ROCHEPORT — Wayne Leal’s studio is marked by what he calls the same “crafted randomness” that characterizes his work. Bags of bark, piles of cracked clay and buckets of rusty nails litter the floor. Children’s artwork dapples the wall, displayed prominently next to Leal’s own conglomerations of doll parts and other oddities. It is hot and muggy, and the sound of buzzing insects permeates the air.
“I like working out here when it’s a little uncomfortable,” Leal said. “It keeps the senses alive.”
Much has happened since Leal moved to Rocheport last June with his wife, Allison Smythe, and their two daughters, Samantha, 9, and Hayley, 7, to re-ignite his creative energies. After a long hiatus, Leal submitted work to the Boone County Art Show last fall and won the purchase award, ultimately making an important contact in Columbia gallery owner Jennifer Perlow. Leal said that since arriving in Missouri, it had been his ambition to show at Perlow’s space, PS:Gallery, a goal realized this year when his minimalist relief sculpture was included in her 2007 Summer Exhibit.
“The bank show sort of gave him an artificial deadline. It really kicked him into gear,” Smythe said.
Leal is on what he calls a “circle kick.” Every piece of his but one on display in PS:Gallery’s summer exhibit incorporates a large circle of heavy texture against a darkly coated background of milder texture, such as sand. One such piece is a large, perfectly round pile of rusty nails. In several of the pieces, the focus and the background are coated in the same compound, so the viewer is drawn in to distinguish the two.
Perlow said she has been pleasantly surprised by the good reception Leal’s work has received from her Midwestern audience.
“He comes from a very metropolitan landscape, and that’s reflected in his work,” she said. “I was surprised by how many people really stop and stare. Of all the pieces, that’s the space where they stop and appear to be really drawn in.”
Leal, who was raised in England, began technical drawing at about 13, spending long hours painting at home alone. At 16, he faced a drastic change when he moved to suburban Baltimore with his family.
“I was a little confused,” Leal said with a chuckle. “I thought if I walked long enough I’d run into a town, but I never did. I ran into a mall.”
It was in college at the Maryland Institute College of Art, under the direction of minimalist sculptor and teacher Tim Thompson, that Leal’s signature, highly textural work began to come into its own. While taking classes in painting, “I became really hungry for texture,” Leal said.
Simply piling on the paint failed to quench his yearning, so Thompson introduced him to plaster. Leal said that although that was probably the turning point, it wasn’t until a few years after graduating art school that it really “clicked.”
“There are not many artists I would qualify as truly minimal. He fits the bill,” Perlow said. “His work is as much about what’s not there as what’s there. He strips it down to the bare minimum and makes you really pay attention to what’s left.”
Leal explained he’s not trying to send a message. “I’m just saying, hey, here’s a bunch of texture, I hope you like it,” he said. “I want people to want to touch it.”
Today, Leal accomplishes his unique style of relief sculpture by first drawing inspiration from textures he finds in either the natural or synthetic world. Whether it be chopped rubber he buys at the store, pieces of tree bark he meticulously sorts through for size and composition, clay fragments he makes and breaks himself, or even rusty old nails — texture is the core of his work.
Leal can find inspiration almost anywhere. Some pieces are on display at his home from a series titled “Fabron,” named in memory of the fabric used for the uniforms he had to wear to school as a boy in London. The pieces are composed of sheets of fabric fingered into interesting undulations and coated in dark paint.
To create his work, Leal arranges his chosen pieces and adheres them to a backing with a special blend of adhesives. He likes to finish his work with a coat of dark paint or iron oxide, which he said emphasizes the texture and keeps the overall piece subdued. However, the dark coat also means Leal’s work is best viewed in a particular setting.
“My work really begs for good lighting,” he said.
Before their move to Rocheport, Leal and Smythe spent about 10 years in Houston where Leal worked but opted not to show any of his pieces.
The pair met through a writer’s group on the Web, and what started as a casual weekend visit “with no expectations for either of us, I don’t think,” Leal said, has now spanned more than a decade. The couple is coming up on their 11th wedding anniversary.
Leal said his two girls were a large factor in the family’s decision to relocate.
“We wanted them to have space,” Smythe said.
While the family has adjusted well to country life, Leal admits that last year during the transitional period they were all still a bit “skittish” in their new rural setting.
Leal and his wife, a poet, now share a graphic design business, arsGraphica, which they run from home when not delving into their respective projects.
Though Leal is a wired and enthusiastic person, he maintains his work is ultimately about silence. “Hopefully when people look at my work, they can slow down.”