The interview below with Mr. Franco was conducted approximately one year ago.
At 8am Leo Franco and I meet for breakfast at the D & J Berkley Cafe on Tennyson just north of 38th Avenue. The morning is clear and cool.
May I ask you your age?
I'm 21, but life has been rough... I'm 55.
How long have you lived in Denver?
I was born in Detroit. My family was introduced to Colorado through my brother-in-law. He had served in Viet Nam and afterwards was stationed at Fort Carson, outside Colorado Springs. My mother decided to relocate the family to the Springs. We left Detroit in 1973, when I was in the 8th grade. Moving to the Springs was the beginning of my art career.
In Junior High School, in 7th grade, I had a terrific art teacher, Ms. Oiler. She was the catalyst for me. She created a classroom with great freedom (this was the 70s...). It was kind of an open studio. Our class met formally once a week however the room was always available to work. If another class was in session I could work in the back of the room. After school I could always go to the classroom to wok on things. Mostly I was painting in oils, and mostly I was making "pretty pictures".
While in Junior High I asked my mother to enroll me at the Bemis School of the Arts. This was connected to the Fine Arts Center in the Springs. At Bemis I also had great instructors. I was introduced to Cubism. We would work from the figure, and we would work outside. One teacher very important to me (I can't recall her name...). She always pushed me to create art that moved beyond basic realism. I was encouraged to use line and color in expressive ways. We did interesting exercises, like being asked to draw with our eyes closed. I really remember that one.
So you were on your way...
Not really... High School was a lost time. Also, throughout my growing up years music was an important part of my life. My parents loved Classical music. I played Classical guitar, and I had an aspiration to compose. It was suggested to me that I attend the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff to study music composition.
So at that school you studied music?
It was complicated. I studied music; but you know, I really wasn't all that good. Plus, I had stage-fright. I wanted to major in art. My teachers wanted me to start from the beginning. They wanted me to do all of this rudimentary stuff, and I wouldn't do it. I thought I knew a lot already (and I did). In my Junior year at college I hit my stride. I painted (mostly watercolor) and did collage. Media I could afford.
What artists did you admire?
Matisse. His continuous line drawings and his cut-outs with colored paper and fabric.
Also, the simplicity and elegance of Japanese art
When did you embrace sculpture?
My painting became more and more three-dimensional. I was doing collages on 300# watercolor paper. Then I was layering stretched canvases, and creating uniquely shaped canvases.
And so, sculpture?
You know, my father built models for General Motors. Full scale models of cars made from clay. He was extremely precise in his work. He had a unique set of tools that he accumulated over his working life. He always had this smell of clay... My father died young [we think from an illness related to the malaria he contracted as a soldier in the Pacific Theatre]. I have his tools, and it is something... I can smell the clay on his tools to this day. Anyway, it is in my DNA, this affinity for sculpture that found its way outward through my hands.
It's funny, I flunked wood shop in high school. I really was not inclined toward welding. When I first began working in wood I gravitated to the softwoods; pine, poplar, etc. However I wanted more variety, more color and texture. So I explored the exotic hardwoods. I eschewed stains. I wanted to reveal the essence of the wood.
Was it hard to let go of painting?
No. Sculpture is just one more step on the ladder.
How would you describe your work? How does it present itself visually?
This is an art of construction. Maybe I will sit down at a table collected with materials: woods of various shapes, and wire and metal pieces; and something will catch my eye. I arrange objects. All of the elements are arranged in a simple and pleasing way. Kant referred to art-making as a kind of "free-play". That resonates with me. I love the simple aesthetic.
I do not carve. I think carving leads to a kind of realism. I like to use machines, and I like clean and modern lines.
My work is small. I like the greatness of little things. Sculptors work large; and Leo being Leo - being ornery and contrary - I work smaller. Though I do think about making larger work...
Plato talked about Forms, about fundamental essences. We are always chasing something, seeking to reveal these essences and relationships. A work of art is done, and we're on to the next, always seeking...
Do you have any expectations of the viewer?
No expectations. I hope people get something from the work, something lovely. As artists, we are a positive force in this crazy world. There is such destruction in the world. Our duty is to create.