Artist Bytes: Interview with Leon Nicholas Kalas

8 Jun

Leon Kalas Bab Fez Gallery Morocco 2009

Leon Nicholas Kalas is an Athens born artist based in Brooklyn, New York, USA. His oil paintings are predominantly figurative and he adopts a variety of styles and approaches from abstract to realist. He is a self-taught artist who developed his talents through self-discipline, passion and a keen interest in humanity, all of these skills honed over a lifetime and refined in his later years at formal art institutions in New York. Some of his paintings respond to the struggles of African-Americans, others are based on his experiences of travel to Morocco and many are celebrity portraits, including those of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. Leon’s dedication to the human form reveals a consistent interest in the individual identities that shape a nation; each unique portrait is emblematic of the diverse and complex nature of American society.

Leon Kalas, Self Portrait, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Leon claims that his artworks are “not focused primarily on political/social issues”, yet it is hard not to see much of his oeuvre as a rebuke of the history of racial prejudice towards African-Americans.  Despite his intentions, the nature of his subject matter has caused controversy in the past and fired debate about the appropriateness of political imagery in public spaces. In 2007, Leon was employed as a curator for the Fillmore Real Estate Offices on Atlantic Avenue and Hoyt St in Brooklyn. He was responsible for coordinating rotating exhibitions of paintings of local Brooklyn artists that would furnish the offices. The partnership worked well until it was Leon’s turn to exhibit his collection of twelve paintings titled Social Injustice in America. The exhibition included images of black slavery and oppression, and one painting donned the text “black slaves for sale here”. The department was not amused, claiming that the imagery was too provocative for a business space. The Brooklyn Paper quoted Leon’s response: “Art is not geraniums and petunias…Art can be ugly.” And with that, Leon removed his exhibition from the offices, and resigned from his position as curator. The right to freedom – for expression, for culture, for race – is evidently a theme that permeates the artist’s life and his artwork. His art is not so much about provoking outrage, but generating awareness of important issues and at the same time celebrating the lives of people who have contributed something meaningful to American culture.

Leon Kalas, Descending from your throne you become a slave, oil on canvas.

In the following interview I ask Leon about his approach to art and of his experiences travelling to Morocco for an artist workshop.

Kim Goldsmith: The exhibition Social Injustice in America and some of your earlier paintings including Grieving for Injustice, focus on the history of African-Americans and the inequalities they have experienced. Why are you fascinated with their history and what inspired this series of paintings? I ask because you are in fact a Greek national, brought up in Brooklyn. Have you ever explored your personal experiences as a Greek American through your work?

Leon Kalas, Grieving for injustice, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Leon Kalas: This body of work Social Injustice in America derived from my own direct experience in the deep south, when I first came to America in 1960 as a young man thinking that I was coming to “The Land of the Free”. But when I visited South Carolina I witnessed signs “No colours served here” and “Rest rooms for whites only” and saw people going on the back of the bus to sit, simply because of the colour of their skin. So the statement “ Land of the free” was, and still is, a very hypocritical statement. Years later, when I grew up and truly realized what this statement meant, as a visual artist I simply wanted to express my anger and make a point that there is social injustice in this country. Besides, let us not forget that the Greeks were enslaved to the Turks for 500 years, so perhaps, because of my own history, I may know something about oppression, discrimination, and slavery.

Leon Kalas, Obama, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Kim: It seems that you have curated many exhibitions in Brooklyn over the last few years, is this correct? What prompted your interest to curate and promote the work of Brooklyn artists?

Leon: I used to own an art gallery in a small town called Havre de Grace in the State Maryland. There I curated many exhibitions helping the local artists. When I returned to New York, a corporation approached me, Consolidated Edison, who were looking for a curator to put up art exhibits of Brooklyn artists in their corporate gallery. I accepted the position and I continue to curate exhibits on a monthly basis.

Leon Kalas, The Embrace of Unity, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Kim: Despite your extensive Fine Arts training at the New York Academy of Art, The Art Students League, New York, and the Fashion Institute of Technology, you comment on your website that “Painting to me is a life force, not a career”. So, you have always desired to be an artist, and consider creative work to be a vocation. Have you always made a living from art, or did you work in some other profession in the past?

Leon: Creativity was always part of my life. I always painted ever since I can remember. But to make a living, I was a Trade Finance Officer for Bank of America International, and Chase Bank for 30 years combined, after graduating from Pace University in Economics. When I was forced to retire at the age of 62, I became a full-time artist, went to three art schools to refine what I had already learned throughout my life through experience and practice.

Leon Kalas, Homage to Rodin, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Kim: We first met in Rabat Morocco for the Second Spring Edition of the Visual Arts: Art, Storks and Nature in 2009. Was that your first workshop experience? Your oil paintings are composed of many rich layers of colour that can take weeks to paint. We had a time restriction of a few days to make the artwork for exhibition in Morocco, and so it was impossible for you to use oil paints. How did you cope with the time and material restrictions of the workshop? Did you learn something new or unexpected from this change in your process?

Leon: The art camp in Rabat was my very first experience and I was not prepared for that. I had no brushes or pigments or media in which to work with. I had assumed that this was going to be given to me at the camp. However, because my work consists of many layers and takes a long time to finish, I brought with me three finished paintings for the exhibition in Rabat and left them there. But while I was there, just as to be part of the working process with others, someone gave me some pigments and I painted a portrait. I did not have any media in which to mix my paint with so I used olive oil. It was terrible, and I am sure until today, a year later, the painting must be still wet. What I learned out of this experience is to be well prepared in my next art camp. I left that painting in Rabat with someone who wanted it from the Art Camp.

Leon painting with Moroccan orphans Rabat beach, Morocco 2009.

Kim: I also arrived in Morocco without any art materials, and brought with me a few ceramic eggs I had made in my studio. I intended to make a sculpture with them, but all I could find was pink toilet paper in my hotel room. I used this to make a nest for the eggs, and in some ways I found the process liberating and spontaneous. Art camps are a good opportunity for experimentation, because you can make mistakes without big consequences.

I noticed that you have one of your paintings in a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and that this is not the first time. Some of your older paintings such as the Evolution I and II series refer to the collection of tribal masks held at the museum. How does it feel to have your work on show in such a well-respected gallery, but also amongst the artefacts that have inspired and informed some of your artwork?

Leon: Being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art In New York, was an experience of a lifetime and I was so very lucky that I was chosen. It was like having my fifteen minutes of fame. When I went to the opening with my friends, I had a very strange feeling seeing my work hanging on their walls next to the great Masters. I will never forget that moment.

Leon Kalas, Evolution, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Kim: The last paintings I saw of yours were portraits of King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and various images of the Sahara Desert and the Moroccan flag. Are you continuing with these works, or something new? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions that you are involved with?

Leon: I presently have an exhibition of twenty portraits of the men and women of the Bowery Mission, a non-profit organization in Manhattan, at Madison Avenue and 31 Street. Inspired by my visit to Morocco, and after experiencing the warm, friendly and very hospitable people, plus the democratic rule of the country by their King, I have painted a series of portraits of: His Majesty, Mohammed VI King of Morocco, The Crown prince, and the Royal Family.  I hope one day I will be invited by the Ministry of Culture in Rabat to have them exhibited in Morocco. I have sent them a proposal and I am waiting for their response. In the meantime, I am looking for a gallery here in New York in which to have a preview of these portraits. Hopefully soon.  If you go to my website: www.leonkalas.com you will be able to see a couple of these portraits.

Leon Kalas, Joyeux Anniversaire, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Leon Kalas, Sahara, oil on canvas. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

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6 Responses to “Artist Bytes: Interview with Leon Nicholas Kalas”

  1. Art Bytes June 8, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    Hi Leon, I have another question for you: how do the African – American public respond to your paintings? You can add your comment right here, thanks!

  2. Patricia Goodrich June 9, 2010 at 12:26 am #

    Thank you to both Kim and Leon for the thoughtful questions and the answers they provoked. How good to relive that Moroccan sojourn with you! The Sahara oil on canvas calls to me! Portraits, yes!, but landscape, too!! Peace, Patricia

  3. Leon Nicholas Kalas June 9, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    A big THANKS goes to Kim for her wonderful idea to interview artists from the world art community. This is an idea in which I hope one day Kim will take the opportunity to publish these interviews in a book “Conversations with Artists”.
    For those that read my interview with Kim, any comments will be very much appreciated.

    To quote Carravaggio (1610)

    “I insist on my freedom to defy categorization, in my right to make art according to my convictions and out of whatever engage my intellect and my soul, as well as my creative, religious, and erotic impulses. I believe that the sacred could be found in the profane”.

    And also to quote Pablo Picasso:

    “Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war, for attack and defense against the enemy”.

  4. Leon Nicholas Kalas June 9, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    To answer to your question Kim, The African-American community was overly supportive of this exhibit when I opened it in a New York “black” gallery 2 years ago. All the African-American newspapers rave on the images and because it is an exhibition depicting injustice in America, which is alive and well, by a “white” artist. The Obama campaign at that time rallied at the gallery and did a fund raiser.
    It is my hope that I will continue showing this series of works, and I have contacted a lot of African-American Universities with a proposal. So far I have no takers. After all, this is a very sensitive issue for the American public.

  5. Diehl Art Gallery July 1, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    Powerful images, thanks for the post!

  6. ron browning November 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

    Leon has a great collection of works. His Social Injustice collection is thought provoking. His works are being collected worldwide.

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