David Lethcoe: An Inspired Interview

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I once had a tae kwon do coach tell me that when you’re out there on the mat, you want your performance to inspire people. Your performance should look effortless, but high energy. It should be fun, so that people think, “I want to do that, I want to start practicing tae kwon do.” David Lethcoe does this with his sculptures; his creations are fun and carry a lot of energy and he makes me want to create. But Dave isn’t performing or just acting inspired. He knows how to stay inspired; you have to keep learning different things. When you keep learning you don’t have to think out every step–your subconscious can work out the problems that your mind creates. You just need to keep it simple.
Some people intuitively know how simple the world can be. That doesn’t mean they’re simple people. With Dave, it’s just the opposite. He has theory, art history, and new art movements all rolling through his head, fighting for his attention, when deep down he knows that just looking at the sky will suffice. It takes courage to admit that your subconscious can solve problems better than your ego can. Dave’s approach to life is romantic. I am a romantic—that’s probably why I became an artist. I like the idea of working in your studio, having your whole day to just clear your mind and cut materials. To me, when Dave tells us about a day in his studio, it is inspiring and encouraging. Keep things simple. Learn so your mind can stay fresh, and every now and then, look up at the sky. ~Jess 

JAM: What is the path that has led you to where you are today?

Dave: I’ve always wanted to be an artist since I was young. I drew all the time and played outside. I didn’t have any artists in the family, but my older brother drew as well. I always thought he was good, and I wanted to be as good as him. After a while, he got to point where he didn’t draw any more and I kept doing it. When you’re in elementary school, art kind of makes you the cool kid because everyone wants to see what you’re doing. I would compete with another kid in the class by trying to outdraw him. We were best friends. I entered contests to push myself and my parents were always supportive of that. I got to high school and took as many art classes as I could. I started entering some high school art shows and actually won; I got first place at an Augustana show. They awarded me with a free class, so I took printmaking with Scott Parsons in the old art building. I had a blast. I took that college level course when I was in my senior year. That’s when I started to evolve by finding meaning in what I was doing; I started doing a lot of mixed media. My teachers really pushed me because I was interested in it, and they tried to keep it open. Once I got to college that idea of meanings and experience that I could have kind of blew up! I was fueled by a lot of things, I had gone to Catholic school all up until high school. I drifted away from what I was being taught there and really began embracing all these other beliefs, and embraced that I could have my own beliefs. I got into a lot of theory, because that’s what college starts to teach you. Art History. Whenever I looked at anything contemporary I got really excited and sort of went crazy with it. I would come up with art movements, because I didn’t know that much about all these other movements. Once I started learning about them I was like, “Man, there’s a whole world out there for all different kinds of people.”

What do you mean by create your own art movement?

I would write down a short story, take notes, or do a drawing based on it. I had a lot of friends in college because I got into a band right when I got there, so I had all these friends. Eli Show showed me around the art department, and I was able to meet all these other people, and I really looked up to them. I tried to make art that I thought was up to par with them. I had a lot of energy then. I was taking printmaking classes there, it was a mechanical world as well as creating images. I was interested in it, but I was still just drawing and painting pictures, having more of a free hand approach to things instead of laboring with a machine in order to produce a result. I ended up switching to sculpture then. I ended up liking my sculpture professor a lot, Chris Meyer. He was really accepting of people who had different emphasises or  backgrounds. He embraced that, but also tried to push them to make work that was important to them and something that they could understand. So I began making sculptures. I wanted to make conceptual work, things that didn’t just show off the form but had a story behind it.  Just to kind of immerse myself in that process, sometimes going into it with a lot of naiveity. One class, inter-media and installation, that was a really eye-opening class for me and everyone else… to kind of have these different limits. Inter-media means that you would be using materials that are not traditionally beautiful or using mass media to create a space. I guess that’s how I learned the kind of stuff I do now, I just use a bunch of materials, that I can get a lot of on the cheap. It taught me a little bit about that.

I see the inter-media class as an important part of me switching to the sculpture program because I could choose what I wanted to do. I can be very inconsistent. I switch a lot, especially when it comes to art. I get interested in different things, then I find out that they’re connected in some ways. I kind of reach for ideas instead of staying in what I know.

LETHCOE 4. Everything is a Knot. Plastic. $200

Describe your work.

Once I started taking sculpture classes, I got more of an idea of how to manipulate a two-dimensional plane in order to show the illusion of three-dimensional space by using perspective tricks. Looking at a three-dimensional object has inspired me to look at it in a different way.  My work changed a lot after that; my process consists of an assemblage of sorts. Taking all these parts and try to harmonize them together. I started in wood and a little bit of steel and even some soft sculpture and plastic. I tried using as many materials as I could to try to make them work into a form. I feel like those objects were transformed in a way they’re able to work together; tiny pieces working together to make a gestalt. That’s something that stayed true to my work. That’s something that I’m trying to go into the macro and micro level things. How I see that, it could be an inner molecular look at the world and a zoomed out perspective of everything. You can see those small parts working together.

As far as materials go, that’s a big part too. A lot of the scraps I have around here are re-purposed junk and free stuff. Things that I can get a lot of for free. It’s a challenge to find some way, first of all not to make it look like trash, but also even to find found objects. I’ve been using found objects for a while and each object carries a story, history, some wear on it. And that really helps in making a sculpture for me. That’s a large part of it. It’s something I had to get away from in using some of these materials, I had to dive into using a transfiguration of my materials.

What do you mean by transfiguration?

Just negating that functionality of a busted TV or video game system, or plastics that I use. To try to say something other than something obvious about everyone having a TV, or something about entertainment. I was trying to find something more philosophical, something that’s kind of seen as everyday trash, mundane. Everyday objects are a really important part of it too. How you look at an everyday object can be universal, something that many people use, but it can be looked at differently because we can’t all have the same objects either. We’re all from different social strata, so I like trying to transcend that class, being rich or poor, everyone should be able to experience art, no matter how much money they have, or if they’re going to buy it or not. I think a lot of my pieces that I make are hard to sell because they’re just cheap plastic, so people don’t want to buy them. I make my work so that people can just experience it. I don’t feel like they should have to feel like buying it.


What pushes you to create?

Just looking at the sky, looking at the ground; like I was saying, looking at structures. Architecture is something that I’ve been getting into a lot lately. I try to explain it to people that you don’t actually have to look at “art” to be inspired, I can look at a crack in cement. It’s an imperfection that I find interesting. A break that shows history and character in whatever object or nature. It can be something you look deep into to find inspiration. That’s mainly why I continue to make work, so I can continue to be inspired and I want to continue that inspiration for other people, so that they can look at things in the same poetic way.



What is your creative process?

Yeah, I do work when I’m inspired, but I just  try to be in the studio as much as I can just to work through it. When I start a piece I used to do a lot of sketching. I kind of got away from that for a while.  I would look at an object, turn it around, place it next to another object I wanted to pair it with. I would go through a trial and error process until I found something that worked. Once I get to a point where I find something I like. Lately I’ll go back to sketching when I find a form I like and kind of draw a blueprint for things so I know exactly where things will be. I go between that and just relying on my wit and whims. Just experimenting, they say taking risks is an important thing to do to continue process. If I don’t know, it’s in the air.



How often do you make work?

It kind of changes based on the season. During the winter I focus on different, smaller work. During the summer, since I can use the outdoors and the garage, I can do more things  like woodworking and things that I need more space for. I can make a huge mess. It’s hard to do when you’re cooped up, and also there are chemicals that I wouldn’t use in an enclosed room.


How long does it take you to work on a piece?

I’ve been getting faster I think, I credit that to writing down my plans so that I can plan ahead so I don’t have to backtrack. I think about two months for each piece, but also, when is something done? You can come back to pieces, that’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. With some pieces, I can make them, fabricate them in a certain way, and then change it and install it differently next time. That creates more of a sustainability to both the process and recycling the materials over and over.

What does a typical day look like when you’re creating?

On a weekend I like to have my quiet time to organize my thoughts, and if I have the whole day to create something then I can work on a couple of pieces at once if I want to. Especially if I’m doing something that requires a drying time, gluing or clamping something down. I can have something drying and move onto something else. That helps change-up what I’m doing if something’s getting hard to look at or hard to resolve. Some days I’ll just be cutting material into shapes that I imagine I’ll end up using, it makes it easier to store them too. Sometimes I’ll do that and I won’t even be thinking about things.


You’ll just be cutting things?

Yeah, I like those days too, I’ll be listening to music, or watching a soccer game. It’s too much pressure to think every move out when you can do that subconsciously already.

Do you have future plans?

I’ve been battling with the fact that after I graduated school I didn’t end up going to grad school; I just got my BFA from USD. I’ve been considering going to grad school. I think I could teach, but I don’t know if I’d like to do that as a career. That’s the only thing. I have been highly considering fellowships and things like that. Something I can get a stipend for, something to enforce my artwork and connect me in a few spots.


Do you feel as though you have a responsibility as an artist?

Yeah, I definitely do. There’s social responsibilities, and there are moral responsibilities, and for me I kind of feel that a lot of stuff is pushed on artists because institutions don’t really cover that. They can get corporate sponsorship; if they get any money they’ll do anything. They’ll forget their moral obligation to the philosophical purpose of art. I think that’s why there are more  people making work that is conceptual work or asks that question. The art industry in general has to always ask that question, how people make a living off that, and the people who do, it’s their owning it in a way. I feel comfortable with what I do. I did choose to get all this plastic because it was junk and can’t be recycled.

So that idea of re-purposing is eventually something like being environmentally friendly. The art world has been embracing, but everyone needs to start embracing sometime soon. Climate change: I guess that if you’re a sensitive artist you’re just aware of in a way. You look at the world in a certain way, you try to find people’s differences and similar issues that can unite the world. Something that environmental issues can do. Mainly taking care of people; Earth will go on. There are a whole lot of things more important than fighting war.


Where can people view your work?

I had shown in August in Minneapolis at Gallery 13. I showed some work there with Eli Show last year. I need to get more work outside of this state. I’ve done it before and it always goes really well.

How do you choose where you’ll show your pieces?

I guess I look at the curator and that’s the most important part. I really want to do that Habit for Humanity Restore. They let artists pick out materials and doing stuff like that you can’t really go wrong there. I do more gallery shows in spaces that I like, indoor or outdoor. If I decided to make an outdoor piece, or got commissioned for something like that, it would have to be a space that I thought worked with the piece.


How do you handle the business side of your artwork?

I just mainly connect with people face to face. When I meet people, I’m meeting other people through friends. I go about it that way. My art doesn’t really pay the bills. Using cheap materials isn’t a very good strategy.

What are your favorite art shows you’ve been to this year?

El Anatsui, an artist from Nigeria, he has some huge installations at the Des Moines Art Center. He uses everyday objects like liquor caps and wire; he does these beautiful draperies that the gallery installed. It doesn’t look like that material from far away. That was definitely my favorite show I’ve been to.


What Sioux Falls artists we should look out for?

I’ve been trying to get my friend Sarah Cherrington to show lately. She works with me at the Bronze Foundry and we went to school together. She’s one of my favorites.

I really like Jeff Ballard’s work. His pieces really remind me of fabricating. From talking to him, I know his work is inspired by working with his dad, putting together these engine parts and stuff. His paintings are really large and are mainly portraits, but he has abstract stuff too. Andres Torres, he’s moving out to Madison WI, I’ve always looked up to him and his work. He and TJ Donovan, TJ just took off too. Those two I share a lot of ideas with; they’re good people.


Your thoughts on the Sioux Falls art community?

I think there’s going to be five more years of suffering, but I feel like it’s going to get to a point as long as it continues to be open to things. Relying on artists like you guys to do things like this that make people more interested and reach out to a larger audience. Even I think after Exposure Gallery opened, they did a mural project that inspired Huether to lift the street art ban. People enjoy the sculpture walk, why can’t we have more things out there where Sioux Falls artists can show their work?


Advice to anyone starting out as an artist?

Be honest about your work. Be open to criticism. Always learn new things. Throw yourself into uncomfortable situations where you have to create your way out. It’s all about staying creative wherever you live and that helps you appreciate your community and the things around you much more. []

Contacting David:

Email: dleftoe@gmail.com or his Facebook

Jess Miller-Johnson is a weekly blogging contributor and co-founder of JAM. She lives in Sioux Falls with her daughter, husband, and black-lab. She makes art when her daughter is napping.

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