonging. Is there a place to which you feel a special sense of belonging?
I find a special and strong sense of belonging both with my family as well as in nature. I grew up spending family vacations camping. What I didn’t know as a child is that financially, it was my parents only option for us to have family vacation. No matter whether we went to the mountains or the beach, we camped. This ultimately led to very creative ways to spend our family time together and built our very strong family unit. I feel thankful everyday that this is my family experience.

I was never interested in spending time indoors as a child and that is still true in my adult life. I spend as much time as possible outside. This is where I feel most grounded, most whole, where worry disappears and awareness takes over. There are things in life I feel we can learn from nature if we let it teach us- and all it really takes is observation.

The themes of home and shelter are important in your B20 piece Awash in Your Shelter. How do you think people’s perceptions of home have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
I know home isn’t the same for everyone and some people often avoid it for serious reasons. But what I’d like people to remember is that while home and house might be considered the same thing, they are often quite different.

Home for me has changed appearance many times in the physical sense; it isn’t always about the structure of a house or tangible aspect of the word, but instead what the word “home” stands for that I am interested in. A sense of home can be found far away from the city, or structure that we actually call home. That feeling can be found in the people we love and trust, when having a good meal, in kind gestures from strangers, or in moments of stillness and awareness in nature.

This is what I think many people have found during this pandemic. A sanctuary in being with the people they love and care about that they may have been separated from for weeks or months, connection with something bigger than themselves while spending time in nature because no indoor activity away from the house is available, safety under a structure that has become much more than a place to eat and sleep. 

“Awash in Your Shelter” is synonymous with “covered in your love”. The world “your” can be replaced with mother/father, nature, god, or even self as we sometimes are surprised at the sense of home we can find in our own selves at times.

How do you find the materials for your work? You’ve named a particular source for one of the materials in Awash in Your Shelter — Southside Produce. Does this place have particular meaning in relation to this piece?
I find the materials for my work by observing things I either use or come in contact with regularly. I love using materials that are mundane, single use, everyday objects that tend to end up discarded. They are things that get touched, or used and aren’t always noticed at all, especially once their apparent use is over. For example, in this piece I collected apple trays from Southside Produce, a produce market in Baton Rouge near where I lived. This is where I bought a lot of my produce, not only because it was affordable, but because the people that worked there were kind and it seemed that they have always known you. They didn’t hesitate when I asked if they’d save the trays for me- they were happy to help and play a part in what I was working on. This wasn’t the case with any other store I asked.

I also use natural materials that I have harvested or collected in the area that I live. I have used invasive water hyacinth from LSU lakes and my parents pond, paper mulberry from friends yards, bagasse byproduct donated from sugar mills, and big banana plants that get cut back each fall in south LA. I am interested in cycles, no matter the material being used, natural or manmade. Re-creating something from these various materials is a physical and tangible way to discuss ideas of re-becoming as each material is broken apart and transformed into its new form.

How does living and working in the South impact your work?
Living in the south has impacted my work primarily because of the topography and flora. The mild climate makes it easy to enjoy being outside interacting with nature year around. Observing the landscape as well as the beautiful vegetation has been the catalyst to many sculptural ideas.

Is there anything new you are working on that you’d like to share with us?
For the last year I haven’t had a place to create more than drawings as I have been traveling and living in temporary locations. Finally in May I moved into a space with an at home studio and plan to stay put for a while. Now that I am settled in Birmingham, I am excited to create a new body of sculptural work as a spin off from my last body of work titled On My Way Home which I created shortly before leaving Louisiana. The pieces from that series were based on my observations during work commutes back and forth between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, LA. New work will be posted on my website leahmariehamel.com as pieces are completed.

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