Artist Leah Hewson: ‘My parents worry about me’

Artist Leah Hewson talks about her unsettling imagery and that famous uncle of hers


Her art is unsettling: line drawings of saccharine children clipped from colouring books are given strange masks and lent adult meaning through collage and pattern, making the sweet sinister.

Leah Hewson (27), whose second solo show opens this week, says with a smile, “My parents worry about me. They don’t know what’s going on. But more than anything, they love to see me doing what I’m doing.”

Her parents, she says, were supportive when she dropped out of UCD after one year. Her two older sisters, Emma and Lorraine, had gone to UCD, so after leaving Holy Child Killiney, Hewson followed their path. She soon realised that art was what she really wanted to pursue, so she did a portfolio course in Sallynoggin, then spent four years at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire.

“I loved it,” she says. “It’s a very small community, and the tutors were really supportive, never telling you what was right or wrong, helping you to find your own style. I think UCD was too big for me.”

Hewson is intentionally living in a small world, having made a decision not to have wifi or TV in her flat or her studio. “I’m meeting people and talking, rather than stalking on Facebook,” she says.

Images of children intrigue her, but to make them “more accessible to adults” she covers their faces. In one piece, she uses the hazard sign from a crash-test dummy.

“The idea of the crash-test dummy was that kids are being moulded by adults,” she says. “They’re vulnerable and not getting a say when people are discussing them.”

She says she finds it difficult articulate her feelings in words. “When I try to express things in words I get myself in trouble. Putting it down in a creative form is another way of expressing myself.”

Her latest work uses old family photographs to create portraiture that is part collage, part paint. “I love those photos from the 1970 and 1980s – there’s a certain light and that nostalgic feeling of being a child.”

Her portraits sometimes include people who have died at their moment of greatest happiness, such as a portrait of her grandparents, Bob and Iris Hewson. “All the creativity in our family comes from Bob,” she says. “My sister Lorraine works on Game of Thrones, Emma sings and my cousin Eve is an actress.”

Her three main visual influences – Andy Warhol, Escher and Dalí are evident. Warhol’s clarity, Dalí’s surrealism and Escher’s tricks of the eye make Hewson’s work the sort that makes you do a double take. Koons isn’t far away either: “I love humour in art,” she says.

One amusing piece is of a colouring book girl poised like a 1950s infant madonna, looking down on a precious boy who has a yellow nimbus behind his head, but is oozing black oil paint out of his ear. It hangs in the kitchen of her aunt and uncle, Ali Hewson and Bono.

The waiting game
Hewson supports herself by working as a waitress. “Everyone should have a stint in the service industry; you can empathise and it helps you learning to deal with people.”

Her advice to young artists starting out is to “go to shows alone. It forces you to meet people and talk to them.”

It’s been a struggle, she says, to be recognised. Straight out of IADT, she was picked up by the KT Gallery (now closed), then produced another body of work before looking for a gallery. “One said they liked my work, but their first opening was in 2015.” She hadn’t realised galleries planned so far ahead.

Hewson shares a studio in Temple Bar with three others.

On the subject of her famous uncle, she says: “Some people are like: why are you waitressing? Wouldn’t your uncle give you any of his money? Even with their own kids, Bono and Ali have shown them the value of money,” she says.

She’s not sure whether the family association is a help or a hindrance.

“It’s a difficult one. He supports me as my uncle, just as my entire family do, and I recognise that it can open doors – but it closes doors at the same time. I want the work to speak for itself. Maybe the doors open, but it’s me who has to step through them.

“He wouldn’t be something I would mention at all because I want to be seen as a serious artist.”

Cusp is at the Picture Rooms, Wellington Quay, Dublin, from Friday until October 31

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