“If there is any theme or message to my work at all, it would be one of redemption,” Virginia artist Matthew Leavell says—“not in a dogmatic, loaded sense of the word but in a more literal sense. My work is often created from salvaged components that bring their own story and character to a piece.”
Leavell used piles of scrap materials to create a vividly colorful and dynamic sculptural exhibit currently on display at Airlie Gardens. “Imagine” covers different concepts for guests to explore.
“The pieces fall into four genres, with the intent being to appeal to a wide audience,” Leavell says, “both young and old, those accustomed to attending art functions, and those yet to do so.”
At the heart of Leavell’s creative process is the desire to illustrate an alternative perspective of beauty and worth in our world, one that shows through each area of the exhibit. It represents complex, magnificent creations born from seemingly useless, mundane items.
“Finding a broken, rusted, discarded piece of iron that society has cast away and regarded as worthless and using it as an integral piece in a beautiful work of art is both personally fulfilling and an analogy of the nature of life in general,” Leavell explains.
With a background in welding, Leavell knew steel, with its durability and ability to retain a variety of shapes, held a number of possibilities. He starts with a question in mind: “What is the most interesting thing can I make with this pile of material?”
“I enjoy working with predefined shapes,” Leavell continues, “and profiles and actual salvaged objects, manipulating and combining them to create something new and different.”
One area of the exhibit features steel sculptures made as “a direct reaction” to photographic artist Fabien Oefner’s high speed work of paint flying through the air. He includes two forays into this interpretive art form. “[I have] a large circular piece named ‘Synergy’ and a twisting red spire named ‘Fluidity,’” Leavell tells. “‘Synergy’ has been exhibited only once before at an event in Little Rock last month, and ‘Fluidity’ was created specifically for ‘Imagine.’”
Another area features a twisting and winding neon garden of Leavell’s whimsical, botanical sculptures. Leavell’s current display of work is larger than what he’s displayed before. The exhibit also takes a slightly different turn as the title of the show comes into play.
“There are three pieces, including the title piece ‘Imagine,’ created from salvaged heavy cast-iron components, combined to form either a word, a flower, or a jellyfish,” he elaborates. “These are decidedly more masculine and trend toward the world of steampunk.”
The final area of the exhibit is a quirky and colorful representation of birds. “‘Birdpalooza’ is a twisted, eccentric, interactive habit for our feathered friends that looks as if it could have been torn from the set of a Tim Burton adaptation,” Leavell divulges.
Each sculpture is individualized with eclectic composition. “I see such components as representative of the broken pieces of a life, a relationship, a project, a dream, a city, a nation, or a world,” Leavell says. “I absolutely relish the process of sorting through the rubble of broken, failed, and discarded things, and finding the raw materials necessary to create something altogether new and different.”
Guests can explore Leavell’s vibrant and delightfully quirky world of steel creations at the historic Airlie Gardens until September 30. The gardens are open seven days per from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults, or $5 with proof of New Hanover County residency, $3 for children between 4-12 of age, and free for children age four and under. More of Leavell’s work and upcoming exhibit schedule can be found at his website matthewjleavell.com.