The home as artistic masterpiece: A visit to the uniquely enchanting residence of Santa Cruz artist Michael Leeds

Inside Michael Leeds' downtown Santa Cruz home.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In his 75 years, he’s excelled as an airbrush artist, a sculptor, a graphic designer, in interior design and architecture. But this story is about what might be Michael Leeds’ greatest work of art: his home in a historic space called the Enterprise Iron Works building in downtown Santa Cruz, overlooking Squid Row near the Santa Cruz Art Center.

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As an artist, Michael Leeds is just not going to stand still for your simplistic categorization. He is no one thing — he is many things.

You want to talk stained glass? We could go on all night about his work in that arena. Santa Cruz old-timers might remember the gorgeous glass at the Morrow’s candy shop in the pre-quake Cooper House. Yep, that was Leeds.

His catalog of work as an airbrush artist is nothing less than stunning. He’s worked in metal sculpture. He’s a talented graphic designer. He’s accomplished in interior design and architecture. And he’s probably best known for his often spectacular work in the supremely badass realm of motorcycle art, creating wild and fascinating visions that oddly evoke the past and the future all in the familiar form of the motorbike.

But this story is not about any of that, or maybe it’s about all of it. This story is about what might be Leeds’ greatest work of art: his home.

At 75, Michael Leeds is inarguably among Santa Cruz’s greatest living artists, and he’s feeling his creative self again after a long period of physical pain. Almost as well-known in town as Leeds himself is his home. He lives in a historic space called the Enterprise Iron Works building in downtown Santa Cruz, overlooking Squid Row near the Santa Cruz Art Center. The building is a Victorian-era former foundry, which was already close to 100 years old when Leeds bought the place and moved in in 1980.

At the time, Leeds worked in the restoration of Victorian homes and buildings. He was also among the leading edge of artisans and craftspeople who transformed the character of Santa Cruz in the 1960s after the arrival of the UC campus. The Iron Works building was the site of the design and manufacturing of much of the metal work that went into Santa Cruz’s iconic Cooper House.

The magnificent old building adjacent to Squid Row known as the Enterprise Iron Works building.
Artist Michael Leeds has, for years, famously occupied the magnificent old building adjacent to Squid Row known as the Enterprise Iron Works building.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Outside the building on the corner of Squid Row and Chestnut Street stands an old, weathered commercial sign featuring a frog in tails and tuxedo above the greeting, “Howdy Folks.” It’s from a now-closed grocery store, headquartered in Bakersfield, called the Green Frog Market. Leeds found it in what he called a “sign graveyard” at a local landfill.

The Green Frog sign is the one of the only indications to passersby of the kind of eclectic Americana you might encounter inside the old Iron Works building. Indeed, the building is not a public place, but a private home.

Leeds leads me around the corner of the building into a dark side entrance, inside of which stands an enormous clay pot created by his brother, Bonny Doon potter Mattie Leeds. From there, steep and winding staircases run throughout the house, up and down levels in a creaky, mazelike path.

There is no one dominant artistic style or set of motifs in the house. It contains art from Asia, Africa, Europe, with several nods to Americana as well.

Leeds stands before a bas relief of what could be St. John the Baptist, except that around his neck is an ancient Egyptian ankh inside of which is the Star of David. “That’s an artifact I inherited from Max Walden,” says Leeds, in reference to the man who converted the former county courthouse into the Cooper House.

Artist Michael Leeds
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

These days, Leeds is emerging from something of a personal crisis and turning point in his life. He was traveling in various spots around the world, mostly during the COVID period. But he was also suffering from a bone spur that had been growing on his spine from an injury 50 years ago. “It inflamed my whole spinal column,” he says, sunlight illuminating a Russian Orthodox stained-glass image of Christ behind him, “and it really throttled my bandwidth in terms of my cognitive abilities, and when anything emotional or important or complex or creative came up, I would develop this pressure in my head that was just not bearable.”

After years of struggling with this condition and its consequences, and with his options diminishing — “Everything had turned to 24/7 agony,” he says. “I was going to take my own life.” — surgeons at UC San Francisco discovered the bone spur and removed it. Now, finally pain-free, he’s feeling “energized,” and that the gradual diminishment of his cognitive skills over the course of several years is now beginning to reverse itself. “Every day is another little blip up,” he says, after showing me a scar on the back of his neck.

Inside Michael Leeds' home on Squid Row
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The eclecticism of the house’s design is dazzling, but there is a thread that runs throughout. And it reflects the artist’s abiding interest in everything fin de siècle, that is, the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His home’s interior architecture reflects the Victorian tendency for ornate “rabbit-warren” design, from twisting staircases to the tiny lofts known as “princess balconies.”

The ups and downs of the various levels of the house suggest cabins in a ship, and there are places where the only conveyance from one level to the next is a swimming pool ladder. A beautifully appointed kitchen gives way to a darkly handsome library with several hundred books, many of which are themselves artifacts from a time gone by, and a compelling reveal of our host’s many intellectual and artistic interests. “All killer, no filler,” says Leeds, moving on to the next room.

There are bedroom chambers in narrow spaces like something out of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” bathrooms that evoke the Titanic’s maiden voyage, and several outdoor spaces, decks and urban gardens with views looking grandly down on the downtown neighborhood.

Inside Michael Leeds' Squid Row home.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The house’s showcase room is large enough to host the occasional house concert with a small, invite-only guest list. Over there is an enormous ceiling light that came from an operating room in Great Britain a century ago. Across the room is a gigantic glass column filled with bubbling water that looks like it came from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, inside of which floats a few stray dollar bills. “That’s my tip jar,” says Leeds.

Michael Leeds in silhouette
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In a way, almost everyone’s home is a kind of three-dimensional representation of their personality and creative interests. That’s what homes are for. But it takes a house of this character to reflect the personality of a figure like Michael Leeds. Touring the home is much like visiting the artist’s psyche.

With the new lease on life that his recent surgery has given him, Leeds is looking forward to new adventures in creativity. But he’s hesitant to make concrete plans. “I have this thing, this passion thing” he says, referring to his new energy post-surgery, “the valve is cracked wide open and I’m all caught up in it.”

Leeds has an extraordinary body of work, eccentric to the degree of uniqueness — quick, how many “motorcycle artists” can you name? He’s looking to gather his work for a big retrospective show, applying for such an opportunity in Los Angeles for 2023.

“I’m kind of looking at that as some kind of motivational fuel,” he says, “to have something to work towards. The prize for me is the time I get to spend to be that conduit for creativity. The accolades and so forth are wonderful, but there’s a limit to my appetite for that. But there is a fulfillment moment — a big fulfillment moment — when you’ve brought everything up to a presentation level and to meet the world. I want to arrive at that moment.”

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