Hannah Knight Leighton 

Studio Visit, January, 2022

Virtual conversation between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Hannah Leighton

Amy: Where are you from/ where did you grow up?

Hannah: I’m originally from Baltimore, MD. I grew up going to the Cone collection at the BMA. From a young age this collection informed my color sensibility.

A: How long have you been in your current studio? 

H: I’ve been in my current studio since October. It’s on the second floor of a shop and the owners are friends of my parents. The space used to be a dance studio for children. It’s a little challenging because there’s no heat and no plumbing, but I’m making it work and figuring out my body’s limitations! I’m in New Harbor, which is about an hour and a half north of Portland in Midcoast Maine. 

I graduated from University of New Mexico with my MFA and then moved here in October. Space, temperature and environment are on my mind…I’ve never had a practice so dependent upon the weather. A pair of red vintage coveralls keep me warm.

A: I love how your work reads as abstract painting but is actually made through a fibers process. For me, the surprise of the surface really makes me think about upending and fusing ideas around craft vs painting. How did you come to start working this way?

H: I got my BFA from MICA and studied Painting. I applied to graduate school with an entirely acrylic paint based portfolio. When I got into the MFA program I expected to continue in that medium, but the tides changed. During the summer of 2018 I was visiting family in Maine and became sick with bronchitis. As I was recovering, I was itching to make something and the only supplies I could find were bits of yarn and a latch hook. One thing led to another and I invested in an industrial tufting gun, a tool traditionally used to manufacture rugs. During the first week of graduate school I thought, “Hmm… I won’t be picking up a paintbrush anytime soon…” That’s how it went for the next three years. I was lucky to have generally supportive professors.  I took an amazing weaving class at UNM, and this introduction into textiles opened many doors. 

The boundaries or labels within art can cause a lot of friction and division among people. I had a few grad school critiques that were challenging, a fair amount of push back regarding labels- “How can you call yourself a painter when you’re working with yarn?” Over time I gained confidence by situating my work within the realm of painting.  I faced some crucial questions regarding materials, labels and hierarchies. I think my work is most clearly in conversation with painting, but I have no problem opening the door to craft, sculpture and textiles. 

A: Can you talk about how the color and textile aspects of compositions come to be? Is there a lot of planning and drawing or is it more intuitive in the act of making?

H: Everything begins as a digital drawing using ProCreate on ipad. Often I’ll have some sort of catalyst for the drawing; one recent theme was maximalist kitschy Christmas decor. Some strange ideas and questions launch my work; these tend to give way to specific color palettes and forms.

After the digital drawing is complete I translate the drawing onto a large frame with stretched monks cloth. Then I begin the tufting process. It’s a bit like working on a massive paint by numbers or a giant puzzle, minus the instructions!

A: In simple terms, what do you feel your work is about?

H: The loaded symbolism of craft and women’s work, the perceived hierarchy of materials, technology, casual consumerism. I find it really important to use materials that are accessible to everyone. 

The pandemic changed things in a big way. Space within compositions became really confined and it looked like these shapes wanted to escape. It’s funny how work can time stamp your literal and mental location; so many forms yearning to escape confinement, that’s how I felt too… 

A: What does the perfect studio day look like for you? 

H: I wake up, eat breakfast, bring a thermos of tea to the studio and work from maybe 9 AM to noon. Then I go home, have lunch, then go back to the studio and work until about 4 PM. It’s tough in ME not just because of the temperature, but also because of the isolation and the darkness. It gets dark here by 4pm. During the evenings I work on drawings or fill out applications.

New Harbor, Maine

A: Favorite studio snacks, rituals, or routines?

H: When I first moved into the studio space I was really surprised and put off by the amount of flies. I would get to work, and hear non-stop buzzing. I would just watch them repeatedly body slam themselves into the window. So a strange little ritual began where I would herd and chase them out the window. That ritual would usually take about twenty minutes every morning. Luckily in the cold that’s no longer an issue. 

I love my morning ritual of having my tea and quiet time, which helps me formulate a plan for the day.

A: What do you do when the studio gets tough – do you have any coping mechanisms. How do you combat the inertia that can take hold of the best of us?

H: Short term, I have some obnoxiously upbeat Spotify playlists that can get me out of a negative headspace. Changing my audio or visual stimulus can go a long way. Or working on a different piece or calling a friend. There are ways we can intentionally trick ourselves.

Long term, this pandemic has impacted everyone in many nuanced ways. A community can go so far in terms of helping one feel grounded. But sometimes it’s best to allow sadness in; it’s a teacher. I think it leads to greater empathy or self-awareness. 

A: What are your hobbies outside of the studio?

H: Since I’ve been home my mom and I have been messing around in the kitchen. She’s an incredible cook. I love baking too. I’ve been making a lot of chocolate chip cookies, but different recipes from different chefs and I will compare each recipe; cake flour, bread flour, or all purpose? I love noticing these subtle changes through experimentation. It’s funny the kinship and relationship between tinkering in the kitchen and studio. They’re both labs.

A: Currently listening to:

H: I love the Daily Podcast and Sound & Vision. They make me feel like I’m part of the conversation, which is good in isolated Maine! I especially loved the Matt Kleberg and Leah Guadagnoli episodes of Sound & Vision. They were so funny and charismatic. I find myself wishing the best for these people I’ve never met. 

A: Do you have anything coming up you’d like to promote or another artist you think we should be watching? 

H: I’ve recently been working with OCHI Projects. They have a gallery in Idaho and two spaces in LA. This past fall they added me to their roster, which I’m really excited about. I’ll be having a show with them in LA in 2023. They put on beautiful shows and have an excellent group of artists with whom they work.  I’m honored to be part of their team!

In terms of artists to keep an eye on; one of my friends Ragini Bhow, received her MFA a year ahead of me at UNM. She’s a painter and sculptor and has a show coming up in New York. Her paintings are off the charts and she’s a force… Keep an eye out!

Hannah in her studio, Maine, 2022
Inertia Studio Visits