Welcome to his world of wonders: Classic Bonny Doon artist Mattie Leeds has kept creative juices flowing
At 71, one of Santa Cruz’s most prominent visual artists for generations has no use for complacency. He even used the extra pandemic isolation to discover the power of Instagram for connecting to other artists.
There’s an urn in Mattie Leeds’s living room and painted on it is a likeness of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This thing is enormous, big enough to fit two or three Ruth Bader Ginsburgs inside it, and it dominates the small space.
Wrapping around the pot, on either side of RBG’s outsized portrait, are a series of quotes from the Justice herself: “I ask for no favor for my sex,” reads one. “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
It’s early July and the Ginsburg pot isn’t finished yet, but Leeds, standing shirtless and covered in clay dust beside it, already has an ultimate place in mind for his creation.
“I’d like to get in the courthouse,” he says, envisioning the scene. “I mean, like right when you walk in the courthouse, there’s this giant pot with RGB on it. Wouldn’t that be super-cool? In Santa Cruz? Y’know, not in Texas, maybe.”
In the world of Santa Cruz visual arts, Mattie Leeds himself is the giant pot dominating the living room. The 71-year-old master ceramicist has been operating continuously for more than half a century, most of that time from his world-of-wonders sculpture garden/workshop/home on Empire Grade in Bonny Doon.
Many weekends, his studio is open to whomever happens to chance by, so it’s no surprise that he’ll again be open for this weekend’s DoonArt Studio Tour in Bonny Doon.
A Leeds pot is a familiar sight around Santa Cruz, many of which have been displayed not only in museums and galleries, but in retail stores as well. (There’s one dominating the front corner of the Sock Shop on Pacific Avenue, to take but one example.) For more than three decades, he even had a prominent relationship with the iconic San Francisco department store Gumps, in which Gumps sold, shipped, and displayed his art to the world.
Leeds loves size; in many cases, his “pots” are more like vats. His large-scale works draw the attention, but he’s created many more human-scale artifacts as well, from vases to bowls to pitchers. And he also loves bold statements. Some of his pots are overtly political, others are ornately illustrated and speak of history, even local history. Some are simply stunning portraits or still lifes, as if the pot were only the canvas for a painting that can stand on its own.
The Empire Grade site where Leeds works and lives is nothing short of bedazzling, a mini ceramics theme park that also operates as a working artist’s studio. Dozens of pots in progress cram the indoor spaces near the gigantic kiln he uses to fire his biggest pots.
Saturday & Sunday in Bonny Doon
This Saturday and Sunday, July 31 and Aug. 1, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. It’s also free. For more information, visit the tour’s Facebook page.
The garden outdoors is both a showcase for Leeds’s finest work and a kind of eye-candy gallery that looks like something out of Lewis Carroll. Dominating the scene is an old vertical neon sign spelling “Chop Suey,” an artifact from a long-defunct restaurant in Watsonville, dating to the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
“They were giving neon signs away,” said Leeds with wonderment. “They took them all down and they were throwing them all away.” (Leeds’s brother, Michael Leeds, is as prominent an artist in Santa Cruz and no less original and eccentric. Michael Leeds has some reclaimed neon signage at his artist’s house-of-mirrors in downtown Santa Cruz).
Under the Chop Suey sign is what Leeds refers to as the Great Wall of Chop Suey, named, according to the artist, not so much for the old neon sign but because, like the famous if old-fashioned Chinese dish, the wall is made of a wild variety of materials, from broken pottery and glass to stones arranged in the wave-like style of another Santa Cruz original stone mason Michael Eckerman. The wall surrounds a wide array of Leeds’s pots, from stoic almost classical designs to brash and loudly political pieces.
Mattie Leeds is a name of which veterans of the Santa Cruz arts scene are deeply familiar. His works have been collected by loyal patrons for decades. But he stresses that he is very much focused on the present. Last year, with the chaos sewn by COVID-19 and with potentially devastating fires threatening what he has built over 40 years, Leeds has had no opportunity to slide into complacency.
The impressive assembly line of works-in-progress testifies to his continuing passion for throwing pots. The traumas of the past year interrupted what could have been a comfortable but predictable period of an artist enjoying late-life success.
Calling himself a “throw-aholic,” he says, “this year has been so interesting. With COVID, all the shows were canceled. It was just me here for an extended period of time. So I got into some new stuff.”
Shortly after the pandemic shutdown, Leeds took a leap into somewhere he had not been before: social media. He discovered Instagram. “I’ve spent my life up here pretty isolated, and I never got to share with artists, my peers.”
The virtual space of Instagram, insofar as it allows artists to show other artists what they’ve up to outside the art market, is, Leeds says, “like Paris was for Picasso. There are people out there still all balls-out and still alive, and connecting with them is so inspiring to see, to know that it’s not in some museum or some book. For me, to make this big connection is huge.”
The DoonArt tour is the first instance of the annual art tour to take place since the CZU fires last August, and the first since 2019 because of the pandemic. It will feature 24 artists in about a dozen sites, throughout the Bonny Doon area.
“There’s going to be sandwich boards up that will direct people where to go,” said Nancy M. Howe, one of the tour’s coordinators. Among the artists featured are Leeds, Howe, glass artist April Zilber, photographer Karen Asherah, ocean landscape painter Tessa Hope Hasty, fine art woodworker Raf Strudley, and many more.