Leon and Stella Alesi: Love Conjures All
In camera and out, this couple provides ocular proof of a life in the arts
How any couple, married or otherwise, stays together for more than a few years is a mystery that's never been solved by those who haven't – and heaven knows the numbers of the thwarted are legion. Maybe the predicament is the same for all romantic pairings, in whatever culture they're in, but maybe there's a difference – for better or worse – among those dream-spiked worthies toiling in the creative class?
The more we look, the more we see.
Previously in the Chronicle, we've taken a glimpse into the lives and work of two Austin-based authors, Elizabeth McCracken and Edward Carey, who are happily striving and thriving together; and we've covered the bright, busy situation of theatre-and-music power couple Shawn "Rude Mechs" Sides and Graham "Golden Arm Trio" Reynolds. Now we turn our journalistic lens toward two visual artists who've been living in Austin for 23 of the 24 years that their hearts have, as the saying goes, beat as one.
Stella Alesi is a painter, acclaimed for her large photorealistic botanical works in oil and now creating (to no less acclaim) paintings of highly complex abstract beauty. Leon Alesi is a professional photographer, primarily portraits of Austin's creative community. Together, the couple runs Blackbox, their in-home gallery that showcases a diversity of Austin artists throughout the year.
Austin Chronicle: What's it like, day-to-day, for two passionate and dedicated artists to be married to each other?
Leon Alesi: Day-to-day, we don't work together too much. Stella's artwork is more solitary and mine is more out in the world. And that leads to two different lifestyles. It ebbs and flows, but I spend a great deal of time outside the house, and Stella spends most of her time here alone. We've done some collaborative work. But so much comes to the table outside of the artists' relationship – meaning our married life and all of that – so it's just a lot of things to get your head around to make art, a lot of other things going on at the same time as the artwork. So, for me, it creates a little bit of a barrier to work. Just collaborating with another artist, there wouldn't be all this weight involved in it.
Stella Alesi: Day-to-day, because we're artists, we make our own schedules. Typically, that means that Leon will stay up later than I do, and I can get up pretty early – and that's good, because then I have my time in the morning. But it also means that we're having to self-motivate, and that's a big part of us being artists. We were talking about that earlier: Neither of us go to a job, we just wake up and it's like, "OK, what do we need to get done today? What are we doing?" But we've proved to be pretty good at that.
Leon: Yeah, we can make things happen. But the question seems to center around the artwork we make, and I think, in other areas – like in running the gallery – we collaborate on what we're gonna show, how we're gonna hang it, where our interests lie and how that's gonna come off. The idea behind Blackbox was more to show other people's work. At the time we started, Stella was represented by a gallery and I was represented by a gallery as well. Since then, we're both unrepresented. But that's fine, because now we have this space. Especially within Austin, we have so many contacts.
AC: Is not being represented by galleries, is that a choice?
Stella: It was a decision I made.
Leon: My gallery went under, and Stella made a decision to leave her gallery.
Stella: I realized it didn't make any sense to be connected to a gallery in the town you live in – especially when you run a gallery. I mean, I was showing at Wally Workman, and that was great. But there were things that came up that were difficult, like, oh, Shawn Camp wants me to be in his show; is that a conflict of interest? And a gallery takes 50 percent, so ... I did that for only a year. I was at Davis Gallery for many years, almost 20. Then I decided to do it myself and made a push, and it paid off.
And, too, I think the new work is good. It's only been in the last two years that I'm gonna call myself a full-time artist. Because for the last 20 years, both of us, we've been juggling that: making art but having to support ourselves by doing another job. So it's only been this last two years. That's where this new body of work came from – that focused work, where I was able to wake up and paint every day. It makes a huge difference, just in your ability to follow through. Before that, it was like, "OK, I've got three hours on Sunday!" And people used to say I jumped around a lot, that I switched my ideas so quickly, and it was because my time was so broken up and I was never able to be consistent.
AC: Leon, if someone's hired to be a wedding photographer or to do portraits ... your portraits that I've seen, each one is like a work of art. But in some cases, someone's commissioned you to do the portrait. Where does it turn into art? Not that wedding photography can't be art ...
Leon: No, no, I don't really consider wedding photography art – it's more of a business that you can be artistic within. But it's not art in and of itself. And the portraiture – I started on this body of work by photographing my friends. I didn't have a relationship with portraiture of this nature before – where it's a sitting, and you go and you're really invested in what the outcome is. And it's not for money.
Stella: Maybe that's where it becomes art. When doing it to make money isn't your initial drive.
Leon: Yeah, and the body of portraiture work developed, and it developed well, and I was lucky to have a lot of notice from outside sources. I had a couple of solo shows and got some accolades, and that was great. But I never really sold the work. The portraits are very intimate and very present, and also very big. And, I dunno, either I just haven't found my right target of who I'm selling to or it just doesn't exist for those images to be in the home, I guess. Stella sells her work often, and I get accolades often and don't sell my work.
Stella: He has an amazing résumé, where he's shown all over the country. And I struggle to get shows anyplace else. But ...
Leon: So, at one point, I was like, "OK, how do I get this to work? How do I get commissions for the style of portraits I'm doing?" And I was never able to crack that nut in a way that felt comfortable for me? It was always better when it was a situation in which money wasn't exchanged.
Stella: Because, with Leon's work, usually the sitter doesn't necessarily like the image, but everybody else loves it, right? So if they were gonna pay him, then Leon would have to make them happy.
Leon: Or not. I mean, I'm sure Lucian Freud doesn't make people happy.
Stella: I don't know how you reach that point, where you can be Lucian Freud and people will be happy if you painted them looking weird?
Leon: I guess it has more to do with my feelings toward the commerce side of art. Today you have to be a self-promoter, have to sell your own work, get out there and do everything for yourself besides making the work. I don't think I'm very good at that aspect of it. I'm much better at doing what I do, and if somebody were to take it and finish the job of promoting it, I'd be a lot happier. I'm not comfortable, ah, blowing my own horn.
AC: Is it easier to make a living, to grab money from the economy as a painter or as a photographer?
Leon: As a landlord.
AC: As a landlord!
Stella: That's what we've found.
AC: Ha! You and Steve Brudniak!
Leon: And every artist in Austin.
Leon: Well, we did buy this place, and we have several rentals here. And rent money keeps us afloat and provides a nice base for us to do the artwork – for the moment.
Stella: We worked all those years doing event photography, then we bought this place – because we needed to figure something out where we could be full-time artists. That way we don't have to sell the work. We can just collect the rent and focus on the art – without having to put all that energy into promoting the work.
AC: How long have y'all been in Austin?
Leon: Since 1993.
Stella: We met in '92.
AC: Stella, it sounds like you've got the remains of a New York accent.
Stella: Yeah. I was born on Long Island. Plainview – I lived there 'til I was 11. I try to lose the accent, but I never can.
AC: And what brought you to Austin?
Leon: We were living in Manhattan, both working like three jobs, living in a sixth-floor walk-up.
Stella: Leon was kicking cabs.
AC: Kicking cabs?
Leon: I had a lot of anger in me. New York, after being the center of the universe for me – because I grew up 10 minutes from Manhattan – I started seeing beyond it, and we weren't having a great time in New York anymore. No real reason why we moved to Austin. Stella met somebody at work –
Stella: David Hefner, he's an artist and an old-time Austin guy. He came into the restaurant I was working at, because we showed art at the restaurant. And he was talking about having a show there, and he told me how awesome Austin was.
Leon: I was a big fan of the Reivers at the time, too. And that was literally our two connections – we'd never been anywhere near Austin. But we drove down and that was it.
Stella: I was a little scared to move to Texas. I'd moved around a lot. And I was like, "We can move anywhere, wherever you want to go." But ... Texas? But as soon as we moved here, we fell in love with it. It took a very short amount of time before I was like, "OK, we don't need to move anymore."
AC: And '93 was a lot funkier here.
Leon: Extremely funky.
Stella: And there was so much open space, like nothing was going on. Coming from New York where the sidewalks are packed and you go into a restaurant and you can't breathe. You'd go into a restaurant here, and it would be enormous and there'd be two people in there. It was so easy, too, back then. If you wanted a job, you went after it and you got it. I was teaching at the college, and we found a great studio Downtown with all sorts of other artists.
Leon: Our apartment was $250 a month. And the culture was different, or was delivered in a different way, you know? – much more personal and circumstantial, rather than going to a gallery and seeing culture.
Stella: There was certainly a lot of theatre and music back then. Not too much visual art. There was some, but ...
AC: It was mostly in people's houses. You'd go to somebody's house and there'd be art on the walls – their friends' art, their own art.
Stella: Yeah, there were a few galleries.
Leon: More established galleries showing, I think, more conservative work. But there were just so many, ah, characters. I met Jerry Delony, the UFO guy from Slacker.
AC: And what is it that keeps you in Austin?
Stella: Community. The people, right?
Leon: That's number one. And the friendliness of strangers in Austin. Having friends that you've known for 20 years is a huge factor. People are really open here, in the arts world especially. They're open to your thoughts and what you wanna do. It's a great honor to have all the people who've sat for me already. It's amazing, how many people gave their time for that.
Stella: Austin people who've been here a long time, when it all started to change about 10 years ago, we all got grumpy about it? But I feel like the ones who've decided to stay, a lot of us have gotten over that. I'm excited now, it feels like an exciting place. People visiting from all around the world. Everything just comes to us now, and the quality of the visual arts, the music, all of it has gone way up.
Leon: With the gallery, too, we're able to have artists in Austin who may not have the opportunity to show. Like Scott Stevens, an Old Austin artist who hasn't shown in a long time, he's got this body of work. We were like, shit, we wanna show that, nobody else is showing it. And this is somebody who's been working a lifetime on being an artist. So the gallery brings a lot of opportunity to work within the community.
Stella: When we started the gallery, I was like, hmmm, I'm not sure how this is gonna work. But this last show really cemented it for me. It was attended by the UT community, and we got to meet all these academics and fancy writers and composers. With Scott's show, we're gonna get to meet the Old South Austin people – you know, people into Alice Cooper, scary drawings of rats. [Laughs] I don't think we can move to a new place and have that.