Since giving up his government based desk job and studying at The Learning Connexion (TLC), artist Leo Semau hasn’t looked back. Now a mentor at TLC, Leo is passing on his creative skills to others. But he still finds time for his own creations and has been doing some amazing stuff with super sculpey lately. We had a chat with Leo about what drives him as an artist.
Why are you an artist?
Because it’s super trendy - everyone in Wellington is either an artist or a musician! Some people just seem to have a compulsion to create and communicate visually – I’m one of those people although I’ve never figured out exactly where that itch comes from. I’ve found I have to be making something on at least a semi-regular basis or I start to transform into this weird grumpy anxious depressed version of myself. So mostly I think I’m an artist for the sake of my own mental health!
How has your own art evolved since studying at TLC?
I was exposed to such a wide range of disciplines, mediums, styles, processes and approaches while I was a student at TLC, so I think the biggest evolution in terms of my own creative practice has been developing the ability to appreciate different ways of communicating ideas. I still make representational art and I still appreciate and try to display a good level of craft and technique in my work, but now I’m also aware of so many other approaches I can draw from, such as the play between concept and material. I also started out pretty much replicating the art I liked and now I tend to be happier to let my work develop along its own path.
What’s your preferred medium?
I really like sculpture and working with tactile materials – clay, plasticine, Super Sculpey, wax. I’m fortunate in that I moonlight as a foundry assistant at The Heavy Metal Company, so I get to work on some really cool large scale bronze sculptures and restoration projects which are always interesting and inspiring. Tonnes of sand and molten metal – that’s my ideal combination of art and exercise!
Are there any recurring themes in your work?
I always seem to come back to the human figure, and geometric cultural patterns. I enjoy playing with ideas from mythology and sometimes some pretty deep and dark psychological stuff. But sometimes I just enjoy goofing off and being silly with my art. The last set of work I made were some cartoonish monster movie characters for Halloween.
Sounds cool, tell us about these monster characters?
I did them on a whim to get some practise in. I hadn’t made any Super Sculpey figurines for a while, so with Halloween coming up it was a chance to get my hand back into it. Each one took a couple of nights each. I use an aluminium wire armature, pad it out with a bit of tinfoil, then build the Super Sculpey onto that.
I’ve watched monster movies since I was a kid so I know these characters pretty well!
I like that you can look at them both ways. You can either be terrified by them – it’s the thing you run away from – or it’s the thing you relate to. We can be scared of the monster who’s going to chase us, or we can relate to the outsider, the thing that isn’t understood. For me, it’s both. It depends on my mood and what the story is.
What do you see as the role of the artist in society?
These days there’s so many things that can be “art” and so many reasons people make art. I think of artists like mirrors in that we reflect our environments and experiences - the things going on around us or within us. But I think artists largely choose the role or roles they each play in society – some are comedians, social commentators, storytellers, historians, philosophers, subversives, champions of the status quo, keepers of tradition, challengers of tradition, explorers, prophets, encouragers, agents of reconciliation, provocateurs.
You work as a mentor at The Learning Connexion – what’s the most important advice you give students?
I think emphasising the importance of consistency and work ethic. I’ve seen so many very talented students be overtaken by less naturally talented classmates simply because the less naturally talented person had the stronger work ethic – they turned up consistently, persevered through difficulties, and kept chipping away at their creative goals. If you’re consistent in the time you put into your work, review your efforts to identify areas for improvement and then repeat that process with more work and review, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll improve.
What's your advice to people thinking of enrolling at TLC?
Do it!!! If you’re in the local area I’d suggest calling us and arranging a time to come and see the campus during term time when the studios are buzzing with creative activity. The very cool thing about our programmes is that they work from the student’s interests. So whether someone is just out of school and finding what they want to do in the world, wanting to change careers or direction in life, or wants to move forward in a creative journey they’ve already started, they’ll be able to identify their goals and work toward achieving them in a supportive and inclusive environment.