MAX LEHMAN INTERVIEW
Max Lehman is a fine artist living in Santa Fe. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and seeing his works in person at Art Expo Santa Fe.
You’ll enjoy his all American story of creative entrepreneurship.
Max Lehman has a long history of creating unique works of art. I visited Max and saw many of his works in person at the ART Santa Fe 2019 show. His pieces are moving and the colors and forms pull you in from the start. I’m happy to bring you this interview and introduce his works to a broader audience.
I know you are originally from the Midwest. Your move from the Midwest to Phoenix, Arizona made an impact on your development as an artist. How did that shape your artistic path?
While I was growing up in northern Indiana with my three brothers, I remember having a Mexican babysitter. She was a little older than my parents at the time and would come stay with us when my parents went out of town. For some reason, she decided to tell me about the native people of Mexico. I don’t recall her taking an interest in my brothers regarding this. She would talk to me telling me about a calendar and cities of stone and how the Spanish priests took those away from them.
I took all of it in with a child’s understanding. I really don’t know why she did this or if she told my parents, but my mother later bought me a book about the ancient cultures of Mexico and that’s how I began to learn about the indigenous civilizations of Prehispanic Mesoamerica.
My parents moved our family to Arizona in 1973. I was 12 years old.
Arizona was hot; really hot. That was something I never quite came to embrace. However, there was its proximity to Mexico and we would drive down to the border taking day trips into towns like Nogales. The border was very different back then.
When I was 17 or 18 my mom and I travelled to Merida in the Yucatan and stayed at some of the big, old hacienda style hotels that were located in the middle of major ruins of the area. Our luggage got lost while we were there so I ended up buying playa and guayabera style clothes to wear.
What was it like in the early days as an artist? Who were your influences?
I attended the fine art college at Arizona State University. I would occasionally dabble in the ceramics studios, but my course work was in an area that at the time was called intermedia. Intermedia was an art that involved forms such as installation and performance art, slide shows, multi media and video production. A lot of my early works were installation pieces and my references were science fiction literature and pop culture. Punk Rock was becoming a cultural phenomenon and, along with my friends, we all dove in head first, so to speak. That influenced the look and feel of my academic work and my use of color.
My real training in ceramics came from an apprenticeship I had with a production pottery artist in Cave Creek which was a small town about 30 miles north of Phoenix. After working there for several years I apprenticed with an upcoming ceramic sculptor named Carol Sherwood. With her I learned how to build large hollow forms with low fire clay. She also developed a unique method of painting her work with acrylics employing washes and resists. This was a major break from the aesthetics of traditional craft that dominated ceramics back then. On occasion I have forayed into using glazes on my pieces, but for the most part my work is painted using a variety of techniques to lay down color and detail the work.
Can you explain how you came to be honored the “reverse crossover Chicano” and what that means?
Early in the eighties I applied for and was accepted into an NEA funded cooperative art gallery named Movimiento Artistico del Rio Salado, The Salt River Art Movement or MARS for short. The Salt River runs through the heart of downtown Phoenix and joins the Gila just west of the metropolitan area.
MARS was an NEA funded gallery and was primarily focused on Chicano Art. The mandate was to bring art into the downtown barrios of south Phoenix and to promote artistic development. But there was also a focus on diversity and membership was not restricted to hispanics.
One of the founders of MARS was Ralph Cordova. At the time I applied to MARS I had also just been taken into The Elaine Horwitch Gallery located in Scottsdale, AZ. Ralph and a couple of the other members would jokingly make comments about how many of the MARS members were downtown and wanted to show in Scottsdale, yet here I was in Scottsdale and wanted to show downtown. He coined the term “reverse crossover Chicano” and I have worn that title with pride ever since.
You eventually moved to Santa Fe, another pivotal change. How did this impact you and/or your art?
I moved to Santa Fe in 1991 after visiting there the previous 5 years. The move was in part to escape the summer heat in Phoenix. But mostly it was because I was showing with the Elaine Horwitch Gallery which at the time was the biggest gallery in the southwest.
Elaine passed away suddenly in the early 90s, and this sent shockwaves through the art world.
Elaine was a driving force of art in the southwest and her passing left a lot of artists on the street. Because of this I began showing in a small gallery on Canyon Road called Leaping Lizard. The gallery was owned by a husband and wife team, Tom Ross and Liz Hahn, and focused on their paintings and my sculpture. Tom was also the writer and illustrator of a line of children’s books.
All of our work was narrative. I began a series of characters that were alien in nature with the backstory that they were the visitors that influenced the Mayan civilization.
What are the influential cultures we see in your works?
I have to admit I am fascinated by the iconography of ancient American civilizations, both north and south. But I am also struck by civilizations such as Sanxingdui and Oceania. There is a visual thread that runs through all of these cultures that suggests possible contact. Maybe some sort of anthropological connection.
Do you draw inspiration from these cultures as they are now or as they were in the past?
Both. There is a connection between the work of contemporary Mexican artists and Europe modernism. Some of my reading involves essays regarding the terms “primitive” versus “pre-literate”. Picasso’s early cubist works drew upon ancient culture. Not that I’m comparing myself to Picasso, absolutely not. My point is many artists reference the past.
I would be lying if I said Mexico has not had a profound influence over my entire artistic career. I have continued to travel there and have even worked at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara.
One of the highlights of this past decade was being able to participate in the Herradura Tequila Barrel Art Challenge. Ten artists were chosen to compete locally in their current city. Eight cities were selected from across the United States. Each artist was given a real tequila barrel, empty of course, and sixty days to turn it into a work of art. I was declared the winner in Santa Fe and went on to compete at Art Miami against the winners from the other selected locations. It was a fun challenge. The barrels weighed over two hundred pounds and the sculpture I created titled, “Juntos Para Siempre” (Together Forever), was massive and included ceramic figures.
You come from quite a talented family. Was it your childhood environment that gave you the freedom to pursue a career in the arts?
My parents were in a position to be very indulgent with all of our artistic expressions. My father and three brothers are musicians both professionally and just from proclivity. My mother was an amateur photographer, but I am the only professional artist currently in my immediate family.
Your solo exhibition at ART Santa Fe “Skull-O-Rama” earned you the Best of Show: Sculpture and it’s easy to understand why. You’ve mastered your own unique style. Do you find yourself completely at home with your style or do you feel it will ever evolve?
It depends mostly on what the current project or goal requires. I experiment with new forms and surface techniques all of the time and if something works I incorporate it into my “toolbox”.
What are your plans for the future? What will your studio look like in 10 or 20 years from now?
The underlying theme of my work is grounded in the creation of imaginary worlds. When I was a kid my uncle Mac gave me the entire set of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series. It struck me how The Land of Oz was so thoroughly described. Aside from the maps and illustrations the way every part of the land was so completely imagined intrigued me. The same could be said of the Narnia series and, of course, Tolkien’s “Middle Earth”. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” comes to mind. And, of course, entire worlds even universes have been created by online gamers.
All of these imaginary worlds are based upon a long literary tradition. I recently began reading Lord Dunsany’s works. Lord Dunsany is considered to be the progenitor of the imaginary landscape in English literature. His work influenced Tolkien and Lovecraft, and undoubtedly many other writers and artists.
I think there is hardly a culture on Earth that does not have stories about a fairyland or spirit realm, someplace where humans can stumble into, but the danger is whether one can leave once there.
In some way or another all of my work depicts or takes place in an imaginary world. Many years ago I began to imagine an extragalactic civilization that is populated by numerous races and civilizations. The name of the galaxy, located eleven million lightyears from the Milky Way is called Kandlythane and its history covers many millions of years.
My current work illustrates these worlds and shows what their civilizations are like and the creatures (aliens) that inhabit the galaxy. I want to bring all of this together, employing sculpture, illustration, graphic novels and digital creations.
Several years ago I went back to school and studied technology with the idea that I would become an animator. Intermedia had evolved into Media Arts. The technology had changed so much from the analog world that I originally worked in that my focus changed to web development.
Today, my art career parallels my career as an IT professional. I have worked in network support, as well as teaching animation and web development, interface design and some coding such as interactive CSS. But I have also taught ceramics as a visiting artist at schools like Otterbein University, and in workshops at a variety of schools and art centers. I have been the webmaster for the New Mexico Tourism Department for over fifteen years now.
All of these things intersect. I imagine that someday I will return solely to my studio practice. I am exploring adding new materials to my work, like neon, that used to be incorporated into much of my work, but I am also looking at 3-D printing, and interactive media.