Michael Leavitt (artist)
A shoe made in cardboard by American visual artist Michael Leavitt, part of his "Corrugated Kix" series.
|Born||Michael Gipson Leavitt
November 4, 1977
Seattle, WA, U.S.
|Alma mater||The Evergreen State College|
|Known for||sculpture, painting, installation art, art toys, kitsch, puppetry, stop-motion animation|
|Movement||Conceptual art, Pop art, Interactive art, Urban art, Low brow|
Mike Leavitt (born November 4, 1977) is a visual artist based near Seattle, Washington responsible for a variety of pop art, fine art, design and satirical works in various media. With his HiPop Project under the name Intuition Kitchen Productions Leavitt "blends art, design and social commentary". Most well known are his "Art Army" series of handmade action figures depicting visual artists, musicians, and entertainers. Leavitt's sculptures are one of a kind one-off's though some of his design projects are prototypes reproduced in limited quantity. Leavitt exhibits with Jonathan LeVine in New York, NY.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Leavitt was influenced by the wood-craft and engineering of Native American, Scandinavian, and industrial craft in the region. His parents practiced education, graphic design and environmentalism, formulating Leavitt's early interests in both art and sociology. As a child he taught himself to build miniature hydroplanes in balsa wood. "My mom had some drawing skills, she started as a graphic designer at Boeing," Leavitt says, "I would have her draw my action figures, and I would watch her draw." He attended The Pratt Institute in New York in 1996-97, and completed a self-designed Bachelor of Arts at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA in 2001. "Leavitt began crafting a motley variety of apartment friendly, popcult-themed art after dropping out of Pratt to avoid working for whoever passes for 'The Man' in the art world." (Thrillist.com) From 1998 to 2004 Leavitt executed a series of conceptual art pieces like "Push Button Performer" (2001–2004) with cabaret-style audience confrontations in public. In the same period Leavitt's studio became known as The Intuition Kitchen ArtShop in Seattle, evolving as a self-produced gallery space. His 'ArtShop' sold his trading cards and first hand-made action figures. It closed in 2004 as Leavitt showed his work in retail galleries. Since then Leavitt has continued non-commercial side projects, political activity and community activism.
1999-2008 "Portable Homeless Shelters"
Three small, wheeled housing units were built for Seattle-area tent cities. The first two units, made from salvaged pallet wood, served these tent cities for 3 years, beginning at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. "As the homeless faced the threat of street sweeps during WTO, Leavitt's creations were used as a 'honeymoon sweet' (sic) for one couple, and as a headquarters for the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE). Log cabins for the homeless? It is an odd invention indeed. But it may also be a solutions of sorts for homelessness in Seattle."(Real Change) A third unit was built in 2001, using vinyl siding scraps salvaged from construction debris. Though designed for domestic dwelling, the units were most often been used for secure storage and nighttime security posts in the Tent Cities.
2001-15 Trading Cards
With his "ArtCards" from 2001 to 2003 Leavitt painted small portraits of famous and lesser-known artists, re-printed like traditional baseball trading cards. "I had so many ideas- too many ideas- the opposite of writer's block" says Leavitt, "I started doing trading cards of work I had already done, ideas for things I hadn't built, and famous people... my influences, who inspired me." "ArtCard" subjects were drawn from varied genre, similar to his successive "Art Army" action figures. As described by Leavitt, the trading cards were the direct precursor to the 'action figures': "the trading cards... were like singular figures in action. Why not 3-D? Why not an action figure, a toy?" Printed and sold in limited editions, packaged in wrappers with bubble gum, "Art Cards" were also exhibited as art objects. Leavitt said, "It's a way I created to compare people and what they do across all kinds of different areas." "Many mass-produced trading cards are based on original pieces that are shrunken down to fit the space. 'I take great pride that that is the size I drew them,' Leavitt says. 'It's one of the challenges I like- it's like a game, to create art that small and make it work.'" (The Artist's Magazine)
Seattle-based independent media advocacy group Reclaim the Media collaborated with Leavitt in 2008 to produce a set of "Media Heroes" trading cards. From 2009 to 2015 the Topps Trading Card company hired Leavitt to produce illustrations for their Star Wars sketch cards .
2002-16 Action Figures
Though accurately described as action figures, the "Art Army" series is more commonly considered fine art. "These are art toys with a capital 'A'." (Jason Atomic, PIMP Magazine) Leavitt is "interested mainly in the figure as sculpture, and less as a pure platform." (Dot Dot Dash, Die Gestalten Verlag) The "toy" definition simply describes the figures' engineering. Leavitt says, " 'action figures' are OURS, (they are) particular to the early '80's boom in mainstream toy business that predated the anti-social video game boom' and I like the connotations of the words 'action' and 'figure'- movement and motion, and figurative realism." The polymer clay, wood and mixed media one-off figures range from 6 cm to 1 meter tall. They articulate with elastic cord, moving body parts, and removable accessories.
"More of a good-natured joke than a stern commentary on the commodification of art" (David Stoesz, Seattle Weekly), the biographic series depicts subjects in an array of genres though most often contemporary visual artists. Leavitt "perceives the potential for his figures to act as bridges between pop culture and art history." (Dot Dot Dash, Die Gestalten Verlag) From over 400 one-off figures since 2002, subjects include Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Ai WeiWei, Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Takashi Murakami, Frida Kahlo, Shepard Fairey, David Byrne, Björk and Tupac Shakur. "The tributes to Leavitt's heroes will do nothing more than put a big dopy grin on your face." (Seattle Magazine)
"When it comes to art icons, Michael Leavitt has a deep set of beliefs about who deserves a reserved parking space in the annals of history." (Juxtapoz Magazine) Leavitt has said, "I wanted to pay respect to people's work I love, and give them a little taste of their own medicine" exploring the concept of an artist's body being consumed by their work. The 'enemy' of the "Art Army", "The Man", included Martha Stewart, Britney Spears and the John Tesh, Michael Bolton, Kenny G "3-Headed Monster". "The project is clearly aligned against the forces of imperialism and cultural suckiness, but Leavitt makes his points with a light touch, being too high-spirited and incorrigibly silly to get bogged down in another dreary leftist critique." (David Stoesz, Seattle Weekly) "Leavitt succeeds in art’s most important function — to not only help us recognize and articulate our values, but participate in a dialog that validates them as well. At its best, art connects our best selves with each other, and he has done that... I’m grateful to artists who address the subject of 'What is it about fighting and glorifying fighting and power, anyway?' in a way that gets our minds thinking and lips moving." (Polymer Clay Daily)
With various political action figure projects, Leavitt has collaborated with the toy company FCTRY, authors of their own Obama vinyl action figure. In 2013 FCTRY produced Leavitt's only mass produced "Art Army" action figure portraying the urban artist Banksy. With FCTRY Leavitt also sculpted prototypes for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump action figures in 2015 and 2016.
From late 2006 to 2008, Leavitt completed works depicting Barack Obama. His culminating work was a one-off action figure in the style of "Art Army", depicting Obama in a Keanu Reeves/"Matrix" style robe, with a large wood cross and tentacles made of American stars and stripes. The satire was designed to counter-act negative stereotypes of Obama, a function of timing in the late days of the Presidential campaign. In 2013 Leavitt sculpted a satirical portrait of Donald Trump. The one-off piece extended his "Empire Peaks" series. It depicts the reality TV star and real estate mogul as the Star Wars character Darth Vader.
2006-14 Cardboard Sculpture
"Mike Leavitt is a singularly talented Seattle artist. He makes all kinds of art, from action figures to reproductions of iconic shoes. Mike has lovingly recreated them down to the exact detail. But there is one significant difference. Although you would never know it to look at the photo, these shoes are made with cardboard. Mike Leavitt is the inventor of the cardboard shoe... a bit of a trickster, and certainly curious."(CBC Radio)
"If only there were a way to retain a pristine version of the shoe, and save the planet from excess shoe box waste. Enter Mike Leavitt and his recycled-cardboard kicks."(Paste Magazine) In Leavitt's ongoing series of cardboard shoes and "Hip Hopjects", to-scale editions of cultural ephemera are made with recycled materials. "Though best known for his cardboard sneakers, the rest of artist Mike Leavitt’s work is just as jaw-dropping" (blog.UrbanOutfitters.com). Items such as a "ghetto blaster", baseball hat, and soccer ball have been rendered in actual scale and size with reconstituted cardboard and brown paper bag. "Give him some recycled cardboard, paper bag, along with some glue and acrylic paint, and artist Mike Leavitt could create just about anything" (JoshSpear.com)
The "Corrugated Kix" series of cardboard shoes includes "an abundance of painstakingly detailed classic kick replicas". (Hi Fructose) "Leavitt works his creative magic on a number of classic silhouettes, including the Air Jordan 1, Air Jordan 4, Vans Slip-On, and Converse Chuck Taylor. Michael does an incredible job of recreating the colors and logos of these classics."(NiceKicks.com) The shoes are "to not carry of course, but to admire as an art object." (nu.nl/lifestyle) "By creating cardboard sculptures of some of the most popular models in footwear he is essentially riding the commercial train and exercising his meticulous craft of making these wearable cardboard replicas... the demographic that would buy these may not usually buy a piece of art but they would buy this and call it Art." (Cyanatrendland.com)
Leavitt says, "I might dabble in satire of other essentials in a bad economy: eye glasses, winter coats, food items… but shoes are so intimately linked to our visual culture. They’re a necessity that we still get to have fun buying and wearing. I’ve always believed that fine art, high quality craft, and meaningful objects can be affordable. Galleries, museums and artists can find plenty of room for a different, affordable, more commercially sustainable kind of art-for-art’s-sake… that fits in both the museum and living room." (Seattlemet.com) Leavitt continues, "it's ironic to use a cheap disposable material like cardboard. Cheap, disposable material makes an expensive product, oddly resembling the manufacturing of boutique footwear. The simple image of the cardboard shoe speaks humorously and clearly on consumerism." (Suite101.com)
2006-12 Wedding Cake Toppers
Leavitt is also hired for his small-scale figurative work to make personalized wedding cake toppers that uniquely depict the bride and groom. "(Leavitt's) custom work is just a little bit different than most. He makes action figures, and what is more action packed than a wedding? With a few simple design modifications, Mike turned his action figure style into one of a kind cake toppers." (Handcrafted.com) Showing famous celebrity couples of modern history and same-sex marriage in gallery exhibitions, "the cake toppers are playful with a message... a look at love in the spotlight." (The Desert Sun)
2007-13 "Pitchfork Pals"
In a series entitled "Pitchfork Pals" Leavitt collaborated with the Seattle artist and iconoclast Charles Krafft. Leavitt sculpted busts of controversial icons for the project. Charles Krafft was responsible for producing the pottery by hand. Krafft is a ceramicist known for his non-traditional, kitsch-like objects. Included in the series were figures such as Kim Jong Il and Charles Manson depicted as tea pots and the British nostalgia collectibles known as Toby mugs. "They’re teapots, which is clever if not representative of each character pouring malevolence into the culture that surrounds them."(Jailbreak Collective)
On using the Kim Jong Il tea pot, one humorist conjectured, "when drinking tea from this miserable looking device, you have to avert your eyes and be eternally grateful for such a delicious brew. If you don’t, you might ‘go missing’." (Mof Gimmers)
2013-14 "Empire Peaks"
In 2013 Leavitt created a series of articulated wooden statues lampooning pop culture icons. Leavitt's one-off hand-sculpted wood and clay "mash ups" featured celebrities, politicians, humanitarians and other famous non-fictional personalities crossed with fictional and infamous sci-fi characters. With "Empire Peaks", Leavitt is "juxtaposing the classic archetypal roles found in Yoda, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the rest of the famed cast with pop-culture personas." (Laughing Squid) "By turning well known figures such as Kim Jong Il, Che Guevara, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs into consumer products based on the popular franchise, Leavitt hopes to explore such themes as idol worship, our coveting of mass-produced collectibles and our societies need for heroes, rebels, villains and tyrants." (Trendhunter) According to the Houston Chronicle, Leavitt went "viral with his spaced-out rendition of public figures as Star Wars characters" "'Empire Peaks' is a phenomenal, Star Wars meets pop culture, collection of hand-carved action figures." (Church Mag) "Every single work in the exhibit is a stroke of genius." (Zimbio)
"Like many kids who were raised in the late '70s and early '80s, the characters of Star Wars exist in a place in Leavitt's mind that is usually reserved for real-life figures," says Fast Company Magazine, "It is this mental distinction between beloved fictional characters who feel real and real-life people who feel fictional that Leavitt explores in his latest project, Empire Peaks."
2016 "King Cuts"
Leavitt created a series of wood sculptures devoted to famous film directors in 2016. "Tim Burton, Alfred Hitchcock and George Lucas have all been treated to one of Mike's makeovers, which involves merging stars from behind the silver screen with their most iconic on-screen characters" (Creative Boom) Leavitt carved the 1/4 scale, 18 inch sculptures in wood and finished the carvings with acrylic paint. "King Cuts" furthered the central themes in Leavitt's art of exposing taste-makers behind the scenes, and work consuming a creator's body. "The lives of many great film directors are undoubtedly consumed by their work, intertwined with the stories, characters and settings they seek to convey." Leavitt said, "I’m good at sculpting the likeness of a face, so it gets interesting when it’s a face maybe you wouldn’t recognize off the bat, but you know who it is. You know that person’s work. It’s the face behind the mask, the person behind the camera, the wizard behind the curtain." 
Entertainment Weekly pokes fun at a piece depicting the television and film director Joss Whedon saying, "The sculptor and painter definitely got his hair and beard right, and the real Whedon also has seemingly greenish eyes — though they’re perhaps less demonic than these radioactive emeralds. Is he about to Hulk out or something?" (Entertainment Weekly )
Leavitt's Jeremy Lin sculpture created in 2012 is a source of controversy. Larry Hama, creator of the G.I. Joe action figure series says, "I don’t think this is offensive or anything, but it’s a bit of a stretch for a bad joke that’s just this side of a non-sequiter. And who in their right mind would pay that price for something that misses the mark?" (Animalnewyork.com ). Another critic adds, "While I love the fact that someone was inspired to make a Jeremy Lin action figure... did it really have to look this dopey? There's really no need to ninja-fy him." (Angryasianman.com )
Other critiques attempt to categorize Leavitt's work. "It is difficult to define what exactly Leavitt does. His extreme boredom for 'normal' art has resulted in a number of nonpareil projects displayed around the world." (Suite101.com) "His versatility as almost a modern day renaissance man" causes Leavitt's subject matter to range between politics, anthropology, and modern commerce. "Like the objects that they celebrate, Leavitt’s lightweight replicas sit on the border between culture and commerce." (Wired Magazine) "We've previously seen his ceramic teapots made to resemble notorious murderers and landscapes painted on pennies. Is there a medium that Mike Leavitt won't try?" (Neatorama)
"Leavitt hasn't always worked to solve social problems, though his artwork has always had a social angle. His interest in the individual's relationship with his or her environmental space... has long been the basis for his art."(Real Change) Leavitt says, "The challenge is designing an object that people want, while making it about something they don't want to hear about."
"... there is hope, there are a few braves who can help us try to understand this every day reality, Michael Leavitt is one of those. His ability to create and re-create unique pieces of work has helped modern art to be less chaotic, less elitist, and more affordable for the common people. Leavitt art is extremely fun, action driven, colorful and very dynamic. You feel you are in the game, it’s easy to become part of the experience." (Atrocidades.net)
"Michael Leavitt still keeps the habit of running with his dog and playing basketball everyday- even while working of his solo exhibitions in New York. His work based on well known figures in art and politics is a contrast to his simple personal life." (Obscura Magazine) "Leavitt has a raw talent for capturing prominent artists, musicians and entertainers in their elements and characterizing them into brilliant sculptures." (KidRobot)
"Artist Michael Leavitt continues his assault on the wider art world in the nerdiest way possible... there is no secret to the artist's fervor." (The Huffington Post) "The bravest move in art's to rebel against classical training to follow a low-culture muse- as with Marcel Duchamp's urinal... Turning a bold 'screw it' into sweet art for you, Mike Leavitt" (Thrillist.com)
"The hardest working man in the art world, Leavitt alters the everyday objects among us with his blazing technical skill and wit."(CapativeWildWoman.com) "From my interactions with Mike, I know the artist to have 'the opposite of writer’s block' and to be constantly producing work and improving his craft. Mike Leavitt will probably create something in the time it takes you to read this." (Jeremy Brautman) Leavitt says, "I’m kind of conceptual art, but I’m not that heady."(Port Townsend Leader) "Leavitt is a unique breed of artist. His work and execution (in both concept and finished product) are too impressive and relevant not to be considered on par with some of the most popular contemporary visual artists working today."(Jailbreak Collective)
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