Cynthia van Leeuwen
Psychedelic history is one way that Toronto artist Cynthia van Leeuwen describes her art, which steers hard into a new and exciting direction.
Pieces like "Hooper Road 2" show off Cynthia's raw talent as an artist by its striking realism and depth, while "Cave Painting of Animals Being Hunted Off the Cliff" is a great example of how van Leeuwen intertwines her styles together in perfect moderation to accomplish a beautiful outcome.
She splashes timelessness with a modern infusion that takes a new look at what art could be, while at the same time showing off her appreciation for the past while entwining the present.
Van Leeuwen's unique style bravely steps towards a new direction, showing itself off with a colourful display of emotion and technique that provokes the imagination of those viewing.
There is a contrast of old and new, now and then, that is being explored within her work that brings bold and refreshing originality to the table.
How do you decide whether to paint your idea onto a piece of wood or conventional canvas?
For most of my life I have been living in poverty so I would paint on anything I could find. One time I was going around in Manhattan to find a waitress job and there was a restaurant being gutted. All sorts of pieces of wood from cabinets and things were lying on the curb and the workers were bringing more out. It was December, I was depressed about finding a job I did not want but needed for the dosh. (I had to find someone to hire me to work under the table which was intensely scary. It meant I worked for tips only.) The workers said I could have the pieces they were throwing out. I took a taxi back home spending precious money so I could get all these surfaces back to my apartment. The funny thing is, when they re-opened the brand-new restaurant, at that very location I got a job there! They re-named it The Greenwich Cafe. It was on Greenwich Av by 7th Ave, it was at that job I met the owner of a way better restaurant and was hired to work a few blocks away, 7th Av and W10th St. I spent the next 7 plus years working there (for tips only), a wonderful Italian restaurant called Tanti Baci, meaning ‘Many Kisses’ in English.
If I had my choice I would likely paint on linen and very large surfaces. There is magic painting so large. At first it seems like a mammoth surface but then as I paint the space gets smaller and I only want more. The largest I painted on was 12x12’ for Prince’s TV show, ‘The Ryde Divine”. The biggest I have painted on my own work is 6x4’. I don't prefer to work small, especially on portraits. So much info in a small space, it is easy to get wrong. It is easy to get any size wrong, but those tiny brushes can drive me mad sometimes. Although I often use tiny brushes when I paint large because I am used to painting small.
When and how did you know you were an artist?
I feel like I always wanted to be a painter. I remember being young and all the time spent drawing and coloring was so engulfing for me. Seeing how colors laid down beside each other excited me so much. I used to dream about having an attic and a beret, in those days that is how artists were portrayed, living in an attic, wearing a beret. Now I would like a lakeside home with mammoth windows where I could hear the waves lapping on the shore. My mother encouraged us to make art and she was a Montessori teacher in Holland (her degree did not carry over to Canada though) and also a good draughtman herself. When I drew something well it excited me. I also got praise from teachers which encouraged me too. Making art took me out of what felt like my painful and shabby reality. Although I had a lot of fun as a kid too, it was not all bad. It helped with all the creepy stuff and was a fun way to pass the time.
How do you go about selecting a piece of wood to paint?
Mostly I would find wood laying in the streets. I would find some really great pieces and some scary dirty ones I would be scared to touch them until I could get them home and give them a bath in my bathtub. I remember one night some friends and I were going out dancing to Nell’s this club on 14th St in Manhattan and there were these big pieces of a broken-down packing crate right there. I asked if I could put them in the coat check and I was so happy they let me. I would have gone home if they did not. I would rather have the surfaces than dance and I loved to be out dancing at the club! That whole night, dancing the night away, I was glowing knowing I had lovely surfaces to work on. The packing crates were very old, and the wood was grooved from wear. There was handwriting on the backs. I like the paintings I did on those pieces. I found a tabletop outside my apartment building gave it a bath and painted an Egyptian scene on it along with words from visiting a musician friend that made me sad.
I found huge pieces of Masonite on 6th Ave in the 20’s. I lived on 8th Ave at 30th. I carried them all on my head like an African woman. I was determined to get them home. I used house paint leftover from a job to prime them. I will never forget carrying that mammoth load on my head.
For smaller pieces I would go to the lumber/hardware stores, one on 14th St at Greenwich and one in the 20’s and buy off cuts for $3-4 per piece and take them home and paint on them. I would paint on whatever I could find. I felt like Jean Michel Basquiat who did the same, he even pained on old skids/pallets. But he was rich and famous, (and sadly dead) and I was a waitress living illegally in the USA, working illegally and in my apartment illegally. I wished I was rich and famous though.
You had a mantra as a child "This time, this time..." to get through hard times, what do you do now to move forward in difficult situations?
I have learned to accept my feelings no matter how gnarly. I cry a lot. I sob uncontrollably pretty often. I can cry so easily it is embarrassing for me. I tell myself it is because I am sensitive and hope that would also mean I would be a good painter with my level of perception and sensitivity. I have learned quite a bit in this lifetime about the will, about free will and how it has been denied in our society and how we are forced to conform by people who are not loving and how this has pretty much ruined our society from evolving and expanding as we are meant to do.
You have lived all over and now reside in Toronto. What city has influenced your art or you as an artist, the most?
Well, there is no place like Manhattan. Especially in the 90’s before Gotham, as I call it, came to call. The buildings were reasonable heights and where I lived in Chelsea it was undeveloped if you can believe that. Now the stories are so high and there are buildings on top of buildings. Plus, after 911 they changed the rent laws, so the city is a different place. The cool thing about New York is it is bedrock. If you take all the buildings off it still throbs. The history of New York before the European showed up is fascinating. The Hudson River is a tidal estuary, and the tide runs through it twice a day. If you take all the water out of it, the geography is like the Grand Canyon (hence drowning people with cement shoes is effective). It is 900 miles long and starts as a trout steam at Lake Tear of the Clouds and then drops off the Atlantic shelf under the Brooklyn bridge.
I had an amazing education. Robert Bateman taught me high school art. I was blessed with an incredible art education. I hated school but went for 6 years post-secondary and ended up with no degree. I thought I would be a teacher, but I realized the fluorescent lighting and the principle would likely drive me mad, so I decided to stay being a waitress which is how I put myself through school and buy my time to paint which I did my entire life. Until I got too old to be a waitress.
I lived in MPLS as a big Prince fan and working for him, being one of his painters was a very great experience. I lived in Reno and I loved that too. I lived in New Mexico and it was so great to have my own little adobe (no bathroom or kitchen, had to go to the ‘big house’ for that). I loved visiting the art gallery in Detroit, in Chicago.
Who is your favourite artist that no one would know?
I guess my mother. She has a very good eye. She also has the typical mostly female artist lack of confidence and put her work down all the time. I had to encourage her to treat her art well, to make prints, to appreciate her work. I love her work.
Where does your artistic drive come from?
This is likely going to sound nuts but all I ever wanted to do was make paintings, create things. I make all sorts of things. I have had a baking business when I lived in Australia and was not allowed to work. I have a skin care product that came about because of my mother. My drive comes from a deep, deep desire to express myself, to have my voice say the things inside me. I have a very long past. I remember things from other lifetimes. I remember before I came to this planet and I remember being an infant before I could talk. This is a really deep subject and I love to talk about it, but it would take ages. My drive comes from seeking balance and healing in ways and places I have not ever experienced. I speak up for the underdog. I remember things society would like us to forget. When I was young someone asked me what I wanted to be, and I said “An archeologist” I was too young to know about that, but I somehow knew. In fact, that is what I am only not using tangible things as much as digging the past for what is still affecting the present.
How do you decide which idea to move forward with and paint?
I have done and still do a lot of trade. Money is not my strong point at this time, nor has it ever been. That said, I work on what I need to trade. I have a portrait coming up now in part trade for a new furnace. It pisses me off that the five hours spent putting a new furnace in will result in me putting in far more hours painting. Plus, I had to pay for the actual furnace, Tax alone was over 400 bucks. Plus, I had to clear the space, took two hours, clean the space after they removed the old furnace and clean the space after they left, put things back in order. Plus, I am renting, and my landlord is not great so I pay for things so he won't sell the house and I would have nowhere to go. I work like a dog and it annoys me. However, there are many things working in trade has enabled me to do, even pay rent so I am grateful. And resentful. And hopeful for the future.
With my own work I follow threads of desire. I am in love with the unseen, with Love. I am in love with Nature and music. I get cravings the same way I get cravings for certain food. I get cravings for certain colors and I attempt to speak my inner world. I see images, visions, so to speak and I run after them, attempt to capture what I see. My intuition guides me and my third eye with all the wonderful things it shows me. That the Loving Light shows me. I also paint the pain and sadness. I love to paint out my grief. My rage, my fear. I remember dating this guy while I was going to University of Guelph. I found out he was sexually molested as a kid and it hit me so hard. I remember somehow letting all that flow through my arms as I painted, and it helped.
What is your greatest passion other than art?
It would be animals, birds, bees, plants, water and music. I love the unseen as I said, and these things are closer to the unseen. We live in a huge universe of which our society closes it eyes to. We are programmed to not know much.
What would you like your audience to take away from your art?
I hope my work would allow someone to feel something and maybe get a sort of ah-ha moment. Perhaps not able to articulate what that was but to feel some emotion and experience some understanding of some sort.
Do you have an idea for a masterpiece or is each painting your masterpiece?
I certainly wish my paintings were masterpieces. Living under the great stress poverty can bestow, I think it cripples one. Also, I apologize, not to be so disquieting, but early childhood trauma at 5 years old when I was held at knife point with a strange man attempting to rape me in the butt really messed me up in too many ways. I managed to get away before he actually did the disgusting deed. it was outdoors and I slithered out from under him, he kicked me down and had me under him again and thankfully I slithered out one more time and managed to run far enough away to yank my pants up and ran like the dickens to my mother in our 6th floor apartment. We grew up in Ontario housing when there were only like 2 building in the entire area allocated to us poor folks. There is far too much of this kind of damaging stuff going on to children who had and have it far worse than I. But I know it has been a bitch to process and heal from. The early childhood trauma and poverty are both difficult things to deal with.
I think of Georgia O'Keefe who was given a studio, large surfaces and paint to get busy at a young age. I would have loved to have that opportunity to get to work on that level at a young age. My intent and hopes are to paint worthy paintings.
If you could only pick one of your pieces to represent your art on a whole, which would it be?
My recent painting of my niece who died last year. I painted her over a Mesopotamian image, and she spoke to me, as people and pets often do as I paint them, and told me the image was ‘Lace Light Bridges.’
Who or what is your greatest influence?
That is hard to say. I would say God, but not the God of dogma, guilt and religion. Loving Light is a good way to say it. I am heavily influenced by history. Music and anything multi-dimensional as long as there is the bottom. I am not a spiritual person in the way many people are. I have a lot to say here but I will leave it at this for now.
You have described your painting as psychedelic history, what does that mean?
What I mean by psychedelic history is if you look at our history there is the bogie man killing the wonderful people. Every time. When the Euro showed up in North America, for example, the Native culture was at a super high level of civilization. There was peace and beauty for huge geographical areas. Six tribes with 50 chiefs, all nominated by women were led by Hiawatha and Deganawida, two prophets and men with visions of unification of humanity and peace and they were able to implement it. Look at any cool loving culture, Mayan, Ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Greek, African, they all had their flaws, but the main language was Love. They were all annihilated by the big bad bogie man who ruins everything all the time. So far though. This was not the original plan for Creation. It will get fixed. All the prophecies of Love have this vision and outcome too. I love the other side, I love the realm animals live in. The unseen. There is way more going on than we have been programmed and trained to see. These cultures are all based on Love and the work they do, the art they make is mostly about Love.
Do you always know what you are going to paint when you start a piece?
No. Sometimes I do. I will work on a piece and then have leftover paint which I don't waste. I will perhaps lay a ground down with the left-over paint. I have been concentrating, focusing very hard and then the spin -off at the end sometimes gives me a painting it seems I did not work for at times. Painting can be magic like that. I will ‘see’ something before I have actually painted it and sometimes, I just need to fill in what I see already. This is a gift from the Universe. Other times I battle to get something to work. Like on a portrait, I may battle to get the likeness for what feels like forever and then one day I will ‘see’ what I need to see, and the painting will then sing. Then when I do the reveal, I hope the person cries. Then I know I did a good job. Or they jump up and down happily, that is a good response too.