Meet local artist: Leah Bassett.

Leah is a self-taught artist from Baltimore who specializes in classic figurative painting. She moved to San Diego about a year ago and quickly immersed herself in the local art scene. You might have stumbled across Leah’s work at her art studio in Hillcrest or at any number of local shows and art pop-ups. She’s also a professional makeup artist, with work featured in magazines such as Vanity Fair. We think you’ll find Leah’s perspective both relevant and engaging. If you haven’t previously had the opportunity to experience Leah’s work, it is our delight to introduce you to her.

Leah Bassett, painting a canvass in her studio.

Tell us a little bit about yourself–your art, your work.

Well, both my parents are artists. They mostly do landscapes and wildlife animals.They did wood carvings as well, so I was always around art growing up. I really started getting into art around three or four-years-old. My parents divorced when I was six, and then my interest in art catapulted. I recently found a whole bunch of art I created between ages six and eight, and it was something that I put so much time and effort into. It was like therapy for me as a child. 

As I got older, I became very interested in drawing and painting people. I just love people, which is blessing and a curse, because I can always find the good in people. I am very interested in the complexities, the darkness of the human condition. I’ve definitely explored that on canvas with my own personal issues, with depression and things I’ve gone through, as well as with things friends have gone through. It’s been a much healthier thing for me to do than running to the troubles you can find as a teenager and adult.

"Most of the time people try to run away from sadness and depression, their shadow side, but art is a good way to recognize it--get it out, release it, let it go."

— Leah Bassett

What are your artistic inspirations?

Growing up, I was kicked out of some art shows in middle school and early high school because, while I didn’t necessarily paint all nudity, what I painted was a little too much. I was very interested in painting figuratively from an early age, and I was especially inspired by Leonardo da Vinci. He was so brilliant and so inventive, and he did so much scientifically. In high school I got really into Klimt and Egon Schiele. Their artwork tends to be very spiritual. 

Egon Schiele was definitely a tortured man, very disturbed, but he did beautiful art and definitely investigated a lot of the human condition and women (he often painted prostitutes). A lot of Klimt’s work was inspired by life and death. I thought it was really beautiful, even if it was dealing with dark subjects–I was emotionally inspired. I found it healing to see other people do this kind of art, and then found my own way to do it. When you start to grow as an artist, you’re not necessarily copying, but you’re extremely influenced until you find your own sort of thing. People can see that I was inspired by those artists. 

Speaking of emotions and dark subjects, what are your thoughts on art and “stay-at-home” orders?

I just went to the art store to stock up on supplies and thought, there’s plenty to do with this. I don’t really mind that I’m going to be stuck inside. I think for a lot of people they were so immersed and distracted by practically everything, with how fast paced this world is, with how demanding it is, and how instantly gratified we all are. Now we have the chance to go within. I think art is such a healthy thing for people to get into–music, writing, painting–these are all very productive things you can do inside the house.

I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw, so maybe I’ll take an art class during the “stay-at-home” orders.

Absolutely! You can find all kinds of lessons online. There was a time in my early twenties when my foot was run over and injured really horribly. I couldn’t work for three months. I ended up learning the ukulele. If you are forced to be inside, art is probably one of the best things that you can do.

I know you are both a painter and makeup artist. Are you currently doing both?

Well, I moved here from Baltimore almost a year ago, and at the time it felt like makeup was taking over my life. I was super busy and almost full time as a freelancer, which is great because I had been doing work as a makeup artist for almost 15 years. I took a break from that for about 10 months when I moved here to focus on my art and the things I’m passionate about. My first job back as a makeup artist was with Patrick Fore at Taylor Guitars. I was kind of scared, but it was just like riding a bike. I got back in and it’s been a really great supplemental income. I love working with the people and creatives in that field, the photographers and cinematographers. 

What has the San Diego art community been like for you, whether as a makeup artist or painter?

When I first got here people were a little shocked by my art. It seems like abstract is more popular in San Diego (than figurative). I’ve been told my work might do better in L.A., but I have faith that there is a market here. It’s just a matter of finding the right kinds of things to do.

It’s kind of funny–I did a dog portrait for a friend, just because she wanted it for her sister whose dog passed, but since doing that painting I’ve noticed that pet portraits are huge here. I’m beginning to get more well known with my figurative work, but I don’t think people are really used to it yet. There are places in London and Germany where they’re all about it, but I like pushing that boundary.

Have you had a chance to get connected in the local art scene?

Yeah, definitely. When I first got here I realized that art pop-ups are huge, which I wasn’t really prepared for, as far as having prints and things available. At first I was bringing small originals, but a lot of your work can get damaged doing that. Recently I’ve come across the idea of doing embellished prints of my artwork. Those have been selling well at these sort of art pop-ups. 

I also have an art studio at The Studio Door Art Gallery. I love being part of that community. All the artists are amazing. We have a great variety of artists that are all super talented and really sweet, and I like being around them. They’re always inspiring me. 

I’m finding different ways to get immersed, whether it be with prints at pop-ups or local art shows. I’ve recently gotten in with a couple of interior designers as well. There are a lot of different avenues to pursue: gallery shows, art-pop-ups, interior design. I’m just getting in it, doing all of it!

As an artist do you find there is a tension between making art that you love and producing art that pays the bills?

Yeah, I think you just need to be open to all the different opportunities that you might not have come up with. For example, I picked up an idea from another artist to print my art on wood, instead of traditional canvases, and then embellish it, which people really like.

With makeup, that was a random opportunity that I never planned on doing. About 15-years-ago I made friends with a woman that I was spray tanning at a salon. She wanted to become a makeup artist, and I helped her with her portfolio a little bit. She ended up getting into an agency and became really popular doing political photo-shoots. The friend encouraged me to join her, “You’re a really good artist, and it would be easy for you.” she said. At first I said no–I was into theater and things, but I was still more of a tomboy. She eventually took me on some shoots though, and one of the first shoots I did with her was for Vanity Fair, photographing Ted Kennedy. 

There are so many ways you can make art and still make money. You just have to put yourself out there. Let people know what you do. A lot of times artists just hide their stuff, which is what I did as well. 

Why do artists hide their work?

I don’t know, It’s so personal. You know–it’s what comes out of you. Sure, you can copy photos of celebrities and stuff, that will make you a lot of money, but you paint from your inner everything. It’s really difficult early on for most artists to even show their work or know how to put a price on it, let alone sell it. Often you just hoard your artwork for a long time before you feel comfortable showing it. Some artists I know completely destroy their work because it reminds them of something painful. 

What do you want people to take away from your art?

Most of the time people try to run away from sadness and depression, their shadow side, but art is a good way to recognize it–get it out, release it, let it go. If you keep holding on to it, it will fester. I do think I’m going in a bit more positive direction, but I needed art therapy for all those years to kind of figure out my personal issues–everybody has them. Some of my work can be depressing, but you can find beauty in the pain. Some people are drawn to my work; others are really disturbed by it. Maybe they’re not ready to really face that in themselves–it’s uncomfortable. Other people feel really good, you know, “this speaks to me.” Art’s just that way. 

To experience Leah’s art for yourself, check out:

Photography by Patrick Fore Photography
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