A Shape-Shifting Artist

Leslie Leong moves like a hummingbird around Gallery 22. It is the opening night of her exhibit, SHIFT, and she is adjusting art, giving directions, answering questions – focused on the puzzle pieces that must come together just before a show is unveiled.

People begin to arrive and move slowly about the room holding wine glasses. Leong darts in and among them. Dressed all in black, she both disappears into the crowd and stands out against the museum white walls of the gallery.

Leong, like her art, is a study in contrasts. Her first career, as she puts it, was civil engineering in which an interest in technology was established.

Photography followed. Leong has had two art books on Northern Canada published and a substantial portion of SHIFT is photo-based.

Her eye for nature’s clean lines, bold colours, and rough textures stand out in Leong’s images.

SHIFT, the exhibit, is the marriage of these two pursuits: the contrast of her camera’s capturing of natural, organic shapes and hues paired with her appreciation for technology. These two lines of inquiry are brought together in a variety of mediums by her engineer’s mind intent on putting pieces together.

For example, Leong has taken a garden variety gourd, scraped it hollow, painted it in black paint and gold leaf, and placed in its centre – like the pearl of an oyster – a computer chip with a Swarovski crystal perched in its centre.

This piece is described as being inspired by “a charred tree stump littered with cicada skins.”

The rough skin of the gourd stands out against the cold metallic square of computer bit while the sparkling, multifaceted crystal plays off the thick black paint. Somehow the entire piece appears harmonious, both organic and man-made.

Other pieces, Leong explains, are a way of taking what has been discarded as useless and ugly and making it useful and beautiful again.

“I have a real difficulty with our throw-away society,” she explains. “And with things that are designed to be disposable.”

Leong takes these throw-away items she reclaims from the trash, and turns them into art.

Her “Bionic Chairs” speak to this. Leong has rescued trashed kitchen chairs and replaced missing limbs with rods of steel that juxtapose the original lacquered spindles.

One original chair leg is painted metallic gold and the wooden seat is covered in cowhide. Leong has transformed a discarded piece of furniture and given it new life – a golden peg leg and a touch of the industrial give the chair a tough, almost pirate-like personality.

“I look at a material and I let it decide the medium,” Leong explains. “I listen to what it tells me; it’s like putting together a puzzle.”

Considering the eclecticism of her art, it’s clear Leong is unafraid to pursue various mediums. Photos on canvas, so-called “tribal-industrial” jewelry, reclaimed furniture, and recycled paper sculpture are all a part of SHIFT.

“I like to explore,” she says. “I’ve been making art for a long time, but I keep doing something new.”

Leong’s career as an artist includes 25 exhibitions – half are solo exhibits.

Beyond her photography books, her images have been published in northern Canadian magazines and publications.

Having lived in the Northwest Territories for 15 years and Australia for four years, she now calls the Yukon her home.

She credits the Great Northern Arts Festival as one of her sources of inspiration and says that the territories’ support of the arts has helped her career.

Leong also teaches photography in public schools and adult education courses.

Focusing on her photography, what Leong appreciates about the natural world can be picked out. The rough textures of tree bark and rock are zoomed in on so closely that the viewer almost wants to reach out and run a hand over the canvas.

Another theme is her love of intense colour. Iridescent violets, and floral yellows so bright you practically have to squint, pop from the walls.

Other photographs, such as those that can be viewed on her flickr page, are of such quiet moments in nature you wonder how she captured them. For example, a caribou picks its way through a field of fresh snow, and stark white ptarmigans are in flight against a dark sky.

Speaking of her art, Leong gives the impression she is unconcerned with summing up her message in one tidy theme.

The byline of the SHIFT exhibit is “reflect, rethink, remake, recycle,” but another interpretation of the title could refer to the artist herself, constantly shape-shifting from nature photographer to technology lover to engineer to sculptor, taking on each part of the puzzle to create one multi-textured whole.

SHIFT will be at Gallery 22 at 308 Elliot Street (above Triple J’s Music) until December 10.

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