‘People are getting in touch because of the work, not because of Uncle Bono’
Leah Hewson is on a creative roll, and is finally ditching the ‘Bono’s niece’ tag
Full-time artist Leah Hewson has a new jewellery line with Edge Only jewellery. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Ahead of Leah Hewson’s exhibition Scintilla in 2017, buzz climbed at a steady clip until it eventually reached a crescendo. The Dubliner had enjoyed a coveted six-month residency at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), and most of the resulting collection of works – a zesty riot of bright colours, grids and abstract patterns – sold out within an hour.
Hewson’s singular style was evident from the outset but, it being Ireland, there were one or two grumblers positing that her famous surname may have helped grease the wheels for her streak of success. Her father, Norman, is renowned restaurateur and co-founder of food tech firm Bizimply. Her uncle, Paul Hewson, or Bono, needs little introduction.
“I mean, I’m sure there are people talking that way but I don’t know about it,” says Hewson. “If I have or haven’t gotten things because of it, it probably won’t be said to my face. I don’t know – this is the hand I’ve been dealt with. I always say, my family name opens doors, but then I have to walk through them.
“If you think of your uncle, would your uncle give you a million euro? Which is something someone said to me once: ‘Would he not just give you loads of money?’ I have so many role models in my life for different reasons. It’s inspiring to have successful people in their field around you to buzz off, and my whole family are very supportive of what I do.”
As it happens, it was Leah’s paternal grandfather Bob who was originally the creative seat of the family. “He used to paint landscapes and sang opera,” she explains. “My grandmother on the other side used to write poetry, so there’s definitely been this deep-rooted desire for creativity there.”
Does she ever bond with her uncle (she calls him Bono, if you’re wondering) over discussions about creativity and following one’s passion? “Oh yeah, all the time,” she enthuses. “Me being in RHA was when my family started to take me seriously as well as everyone else. I think he really likes the direction I’m taking. He’s showed me part of their art collection at home too, which is f***ing amazing. We really have this connection through creativity, which is really lovely. It’s nice to meet on a level there.”
Still, Leah (32) tends to downplay the connection in her professional life.
“If I’m applying for residencies in New York, some of them require things like reviews and media coverage, and I generally stay away from [media reviews] if [the family connection] is mentioned. I mean, I can’t really get away from it, but if it’s there in the headline – ‘Bono’s niece’– I don’t tend to use it.
“Sometimes it’s been more about that and not the work, but I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that it’s shifting slightly. People are getting in touch with me more because of the work, and then that comes second. Before, it was the family thing first and then, ‘by the way, she’s an artist’.”
If Leah is the product of huge privilege, her everyday life belies it. She still has housemates, and waitressed for years at Wagamama in Dundrum after studying for her fine art degree at IADT Dún Laoghaire. Leah moved to New York to intern for the Irish Turner Prize nominated artist Sean Scully, and reportedly slept on a mattress for six months. Even now, she works out of a tiny studio overlooking the Liffey.
The space – chaotic, paint-spattered, clearly a hive of productivity – is part of the block that’s home to the Clarence Hotel, Roberta’s and Dollard & Co, and is partially owned by U2 (ahead of our interview, Leah orders us Rooibos tea in the latter). Far from being a Bono-related perk, the studio rental comes thanks to her brother-in-law, and with a caveat.
“He gave me this space for now, but it’s definitely temporary, and I can be kicked out at any time,” says Leah. “That’s the condition of it. But it’s a real privilege to have a working space anywhere in Dublin. I’ve spoken to too many people who are desperate for a space and can’t find one.”
With a life as a full-time artist still very much in her crosshairs, the day job has been set designing on Vikings: “I’ve been on Vikings since Season 3 [it’s now at Season 6],” she notes.
“It’s a really nice job – it pays the rent, and it’s really fun. Film work is bananas – I’m an assistant buyer for the set decorating team. It could be ordering things from China or getting 20 cooked chickens from Tesco, or walking into a sex shop on a Monday morning for whips and chains, and trying to convince the person in the shop that no, really, it’s for a film.”
Following the Scintilla exhibition, Leah found herself hitting a professional and personal purple patch. No one, least of all Leah, could have predicted what would happen next.
As Leah started working on another collection of artwork, her new boyfriend unexpectedly died last July.
“It was sh*t because it was such a new relationship and we were just kicking off the honeymoon phase,” she smiles sadly. “He’ll forever be the perfect guy.
“If I’m to put a positive spin on any of it, it was a really profound personal and artistic experience,” she recalls. “What happened was that after that I lost my motivation to create, and that broke my heart all over again because it was like, ‘that’s all I really have’.”
After taking some time to regroup, Leah climbed “out of the hole” in October. The bright colours that marked her previous work, the result of “impulsive” reactions to the material around her, didn’t immediately appeal. Instead, she set about embossing plain white paper.
In more recent months, the colourful motifs of her old work slowly crept back in. A collaboration with former 2FM DJ turned jewellery designer Jenny Huston also helped get her head back in the game. Huston and Hewson spent a year working together on the Leah Hewson for Edge Only (EOxLH) collection, inspiring and informing each other’s work. While Hewson’s canvases are bright and chaotic, Huston’s jewellery is minimal and industrial. The collaboration has resulted in three elements – a linear nine-piece hand-crafted jewellery collection from Huston, and four limited edition fine art prints from Hewson. Together, they created packaging for the jewellery collection.
“I’m always trying to progress in my work, so I thought it would be a really interesting challenge to work closely with somebody, learning to compromise and have a product that meets in the middle,” says Leah. “We work very similarly, very honest and open, and I’d learned a bit about making jewellery too. My motto is, ‘say yes to everything, within reason’.”
Another motto she dusts off from time to time is attributed to her father Norman: “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.”
As the man behind 1990s celebrity haunt Tosca, he should certainly know. Tosca on Suffolk Street was Ground Zero for Dublin’s party set in the ‘90s, and Leah has her own memories of the place.
“I was only seven or eight so none of that [celebrity] stuff would even have entered my psyche, but I do remember my dad betting us that we wouldn’t ever be able to finish the chocolate mousse,” she recalls. “He lost every single time.”
Leah Hewson has been shortlisted for the RHA Hennessey Craig Scholarship Award and to the Nars Foundation in New York for a six-month residency starting October. The Leah Hewson for Edge Only (EOxLH) collection is now available on leahhewson.com and edgeonly.com