Artist Pages: ‘We lost a giant.’

Portrait of Jim Leedy by Gary Rohman (Rohman Photography)

Ten arts luminaries remember Jim Leedy (1930-2021)

Jim was a quintessential artist’s artist. His impact and legacy will continue to expand, not only by the growing appreciation his art is having, but also by the many artists that he taught and touched in his over 40 years teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute, and thereafter in the many friendships he sustained while creating a community all around him in Kansas City.

I fondly remember visiting him at his studio shortly after the museum was given the wonderful “Cosmos Edge” (2011) tondo. In a long afternoon together, he spoke vividly about his trips to China and his admiration for its culture and art. The flow of the conversation took us to his service in the army during the Korean War as a preamble to sharing what I consider to be his Obra Magna — the wall installation on the devastations of war, “The Earth Lies Screaming,” which he completed in 2000. I had missed its premiere at Grand Arts, under the tutelage and support of one of his many students, Margaret Silva. That haunting piece, we mused together, put his work in direct dialogue with Goya’s “Desastres de la Guerra,” with Rodin’s “Gates of Hell,” and with Picasso’s “Guernica.” Yet his rendering was so unique and dynamic. The intensity of the piece was equaled by Jim’s narration of how that imagery had haunted him in recurrent nightmares, but creating this vast wall had had a therapeutic effect; bringing out those dreams into art liberated him from his scary dreams. The work not only is a war memorial, a depiction of death and pain, but also a testament of hope and rebirth.

He will be missed, but his art and the stories that he told will continue to inspire generations to come. — Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

We lost a giant. Jim Leedy was a leading thinker in all he touched — from his sculpture to countless individual lives. His generosity of spirit was unbounded. Jim’s wisdom and impact on his students, the art community and our city will be felt for years to come. — David H. Hughes Jr., founder, Charlotte Street Foundation

Through his work, teaching, community involvement and frequent travel, Jim Leedy emerged as one of Kansas City’s most renowned and beloved artists. He was an artist ambassador for KC — both nationally and internationally. Leedy pursued an artistic practice that continually blurred the boundaries between traditional craft media and fine art. He employed whatever medium could best express his vision. Whether working in clay or paint, Jim approached each in a highly visceral and physical manner. Surface and personal expression were paramount. The sheer physicality of Jim’s work is testimony to his enduring belief in expressing/exposing its material nature and process of fabrication — a tribute to his early Abstract Expressionist roots. His encrusted, atmospheric abstractions appear analogous to both macrocosm and microcosm. — Bruce Hartman, founding executive director and chief curator of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (retired)

When you got around Jim, it seemed like he could level a room and make people comfortable. I think he was level himself. He was level with what he was making, what he was thinking about, and what he was doing. Maybe because of his age, he seemed very comfortable with himself. He was never really represented by a gallery, but he didn’t care about that. It was more important to him to just produce. He was doing what was inside of him; it wasn’t based on selling or what was popular. It was really right out of him.

I’m 60 now and Jim was 60 when we hooked up. We did a lot together, and I witnessed him doing a lot of work. The tondo paintings he made in the last decade or so came out of Jim and me talking about his ceramic plates, which were as much paintings as ceramics, with no up or down, no directions. Even with his rectangular paintings, he would say there was no up or down. I really felt like the plates were a lot about similar issues painters were dealing with. I told him, “I’ll get you some round canvases.” When they came, he was so excited. You can feel that energy in those paintings. He relates them to the cosmos. I break them down to pure paintings. It was wonderful to watch him do those. They were easy for him because he could paint them in his wheelchair. There are still some paintbrushes on sticks in his studio. While in his studio recently with his daughter Stephanie Leedy, I noticed three tondo canvases stretched and ready for him to work on. It was sad to realize they were not to be. — John O’Brien, founder of Dolphin Gallery and owner, Hammer Out Design

Jim Leedy was our greatest artist. His steadfast vision culminated in the majestic abstract tondo paintings made in the last decade of his life. During his final years he cracked the code of his aesthetic, paring it down to the essentials he needed to reach a plateau where all is clear and fresh, producing a procession of masterpieces. — James Brinsfield, artist

I adored him as a teacher. My history with Jim goes back to — I think I was 16 — and my mom and I ended up taking his art history class, American Art from 1945. He was an astounding teacher. I still think about that class. I thought, “These conversations that we’re having are what I want to have for the rest of my life.” That was the beginning, too, of my mom’s really long love for the artists at the Kansas City Art Institute. She was friends with the faculty, and not just interacting with the administration. I loved him. — Margaret Silva, founder, Grand Arts

I can’t think of a single artist that has the overlapping skill sets that Jim Leedy possessed. He was a genius with clay, to be sure . . . but he used his art to cope with and express his visceral war experiences. Beyond his own artwork, he had the community building skills to forge an entirely new arts district for Kansas City. Ultimately, his legacy will far outlast that of other peers who made names for themselves in more conventional ways. — Garth Johnson, curator of ceramics at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York

Jim Leedy defined the region by his undeniable stature as an artist of international repute. He caused me to consider, time and time again, how an artist can create places through penetrating sight and a commitment to making. Jim made art but also shaped the entire arts ecology with his focus, experimentation and artistic courage. His networks were not support systems; they were conduits of energy and commitment. We are very honored by the presence of his work at the Spencer Museum of Art. — Saralyn Reece Hardy, Marilyn Stokstad Director, Spencer Museum of Art / University of Kansas

Jim Leedy brought the Abstract Expressionist tradition to Kansas City, laying the foundation for generations of abstract painters and ceramists to come. Throughout his career, gesture — and its connotations of freedom and emotional release — remained the essence of his work, whether he was working with clay, paint, or in his major sculptural enterprise, “The Earth Lies Screaming,” exorcising his memories of the Korean War. Over and over, Leedy tackled the big themes: life, death and the mysteries of the cosmos, conveyed through a gritty, explosive aesthetic that was entirely his own. — Alice Thorson, editor, KC Studio

Jim had a one-person exhibition at Art Chicago, also known as the Navy Pier exhibition in the mid-1990s. He was dressed in his famous jean jacket covered with enamel souvenir pins ranging from American flags to symbols of protest and more. Of course, he was wearing his French beret that was also sporting pins. We stood looking at his Abstract Expressionist ceramic plates — amazing works deeply gouged with his hands and fingers, glazes thrown across the pockmarked surface of the clay. We looked at the rich colors achieved by the salt fired stoneware, which was a feast for the eyes and the intellect.

As we stood there, a group of ceramic students led by their teacher came up, and he began a lecture on Jim, all while not recognizing that Jim Leedy was standing right there. We grinned. He told the story of an artist that broke all the boundaries, but not before he knew the depth of the craft and the aesthetic of international and timeless ceramics. He was an artist that went beyond ceramics, an artist not contained by categories or disciplines, an artist whose powers of expression ventured into prints, murals, assemblages, paintings, sculpture, performance and more. The ceramic faculty pointed at one of the abstract plates and said, “This guy is amazing; I just don’t understand how he can fire this stoneware and get this range of color in the glazes and still achieve this magnificent bright red; it’s just amazing!” Jim spoke in a loud and commanding voice — “enamel spray paint!” I laughed and said, “May I introduce to you the artist, Jim Leedy.” The teacher and his class were happily shocked and excited. They were treated to one of Leedy’s amazing performance/lectures. To sum it up, he told them, “Just do what you have to do to make the work, even if it is using red enamel spray paint on a ceramic plate.” — Hugh Merrill, artist, and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute

Jim Leedy, “Cosmos Edge” (2011), mixed media on canvas, diameter 80” (The Nelson-Stkins Museum of Art; gift of Harrison Jedel / photo by Joshua Ferdinand )
Jim Leedy, “untitled (abstraction)” (1987), acrylic and sculpted paper form laid down to panel, 50 3/4 x 42” (gift from the Jedel Family Foundation, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas)
Jim Leedy, “Lakeside Plate” (1990), stoneware, porcelain, glaze, 22.5 x 23.75 x 7” (collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. gift of Marti and Tony Oppenheimer and the Jules and Doris Stein Foundation )
Installation view of the artist with “The Earth Lies Screaming” (1999) at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center in 2010. The massive piece was supported by and originally shown at Grand Arts in 2000 and subsequently exhibited at The National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, where it was purchased by the Rabb Family Foundation in 2014. (photo by E.G. Schempf)
Jim Leedy, “Untitled” (c. 1995), mixed media on paper, 57 x 42.5” (collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. gift of the Jedel Family Foundation / photo by E.G. Schempf )
Jim Leedy, “Untitled” (1993), stoneware, 22 1/2 x 29 x 3” (gift of Douglas and Cara Cowan, collection Daum Museum of Contemporary Art)
KC Studio

KC Studio covers the performing, visual, cinematic and literary arts, and the artists, organizations and patrons that make Kansas City a vibrant center for arts and culture.

  1. Way back in 1965 in order to gain admittance to KCAI I was required to go into a studio and draw a still life. Thankfully my first encounter with JIm Leedy was there as he watched me with cigar in hand and assured me not to worry and just draw. Like O’Brien said, ” he could level a room and make people comfortable”.

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