We had the good fortune of connecting with William Lesch and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi William, how do you think about risk?
Making art is all about taking risks. As an artist, you have to push yourself past what you already know, to work at the edge of the unknown. Georgia O’Keefe said the job of an artist is to make their unknown real, to make it known and show it to others. I have always been interested in work that surprises me, whether that is work of mine or the work of another artist. If we aren’t experimenting, trying new things and willing to fail, we never move off from what we already know. I’ve been taking risks since I first went into business for myself at the age of 25. I had the realization that I would rather sink or swim on my own than work for someone else. I wanted to learn life by living it, to experience it as fully as possible. At the age of 30, with a young family, my wife and I took all our savings and bought an old, tiny, crumbling adobe home and a vacant lot next to it in Tucson’s downtown Barrio. We lived on a shoestring, risking everything to put down roots. I had learned to be a stone mason to work my way through art school, started a stonework business, and began to learn everything I could about building my own home. It was a crazy risk, who builds their own home anymore, but it came with the reward that I have been able to live and work in a studio courtyard home I built myself, surrounded by walls and roofs we put up. To me, risk taking is all about what you can dream, and then doing the work to make that dream a reality. Making art, the photography and sculpture that I do, is a similar pursuit. It is about seeing, learning to look deeply at the world around me, and then learning the skills of my craft to bring what I see into being, as real as the roof over my head. Risk taking in art involves finding the edges of your knowledge and having the skill to work at the point of balance. That point of balance between the known and unknown is so important. At the age of 40 I learned to kayak by jumping into the unknown when a friend took me down the Salt River Canyon at a very high level. Luckily he knew what he was doing and fished me out when I kept flipping and swimming in the rapids, and I loved it so much it’s become a big part of my life. I had wanted to learn kayaking so I could get to many of the remote places where I like to photograph, what I didn’t anticipate is how much it would teach me about risk taking, balance, joy, and the feeling of being one with a river. Learning to roll, learning to kayak big rivers, learning to surf big waves, is all about balance, about being able to take what comes at you and adjust, to go with the flow as the hippies used to say. As a kayaker, the way you improve is by knowing what level of rapids you can safely run, and then to run just a bit above that level. Being an artist involves a similar skillset of informed risk taking. I have spent years working on my craft, learning cameras, film, digital, all manner of printmaking skills, and now I can take that accumulated knowledge and work at the edges of what I know, which is the exact point where new, exciting work can be found. O’Keefe had another saying, she said she was terrified her whole life, but she had never let it keep her from doing what she wanted to do. Life well lived is always a bit terrifying, about taking risks and pushing the limits of what you know, and I would not have it any other way.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
The flow of time through the landscape of our desert homeland is my inspiration, interpreting our place within this flow my intention. I look for the talismans, the symbols that define our place; clouds swirling into life–giving rain, day turning to night, light spilling out across the land while the earth turns, cactus spines and their cracked skin flooded with light and color. My journey has taken me from the remote coasts of Sonora to the depths of the Grand Canyon, searching for the elusive sense of timeless eternity that flows through the deserts and straight into our veins. It is the eternal present in which we always live, but that we are too busy with the distractions of “making a living” to notice. Photography has a unique way of interpreting the flow of the world, of seeing time by the use of long exposures and the layering of space and time. My work has always been about the way photographs can look into the very heart of time. My earliest work was done with a 4×5 view camera, using color film to make large format, in camera double exposures of day and night combined into one image and using color filters and a spotlight at night to “light paint” the photograph. This technique found an audience and brought me much success; prints in prestigious collections, a book printed in Japan and a show in Madrid, as well as many local and regional exhibits and gallery representation. By many measures, I was well on my way to a “successful” career as an artist. Commercial success, however, is only one measure, and after several years of doing light painting work I began to feel I was working to my own formula. I knew how to make successful pieces, but I wasn’t learning anything new, felt I was no longer surprising myself. Most important, I wasn’t failing enough, trying new things that didn’t work. For a time, I quit using color film, went back to shooting black and white, very long time exposures of clouds and waves, work that I had begun fifteen years earlier but dropped to concentrate on the color work. In one sense I made things much harder on myself, turning away from something that was successful to begin new series with no guarantees. My son had learned to fly, had his pilot’s licenses, and I began going up with him in small planes, photographing the desert from the air. I never expected to find myself in a small plane, flying excitedly over copper mines while shooting as fast as I could work the shutter. My aerial series became work that helped transition me from film to digital as I pieced together large, abstract compositions of the desert being laid open like a body under a surgeon’s knife. The otherworldly shapes and colors of the mines echoed back to my light painting still life series of prickly pears and saguaro skin. Digital cameras and the computer have become another tool to help realize my vision, a way to combine not only different times of day and night but to combine space and scale. I have come recently to see my work as paintings that rely on the veracity of photography, and in fact my most recent work involves preparing copper and aluminum plates with white gesso paint and chemical patinas and then printing on this surface using my digital printers. The final work exists in a strange space between a photograph and a painting, with surface texture, brush strokes and depth like a painting but with images that are definitely photographs. If I have learned anything from all of this, it has served to re-inforce what one of my early photographic heroes, Harry Callahan, used to say. He said that an artist finds what aspects of the world interest them, what their work will be about, at a very young age, and they spend the rest of their life bringing that vision into reality.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The first place I would take someone who is visiting Tucson for the first time would be to Gates Pass to watch the sunset. I would not take them to the main overlook, too crowded – instead I would take them on the trail that winds up the backside, climbs slowly in the shade with no view to the west and then steeply at the end to come out at the top of the pass and see the desert laid out at your feet to the west. After that, I might take them for the Carne Seca plate at El Charro downtown, the original El Charro, and buy them a Negro Modelo draft along with a shot of their choice from a wide list of really fine tequilas. For breakfast the next day I would go to the Little Cafe Poca Cosa for the Chile Relleno plate. Then I think a hike would be in store, up Mt. Lemmon to one of the out of the way pools below a small waterfall, of which there are many at all different elevations depending on the season, or if time was short and we needed a shorter hike we might go to Tanque Verde Falls in the Rincons, or perhaps a hike along Sonoita Creek down near Patagonia an hour south of town. Patagonia has some great little restaurants now too, so we could make a day of it and do some exploring in the hills, or perhaps go kayaking at Patagonia Lake up one of the many side channels. At some point I would take them by Tohono Chul Park, where I usually have some work of mine on display in their gallery along with many other great local artists who show there, and a full day could easily be spent exploring the many desert plant displays and nature trails they have as well as a great meal of local foods at their cafe in the Park. No visit to Tucson would be complete without going by the Center for Creative Photography at the U of A and a visit to their archives, one of the most complete world class archives for Photography in the world and one in which I am honored to have a piece of mine included, Redwall Cavern Panorama from the Grand Canyon. This would need to be followed with a visit to Etherton Gallery, the premier contemporary art gallery in all of Arizona for the past thirty years, and where I have been honored to have shown and been represented since 1989. The visit to Etherton’s would have to include wandering around downtown Tucson to all the new streetside restaurants and bars, and would have to stop at Club Congress to eat, drink, listen to music, or take in a concert across the street at the Rialto Theater. The Rialto is an old Art Deco Theatre that was lovingly restored by a good friend of mine Doug Biggers, who earlier founded the Tucson Weekly newspaper and later went on to found Edible Baja magazine. Tucson is filled with people like Biggers, people dedicated to the Arts and Culture of a town with deep roots in the Desert Southwest. Perhaps the most valuable thing I would want my friend to take away from Tucson would be sitting around the picnic table under the ramada in my courtyard with good friends who have spent decades living in the desert, just enjoying one another’s company and the soft desert air over good food and drink. In this time of Covid, that is what we all need and miss the most, and for myself, that is what I look forward to doing again once we are past this time of change.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I have lived and worked in Tucson a long time, so I’m afraid my shoutout list of those I owe is very long. First and foremost, my wife and partner Connie Lesch and my sons Ethan and Matthew have been my rock, always believing in me. Tucson’s premier contemporary gallery owner Terry Etherton gave me my first real show in my hometown over 30 years ago, at Etherton Gallery in 1989. He has represented me ever since and he and Mel Etherton have been like family to our family. Harold Jones has encouraged me since I first met him in 1975 when he came to Tucson from NYC to become the first Director of the Center for Creative Photography at the Univ. of AZ. He was later my Professor in Photography at the Art School at the U of A in the late 70’s. He and his wife, the amazing photographer Frances Murray Jones have always been unwavering supporters of my work. Mary Virginia Swanson, of MVS and Swanstock, has helped and encouraged my career for over 25 years. The incredibly talented designer of living spaces Lori Carroll, of Lori Carroll Design, hired me to photograph her designs for over 25 years, and helped support my ability to pursue my art by supporting my commercial work. More recently there are two people whose support and encouragement has meant the world to me. My very good friend, kayaking and river running partner Tony Lunt, who is a cattle rancher, cowboy, and the owner of Jackson Kayaks, has been one of my best collectors. He has taken me on countless trips to places I might never have photographed, including seven trips down the entire 240 miles of the Grand Canyon. Finally, I need to mention James Schaub, the Curator at Tohono Chul Gallery, and everyone at Tohono Chul Park, who have been incredible supporters the past several years, and have included my work in multiple group shows as well as Featured Artist shows and talks at Tohono Chul Gallery. To all of you, and all those who have collected my work, you mean the world to me, and here is a big shoutout of appreciation.
Other: facebook.com/billlesch – personal account
Youtube: If you search for William Lesch Photography, my channel comes up. Since I just started it, I don’t yet have my name in the URL, the link is https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNuC4241JrEFGDJ3ycfueDQ
My artist listing for the 2020 Virtual Tucson Open Studio Tour can be found here: https://ost.artsfoundtucson.org/artist/william-lesch/ – you can scroll down and find a link to the Zoom Tour on December 5th at 3:30pm, as well as contact and pricing info regarding my work.