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We see people living on the streets every day and become practiced at turning away because we can't spare any change, or we're uneasy. Hugh Leeman practices the opposite. He supports the under-served folks in his neighborhood by printing t-shirts for them to sell, and also works with them as the subjects of his portraits that you might have noticed pasted up on a block near you. Originally from rural Indiana, Leeman ended up in San Francisco where he stayed put to plant roots for the greater good. We visited his studio near 6th and Market and drilled down to his mission statement. Skeptics beware, we're buying what he's selling.

Tell us your story, and how you originally started working with people who are living on the streets.

Hugh Leeman: I always wanted to travel ever since I was a kid. When I was fourteen, I started working and saving money and, when I was 18, I moved to the Virgin Islands. I thought I'd be living there the rest of my life, but it only lasted a year. I moved to Europe, which started a three-year adventure around the world, and I ended up in San Francisco. I came here thinking I was going to work for a few months as a bartender and save money to go around the world again. Long story short, I got here to this apartment and started making some art and really fell in love with the things I was doing. I fell in love with the neighborhood and never left.


What have you been making this summer?

HL: These pieces on paper are new and are based on the life stories of guys who live on the streets. As I've gotten to know them better over the years, they've become friends, and they tell me stories from their lives. I started painting some stories from their childhoods.

Have portraits always been your main jam?

HL: I've always done portraiture but, with the new work, I wanted to start telling more of the story in a literal sense. Certainly, a portrait tells some of the story, but some of these guys have profound and beautiful stories to tell. It became a challenge for me to discuss this, and put it in front of a viewer. Some of the stories are not especially palatable, so I started using my own artistic interpretations to depict it. You can look at it and have a different interpretation than I do, but the beauty is that we are coming to it and basing our ideas off of someone else's life story. Someone who has endured something that you or I typically haven't experienced.

What made you want to work with folks on the street? Did it start when you moved to San Francisco?

HL: I had no idea what The Tenderloin was before I moved here. I looked at five places from Cragislist, and this place was bigger, cheaper and right downtown. It was close to Muni and BART and I thought it was a steal. When I told people I'd moved to 6th and Market, they said they wouldn't even come here in the daytime.

It's a well-known intersection.

HL: It was a blank canvas and I wanted models, and these guys were pretty willing. Maybe it's me projecting a bit, but part of my fascination is that I see myself in them. There's this freedom in them. My perception of freedom is that I can save up my money and one day I can retire. I can take a two-week vacation here and there, but I know I have to go to work. I know I have to get up in the morning. Their freedom is that they can do what they want, and they don't have to retire or think about going to work. That's the simplest way to sum it up.

Tell us about one of the first people you worked with, and what that interaction was like.

HL: I would come home from bartending and walk up Jones Street late at night, and the same guy would always be trying to sell me drugs. I would never respond, I'd just keep walking. But one night I turned around and said hey, I don't want that stuff, but can I take your picture? And he said, sure. I started taking photos of him under the street lights and getting to know his story. It dissipates your ignorance. I'm not saying he's an angel, but you have a preconceived notion that he's a bad guy. But, in fact, the guy had a wife and a kid, and was short on rent, so he was selling this stuff. Again, he's not an angel, but you start thinking, if I was in his position and I had to make rent or else I'd be out on the street, then yeah, I would probably do the same thing. That was match to kerosene for me.

What are some of the less obvious challenges of working the way that you do?

HL: Early on, lots of people thought I was a cop.

When someone asks what kind of art you make, what do you say?

HL: I always had the idea that I wanted to do something more. Not necessarily for people, but for the greater good of the world. It seems isolating to sit in your studio and strategically place pigment on a blank canvas. You want to communicate with people and have real life experiences. Lots of these guys I met asked if they could come over and stretch canvases, or put up posters for me. I had already been printing t-shirts, and I asked a guy I knew named Elbert if he'd want to sell them. At first it seemed like a silly idea, but he said he'd love to. It became exciting in my mind because it was like this entrepreneurship. They're outside meeting people, shaking hands, and trying to sell t-shirts, and profit from that. I've always seen my street art like an advertisement. It's an ad for my artwork, but it's also an ad for these people and who they are. The successes of it, quite frankly, are drops of water in the ocean. I can't say anyone's life is being changed on a major scale, but some of the successes have been when guys want to move on from selling the shirts because they get employment or something like that.

What's your main goal with your artwork?

HL: My highest aspiration would be to do something akin to the Pichação in South America. People couldn't speak out against the government, so they would take little rollers and dip them in paint and write political slogans. It was social criticism. I don't see there being any real social criticism in my work, it's just simply giving people a voice. As an artist, you often feel that you don't have a voice; that it's such a massive world. You talk about art bubbles and auction houses and think, who the hell am I? You're knocking on a coffee shop door trying to get a print hung. Through street art, I can talk to the public when I want, and I don't need a curator to tell me what month of the year I can show my work. I want to communicate with massive amounts of people about what I feel is an under-served demographic. That's a common denominator with these guys on the streets -- they want to be remembered too. Lots of them pass away, and they don't have family, or they're not remembered. I think it's just a way to dignify and humanize them. And maybe sometimes, when I'm painting their portrait, I'm painting myself, in a way.

We were wondering why there aren't many women represented in your work.

HL: A month ago, I took the first picture I've ever taken of a woman living on the street. I have yet to draw her. Early on, people would ask me why I depicted so many African Americans, and my answer was always well, frankly, it's because I walk out my door and take pictures of the people I meet. I'm not seeking them out, but they're a large part of the demographic. The same answer applies here, in a way. The majority of people I see sleeping on the streets are men. There certainly are women on the streets, and the work has been maybe a bit too literal and focused on homeless men. It's more about people who are oppressed, and that's two thirds of the world. I want to start painting women, and I've just started to scratch the surface.

Tell us about the wallpaper patterns you sometimes use in the background of the portraits.

HL: They're stencils that I buy from this site for home decorators. It's aesthetically pleasing, but it also adds visual irony. I'm taking people who live on the street and depicting them, hoping that someone will buy the paintings to match their couch and beautify their wall. There's an irony to that, and I didn't want it to be lost.

If your work had a soundtrack what would it be?

HL: I think it would be something that is in a foreign language to me. I have this CD called Ambient Africa. I don't know what the hell they're saying, but I can feel it. I think that is hopefully what my work conveys. You may not know exactly what I'm talking about because the language doesn't hit you the same way it hits someone else, but you can feel it.


Hugh Leeman's work can be seen in The City We Love, a group show at 941 Geary in San Francisco on view August 13 - September 3, 2011.