Empowered & Armed: Hijacking the Female Narrative: Leigh Brooklyn at Mansfield

Leigh Brooklyn, Rebel

Sit you down and take note: powerful women surround us, in alleys and backyards, dystopian landscapes and under gentle night skies. You just have to know where and how to look.

Leigh Brooklyn’s Battle Scars: The New Protagonist, at Mansfield Art Center from March 19 to April 16, reveals an army of women warriors. Works range from hyper-realistic portraits in oil—some over six feet tall—to detailed, intricately-rendered drawings, and agitprop street art posters and graffitied grenades. Brooklyn was the winner of the Mansfield Art Center’s CAN Triennial 2022 Exhibition Prize.

“After going through a personal upheaval at the end of 2019, I needed to surround myself with strong women. So, I set out to build this sort of army,” says Brooklyn. “One soldier at a time, I am creating a female militia to unite, overcome, uplift and fight for ourselves and each other. This army of diverse women are survivors who will overcome all battles, together and alone.”

Brooklyn enlisted friends and friends of friends to dress as soldiers, photographed them in different abandoned areas in Lorain and Cleveland, and used these as references for her paintings, drawings, and sculptures. The existing street art in these locations—graffiti, signage, trash—also appears in these works.

Running through Battle Scars and Brooklyn’s work is an omnipresent military. Brooklyn traces her family’s military involvement back to the Civil War; her father, grandfather, and uncles are veterans, and her brother currently serves. Family vacations centered around visiting historic battlefields, and military uniforms, medals, and weapons were considered heirlooms.

Leigh Brooklyn, Love Bomb, hand painted grenade, 3.5 X 2.5 X 2.5 inches.

Although inspired by a personal need, Brooklyn’s army reaches beyond the personal to recast the role of woman as artistic subject, and to comment on inequity and violence in our world.

“I initially created this to help myself through what I was dealing with but it’s also been very healing for other women,” says Brooklyn. “It lets them feel heard. During the photoshoots when I’d dress the women like soldiers, they’d stand taller; a couple got emotional at times. It was very empowering. I’ve also had other women come up to me at shows or email me saying how the messaging has helped them.”

Brooklyn’s women are an antidote to the passively-sweet imagery that is ubiquitous from high art to pop culture. Her figures look either directly or down at the viewer with fearless gazes, with bodies that are solid flesh, lovingly rendered.

“In the arts, there is the passive female nude there for the male gaze,” says Brooklyn. “The women I know aren’t just laying around—I wanted to show the strength of these women. I want you to look at them, see their strength, and let them show how they want to be seen—not how they have been told to show themselves.”

Coupled with empowerment is Brooklyn’s use of her work as commentary and activism. American Portrait began with a friend modeling her Tank Girl cosplay outfit in her suburban backyard, holding a toy gun. “Her boyfriend brought out his real gun to use,” says Brooklyn. “That immediately changed things, and I saw the possibility to make the painting a way to talk about mass shootings.”

The painting’s details speak to this larger agenda: the target on the woman’s shirt, pins listing mass shootings, messages scratched onto the gun, and a pile of slumped memorial stuffed animals at the warrior’s feet in the foreground.

Leigh Brooklyn, New Beginnings.

In New Beginnings, the intricate lines of a black and white illustration feature Tyra Patterson, wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years for a murder and robbery she did not commit. Patterson, now released, works for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center as a community outreach strategy specialist and is collaborating with award-winning director Laurence Mathieu-Léger on a feature-length documentary.

Brooklyn has long worked in the intersection where the grit of daily life meets the demands of art. Inspired by the work of forensic artists who helped solve a missing person’s case, she earned her degree in biomedical illustration from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2011, and worked at several hospitals, museums, and research facilities. Brooklyn then traveled extensively as a street photographer, spending time in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, where she listened to the stories of the people living on the streets as she created their portraits.

In 2019, Brooklyn returned to her artistic roots of figurative drawing and oil painting. At the same time, she began working with a sculptor to learn clay and bronze casting processes, and took classes in welding and fabrication techniques to earn a lifetime certification in 3G MIG welding in 2021.

Her interest in and respect for people and voices often overlooked—people of color, transgender people, those who are homeless—power her art into activism. It was this combination that made an impact on George Whitten, executive director of the Mansfield Art Center, when he saw Brooklyn’s Pieta during the 2022 CAN Triennial.

“The stormy background and overpowering message of this piece hit me when I first saw it from the entrance, fifty feet away,” recalls Whitten. “The quality and skill of her work were certainly there, but I was just mesmerized by its message.”

Battle Scars: The New Protagonist has grown out of a dialog between the Mansfield Art Center and Brooklyn, who is creating a number of pieces specifically for this show. Thematically, the show acts as an artistic archive for current events and represents women as empowered leaders.

In addition to figurative paintings and drawings, the show features sculpture and street art. Her “love bomb” ready-mades are dummy grenades graffitied with text; their name refers to the practice of lavishing affection on someone in order to manipulate them. A selection of propaganda-style posters declare support for the “Women’s Militia,” and were originally produced as a series of stickers and posters posted in public settings.

Brooklyn has won a variety of awards since 2004. Most recently, she was a winner in the international 2020 Boynes Emerging Artist Awards, Melbourne, Australia, and placed among the top illustrators in the American Illustration Awards in 2022. Her work has been exhibited in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Medici Museum of Art (Warren, Ohio) the Makeshift Museum, the US Capitol Building and Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Diane von Furstenberg Studio, along with many national galleries and international art fairs.

“Brooklyn’s work covers the injustices and inequities of the world,” says Whitten. “She has a keen sense of how to connect the dots between the appearance of the work and its emotional interpretation. Her message is leading chest out, standing proud.”

Battle Scars includes a silent auction of one of the love bombs, with proceeds going to The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, an organization that invests in women and girls through trust-based grant making, groundbreaking research, and intersectional advocacy (womensfundcentralohio.org).

As she notes in her artist statement for the exhibition, Brooklyn aspires to empower the observers of her work to have a greater understanding of the shared humanity in all of us. “Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G. D. Anderson

Leigh Brooklyn’s Pieta (oil on linen, 72 X 48 inches, 2022), was exhibited in CAN Triennial 2022: You
Are Here. Brooklyn is winner of the Mansfield Art Center CAN Triennial Exhibition Prize.

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