I first saw Eric Leppanen's work at a restaurant in Rockland, Maine. The crew I was working with were drawn to the American flag painting by the bar made entirely out of old credit cards. It was a big piece and an impressive amount of cards. The owner told us a little about the artist and I tucked his name away in the back of my mind thinking it would be good to connect at a later date.
Fast forward a year later and I got an email from Eric interested in learning more about my studio tours. I took a peek at the work on his site and remembered him from the Rockland restaurant. We set a date for a studio tour and this past month I drove up to Belfast to visit him at his home and studio. Art and creating have always been an undercurrent in Eric's life, but after 16 years in the corporate world, he took the plunge to become self-employed and make art in every available moment. Upon visiting his home, I could tell that this passion permeates all aspects of his life. It is clear that Eric creates art first and foremost for himself. It seems to be a necessity to his being alive. His enthusiasm and love for taking old things and making them into something new was much like experiencing a child's joy and giddiness. He loves what he does, and he loves sharing it with others.
So I spent a morning with Eric, meeting him in the vintage car he's owned since high school, toured his house, and headed down to his studio basement which looks like a magical land of old paint cans, treasures he finds on the side of the roads, and the work he creates with passion and intention.
Read below for Eric's Q&A:
Tell us a little bit about about your history. Your life has taken a different turn from before, correct?
I am a Maine-born artist and primarily consider myself an action painter who recycles old paint – giving it a new life and purpose. I create a constellation of different effects with paint and materials. My experimental art is a combination of taking ideas and materials, adding in energy and emotion...then letting it flow. I work to create visually stimulating texture and depth by directing the paint's interaction with the forces of nature, yet I find that it is a process that requires both precision and serendipity. I hope my work connects with you and inspires thought and emotion. Please “DO” touch the artwork.
I live and work in Belfast, Maine near friends, family and with my lovely wife Linda of 22 years and two amazing children Brogan and Zepherin. I was born in 1970 and grew up on the beach in Owls Head, Maine. I attended Suffolk University in Boston, Bachelor of Arts in Business & Marketing graduating in 1993. I experimented with art while at school and studied it on my own and took some classes from an inspirational painter Raymond Parks. Upon graduation got a job in my hometown and I immersed myself in the corporate world and spent 16 years in various business and finance roles with MBNA and Bank of America. My love and expression of art was put on hold. I was “released” or laid off from the corporate prison in 2009. When asked what did you do with your life I am so glad I will not have to answer "worked in banking putting the world into debt"...I was given a gift, an afterlife and since leaving that world found my passion again and I paint and create prolifically. I am now self-employed, in my 7th year running by day a successful Cleaning & Property Care business aNeatNook with my wife Linda and creating art by night...I guess cleaning is an art as well. I have been sharing my artwork with people, galleries, schools, and businesses throughout Maine.
How did your family and upbringing influence your desire to create art, specifically from salvaged materials?
As a kid growing up in the 70's we had to create our day...either playing at the beach or playing in the woods from sun up to sun down. My parents and grandparents were builders and creators and I was taught to build, fix, repair and "make do with what you got" and if you want it you had to earn it or create it. As I kid if I wanted a pinball machine I made one, wanted a car, so I built a go cart...many of them. When we wanted a house...me and the neighborhood kids always built camps, forts, tree houses...each year we had a new designs and new styles to add to the village in the woods. We would salvage, borrow and find materials from local characters in the neighborhood. We would camp out in them all summer long...under the stars dreaming.
You are given a lot of your paint and other materials. How did the word get out that you were reusing old paint and giving it new life?
When I first started playing with paint 7 years ago I used old paint out of necessity since paint was and is so expensive. I had my own small supply, started noticing people leaving cans aside the road so I always stopped and in my day world cleaning homes and properties people would ask me how to get rid of the old paint in their basement? I would gladly respond...I'll find a home for it. I meet so many cool and interesting people while collecting paint. The usual death of old paint is cat litter, the dumpster or even worse left dusty in a basement or barn for eternity. I found that old paint has an energy, history, unique qualities that one does not find in new paint...new paint is lifeless. When I open a can of old paint I can feel it leaping out of the can with gratitude and pent up energy...it's like Christmas for me. It now can serve a purpose. Rather then be stuck on a wall of fence it gets to play and live with other paints and travel all over. I have never found a paint that will not dry...we are so quick to throw it away when there is just 1/2 or 1/3 left in the can or even full cans that may not be the "right" color. So, really through word of mouth now I have all the reclaimed paint I want and when I need some old paint it seems to magically appear.
Tell us the story behind the credit card piece. I saw that for the first time in Cafe Miranda in Rockland. It was hanging there for a while?
It is called "Indebted States of America" created in 2012 when the government was shutdown, teetering on the fiscal cliff... it is Paint, the 50 state quarters and 169 of my personal credit cards collected over the last 23 years, framed in gold leaf. I never cut up my cards...I had collected them randomly in a Lands'End (fitting) shoe box with my first ever credit card from college. I worked for credit card bank in marketing so I decided to collect credit cards...see all that they had to offer. The piece speaks to the marketing of "Big Banks" to indebt Americans with bait and switch tactics (miss a payment your rate goes through the roof) and easy/free money and the debt enslavement of millions. The last 25 years of credit marketing has fueled the economic booms and collapses and our own government is a shining example for all of us to follow to the tune of 20 Trillion dollars...but we have plenty of time (till the end of time) to pay that off. Big banks continue to buy up little banks (there were 30 banks in the 90's and we are down to the Big 4 or 5) and over the 20 years with each buyout came new cards in the mail, with names like the Chase Freedom card, the Cash Rewards card, the Advantage card, gold, platinum, titanium and so on. Ironically I worked for Bank of America in the credit card division, who gobbled up MBNA where I started with in 1993 after graduating college. I was laid off in 2009 from Bank of America...when all the banks were looking for bailout money cause they were "too big to fail". I have made a new life, better life...post 16 years brainwashed out of college as a cog in the debt machine. I'm trying to do my part to give back. My goal with this piece has been to help folks rethink credit and make smarter choices when choosing debt over patience, priority or being creative and making do with what they have. I have shown this piece at galleries, schools, colleges, businesses...really anywhere it can help folks think about our "New Red White & Blue." our children's burden. Also, I'd love to sell a couple hundred thousand t-shirts with this ISOA logo and help my kids through college and escape with no debt. We'll see...
What is the process of creating a piece like? Do you start with any specific direction, or is it all organic and in the moment?
Yes, I am very spontaneous in the creation of work, as told by paint on all my clothes and shoes...but the other aspects and requirements of creating art I pursue with passion and daily purpose. I am always creating pieces in my mind, references from nature...some I have a specific plan and others ad lib. I collect materials and then something will call me to make a piece and I'll start popping lids or organizing my materials. I do not have a set process as I often create in the basement studio (winter) or the garage (spring/summer/fall) or the front lawn/driveway whenever the weather allows. I never really try to make the same piece...I have a few favorite styles that I do. I enjoy working with paint can lids as I feel it is unfair for the paint to get all the lime light so I use the paint, the cans and the lids in art, sculpture or creations. Once in awhile I'll sketch out my plans...more for sculptures, benches, art installs, etc. but I really enjoy the free flow creations with precision and serendipity. I work on some projects for days, weeks and months. Some inspired works come together in an evening and there are projects that will have taken my whole life to that point to create.
Do you see yourself making art for a living in the future?
I make art for a life now and will till I die...it does not pay the light bill or the oil bill or the repairs on the cars. I'd prefer to go scrub toilets or mow lawns to pay those bills. But I do make a living from my art, everyday I experiment with new ideas and I find the "art" is in the process, execution and product. When I sell, trade or give a piece of art away that transfer directly goes into family activities...family vacation, traveling for the kids sports, dinner or to see friends & family and the little extras in life. It is important that when I do part with a piece that it goes to good home, good energy. It is true that one persons trash is anothers treasure. I have found that in life one does not need a lot...we only need just enough.
Have you been influenced by any particular artist(s) in the past?
I would have to say my grandfather George Curtis of Owls Head...he was an artist, scratching out a living as an aircraft mechanic, inventor, welder, sculptor...but he became a well known artist in the 50's and 60's and continue creating and inventing into 80's and died in the early 90's his late 70's....that could be confusing. As a child I would watch him, help him work in his shop for hours welding, painting, fixing and transforming things. I was not alive in his peak art years where he had his shows in New York, Florida and California and he traveled and sold many pieces during that time, mainly welded sculptures. My grandmother told me of all the interesting wild stories it seems like a exciting time for them. As a kid he introduced me to the abstract work of Pollock and others...I loved the child like qualities of abstract where things do not need to have meaning or form they just are...playful imagery. When I do art now I feel like a kid again. My grandfather taught me to pee off the porch and his one word of advice (two actually) to me as a teenager was "never conform".
What is the best part about your life right now?
I feel like I have purpose. I wake up excited about each day. I feel fulfilled in my existence...creating a life and living my childhood dream of being self employed, creating art, building things, fixing things, collecting materials to transform them...cause everything in life has purpose. In our world today we are too quick to destroy resources and our throw away society drives me crazy. No one fixes things...when does the new one come out...what is wrong with the old one! The other day my 2 year old washing machine stopped working, stopped draining...so I decided to take it apart and investigate and in less than an our found that a hair pin was stuck in the drain pump propeller. I removed the hair pin... screwed the pump back on and screwed the tin backing on the washer and slid it back and plugged it in and the washer works like the day we got it. Most folks...9 out 10 would toss that unit out, cause no one really repairs them anymore...if they did they would charge $100 or more just to visit (travel and time) and then the repair (possible new pump is $60) and a new washer is only $400 (plus we get to upgrade)...so lets toss all that perfectly good material and wasted energy over a one cent hair pin. I hate to seen anything thrown away...I try to find it a home where it is wanted or needed. Art has allowed me to do this and also meet and interact with the most amazing people...Maine has such a wonderful art community.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Mainly from my family as it drives everything that I do. I have lots of energy (energy is neither created nor destroyed it just changes form) and do not require much sleep...I often work at night when everyone is sleeping so not to take away from much valued family time. Other than creating children...there is no better high then creating something out of nothing and where nothing else is ever like it. I always wanted to invent a product as a kid, like zip-lock cheese and chips (I came up with that when I was like 8) or the pet rock...with art I can and China or whoever can not knock it off after all the work to bring it to market. I am inspired by other creatives and the world, nature and environment around me. I worked for more than 16 years in a very analytical, precise, structured environment, since leaving that world...I now create to be free, liberated...inspired. I love the expanse of the universe and it's possibilities. Art is to be created and shared!
Recycle <> Reuse <> Recreate
Thank you so much for sharing Eric!