Leila Simon Hayes Keeps Showing Up
851 days and counting...
Leila Simon Hayes makes wild prints for bold, creative souls. I was first introduced to Leila’s ([ lee-luh ] she/her) work via Instagram during 2018’s #the100dayproject. The #100dayproject is an online community in which anyone can participate by choosing a creative project and committing to do it 100 days in a row.
I’ve been following (fan-girling) her for years because, well, she’s still working on the same gorgeous project, almost 900 posts later. I knew she was the person I wanted to talk to during our focus on creativity as a daily practice.
Leila has so much insight and so many amazing thoughts and ideas, I’m breaking our conversation into two parts—with the second part coming next Sunday. You can find Leila on Instagram and her website.
RM: So let’s talk about your day…
LSH: I get my kids to school and head to my studio about 15 minutes away from my house. I start my day with client projects. I work as a graphic designer for different art institutions in Boston and around the country. I used to be the creative director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
I got the studio in August of 2020, so I haven't really been able to invite anybody here yet, but I've been preparing ever since. It’s a beautiful, beautiful space and it just wants people in it. I’ve divided it into four different sections.
I have my messy art studio. I paint a lot with Sumi ink and acrylic paint and anything else that I find. I do a lot of collage. I do a lot of making big messes and then trying to find some rhyme or reason inside of the mess.
Then I have a showroom of different wallpapers that I've created. It will be a place, once we all can gather again, to sit with friends or to sit during an art opening or something. But it also gives the experience of my creations in real life: my wallpaper on the walls, my fabric on the cushions. It can help me and my clients see what it looks like in real life.
There's a big 14-foot tall gallery wall that I use to hang finished artworks. I paint with acrylics on panels and canvas so that's where I hang that type of work.
And lastly, I have a little in-person shop that has been built into the space. When we can all gather again it can be a place where people can come by appointment to shop or a fun place to see the goods in space, rather than on the computer, which is not always easy or even realistic.
RM: Right, especially with a lot of your work, which has really rich colors.
LSH: Yes, that doesn't translate as well on a small screen.
RM: OK, so, you’ve finished your client projects and you’re in your messy studio. What happens next?
LSH: I usually make a mess, some sort of beautiful mess. I'm always really hungry for that time on the messy side of my studio, so I often leave things half finished, or I leave little breadcrumbs for myself. The next time I come I have a half cut up collage or pieces that had nothing to do with each other that want to become a collage. And just things to spark the idea of free play. My work is very improvisational, and I sometimes need the push to get started, so I leave those trails for myself, to make it easy to get started. I learned that from doing my 100 Day project I was not going to do this thing if I waited until I felt inspired. I really took that lesson to heart in my studio practice to always give myself material to work with or ideas to work with from one day to the next.
RM: I think it was Hemingway who said to always stop when you have an idea of where you’re going
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it. Ernest Hemingway
RM: You said so much that I think is amazing, like that you have what you call your messy side. So you're allowed to make that mess as part of the creative process.
LSH: Yeah, it's actually the most important part because my graphic design training and style is very clean and refined. But my artwork is much more playful and experimental. It all comes from a place of improvisation, but we have to help ourselves get into a space where we can improvise. We can't always improvise right after going to the grocery store and just doing our regular life; sometimes we have to set ourselves up to have the types of conditions where we can turn off our working brains to help ourselves get playful.
I found lots of little tricks to help me get into that place and remind myself that making a mess is where the magic happens, instead of trying to create some clean, beautiful thing from the start. I have to trick myself into starting; even now I just need a nudge. I have a lot of imposter syndrome and fear and all that stuff that we all struggle with. I need the tricks to get me to put that aside even if it's just for five minutes and just make a mess, have no vision for how it is going to turn out, and really let the process take me where it wants to go.
RM: This is juicy. Can you share some of your other tricks?
LSH: So for my 100 Day project, I started with 10 shapes and 10 colors. I would remix them every day in any way I wanted for 100 days. I didn't have a sense of what or why I was doing that or what I was doing it for. I just needed something that was very easy to do and very easy to start every day or else I wasn't gonna show up and do it right.
I would put those shapes and those colors in a file so that when in doubt I just open that file and start playing with it. That’s the first time I've ever given myself that gift of parameters and considered constraints and limitations. It is such an incredible gift. After the original 100 days, I did that for another 100 days after. Then I just wanted to open it up a little bit. I didn't need as many restrictions on what I was making or doing. It was almost like it primed the pump and then I could keep moving. Whenever I get a little stuck --which I often get stuck-- all my tricks are within that same vein of okay, I'm going to pull randomly from my gigantic pile of Sumi ink shapes. And I'm just going to pull out four things. I'm going to scan them into the computer and I'm going to make something.
I use that style of gathering material and allow it to take many different forms. You know it could be collage, it could be drawing, it could be painting, My point is that it's more of a theme, of a way to get started. They're all different ways to help me to not think too much, because when I start to think too much, I start to think that making art is not a good idea.
It's very scary.
RM: I get it. It’s very scary. But you've created a system where you don't have to stare down any white canvas, so to speak.
LSH: Exactly. That's exactly it. Actually what it has done for me is it has made me relatively unafraid of a white canvas. I was just flying back from vacation and I was sitting away from my kids. Once I visited them and saw that they were fine, I was blissed out to have three and a half hours to myself to draw. It was just white canvas after white canvas, I would just start and start and start. I wasn't making any masterpieces, but the action of starting has become a lot less scary. I have a lot of the material inside of me now, so I don't feel like I'm coming to a blank canvas with nothing. Even though my work is abstract, improvisational, I never come to it with a vision of what it's going to be. I still do come to it with a lot of material inside of me that’s ready to go: favorite paint brushes on my iPad, favorite markers in my pen bag. Sometimes I think all these marks are really ugly. But I just need to celebrate the act of making because I stopped myself from making art from the time I left college till the time I started my 100 Day project in 2018.
RM: You hadn't created art that whole time?
LSH: I had but not in a way that was feeding me and with a lot of fear and trepidation. What am I doing and why am I doing it? Now I have this system to help myself start every time, because starting is the hardest part for me. I also have real acceptance of the fact that it's okay that my work is abstract and improvisational. I had a judgment about that for a long time. I don't know why. It seems ridiculous now, but I did. Understanding my practice better and having the confidence to have a practice has really made it easier to keep going.
RM: That’s amazing. As an artist, so much of what happens is inside your head. Once you leave an environment like an academic setting or working with other people, you don't really get to talk about it a lot.
LSH: Yeah, that’s so true. It's important to talk about it because art is infinite. We have to make our own parameters. We have to clarify what we're doing to be able to continue to do it. If you think “I make all kinds of art,” well, that's gonna be hard. That stopped once I decided I just make abstract art. My process is completely improvisational, but there are my parameters for how I create and how I make, how I remix it into either products in my shop or original artwork or anything else. That’s what I never really had before I did my 100 Day project.
RM: So that initial 100 Day project, how many days did you continue for?
LSH: Well, I'm up to 851. And I think I'm done, I'm not sure, because having the daily practice-- although it wasn't exactly daily, and it was way less daily during the pandemic-- but having the structure for how I create my patterns has been very helpful. My process is changing a bit and I'm starting to learn more about what the next step is for my work and how I make it and how I apply it. It was incredibly helpful, an 851 day project.
RM: One of my takeaways from the 100 day project is that it felt like a mini version of an MFA project, where you just have to keep making and keep making and keep making and it doesn't make a difference how bad it is. You just have to keep going. But it derails for some people because it’s posted on Instagram, it becomes performative and there's so much pressure for it to be good.
LSH: Yeah. I really struggled with the public-ness of what my project became because, of course, zero people were following me when I started. And then people were excited about it, and sharing their favorite patterns like, “Ooh, this is my new favorite.” I love that so much, but it was also confronting oh, do I do that now? Do I try to follow what people are excited about? The format of sharing on Instagram was all the fear that I had around sharing. I would just use it to try to make the best work I could make at that moment. I would talk to myself, like, is this the best that I can do at this moment? And some days, sometimes I'd be like, No, it's not. I'm just trying to please that person who liked day number whatever. I would scrap it and I would start over and I would wait until I was really sure I had something that was really the best I could do at that moment. It’s kind of embarrassing for me to scroll all the way back. But I think it's incredibly educational, too, because every single one that I posted was the best I could do at that moment. And I feel that my work really improved quite dramatically over a pretty short period of time and really got me to a place where I had a lot of confidence in my visual voice. I didn't even go into this project wanting that out of it, but that's a way bigger gift than I could have imagined.
RM: It's pretty wonderful. I mean, I feel I know the fact that you started with 100 days-- the fact that you got through the first 10--
LSH: that is hard.
RM: I think it's somewhere between day 33 and 65 where you're like, am I still doing this?
LSH: Yeah. Or why am I still doing it? Yeah. I would think or ask why am I still doing this? I decided that that thought was not allowed. And it's still not allowed. But I still have that thought a lot. Except it's just. not. allowed. because I'm doing it. That's it. That's all. I'm doing it. I’m making artwork. So I don't ask why am I doing it and if I do ask I shut the question down very quickly.
RM: That reminds me of the dancer Twyla Tharp. As part of her daily practice, the first thing that she does in the morning is get up and get a taxi or a driver at some ridiculous hour like five o'clock to take her to the gym to work out. And she pretty much has the same view: You don't think about it. You just do it and that's how you get to go forward. You just say I'm doing this. And that's the end of the conversation.
LSH: Yeah, it's so true. And the conversation is not necessary. Because if you need to change gears, you'll know and you'll change gears. You don't usually change gears from the thought, why am I doing this? You usually change gears from a more positive thought of like, I want to try this or this sounds like it's more aligned with my values or this sounds like it would be a more fun way to connect with people around my art or something like that. My art practice and the way that I put work into the world has evolved a lot in the past couple years and is about to evolve even more in the next couple of years. I have a lot of very exciting things brewing. I just feel a lot of patience because you can't force these things and you certainly can't make progress from a place of fear. You just can't be like, Oh, this is too scary. So I'm gonna do this instead. Then your work looks like everybody else’s.
RM: I don't know about you, but I don't get an opportunity to sit down and talk about my work process very much.
LSH: Yeah, I don't either, not enough.
RM: It's weird when it comes out. You're like, Oh, these are only thoughts that have happened inside my head. Like I've never made them come out outside my head.
LSH: Yeah. I love when people share this stuff and I'm trying to get more comfortable about sharing. I think it's a gift that we artists give each other by talking about our work. It can help us strengthen our practice by learning about other people's art practices. It certainly has for me. I love reading interviews and learning about the different ways that people quiet their fears and jump into different experiences in different ways. It's very helpful to me. I don't know that I could do this in a bubble.
Thanks for joining us—we’ll be back with part two next Sunday.