Brehm Experience: What is the initial driving force behind your call to create a work of art? Is it a word, an image, a conversation, a scripture? Perhaps you could write about a particular piece and the initial inspiration for it.
Jason Leith: One of the big words in my life is “restore,” as I consistently see myself driven to restore the things around me. It could be as small as a broken table leg, or as significant as a broken person—this propensity flows into my artistic practice. My initial driving force in a lot of my work involves things in which I see future potential or a possibility of renewing. For Sacred Streets, I was constantly finding junk from Skid Row that I wanted to see restored and I would take it back to the studio to use as a starting point for the portraits of the people I met there. I saw so much potential in the future of people I met on those streets and got to share that potential I saw in them during our converstation, as wells as in the artwork. Sacred Streets was so exciting for me because it embodied both the restoration of things and people.
BE: What was it that called out to you to create Sacred Streets? Why do it in the way that you did it? What motivated you to respond in that way? Why was a sacred space built with a particular structure and “icons” throughout the appropriate response in your opinion?
JL: There were actually a few callings wrapped up in my decision to create Sacred Streets. I have always been drawn those who are ignored in society and desired to engage where others are afraid to. The homeless are definitely part of that demographic. Within this calling, I’m excited by the idea of specifically engaging through my passion of making art. I’ve long pursed the idea of holistically combining social work and artistic practice, and this just another shot at it.
The reason I responded in this specific way is because I saw two things lacking on Skid Row: I saw a lack of beauty and a lack of personal connection. Plenty of practical resources were freely given on a daily basis, but not much beauty. I thought, what if these two needs could be tackled in the same action? What if the art could be a vehicle toward personal connection?
I didn’t just want to make portraits of people by quickly taking pictures of them or finding images on the internet; I wanted to engage and connect with them on a personal level. And so I engaged through the slower process of hand-drawing their portrait while I asked about their life story. In the end, I didn’t want to just stick the art in a white-walled gallery, because this artwork was made to be a gift and a message of hope to the homeless community. The portraits needed to be prominently placed in their streets, so they could freely access it.
The reason I built a sacred space for the gallery and pictured these men and women within the constructs of icons was rooted in a desire to physically express the visions of restoration the apostle John recorded in Revelation. I wanted the idea of “making all things new” to restore the degraded self-perception of the homeless and the closed perspective of more fortunate passers-by. To me, “all things” has no bounds and reaches even to the darkest corners of Skid Row along with all the people who inhabit it.
BE: How are you called now to minister to artists? How do you define this? Why is this important to you?
JL: I see right now that I am called to minister to artists by empowering them to use their creative gifts to serve. Many artists are frozen in a conception that making art and loving others must be different actions fulfilled on different days. I want to help artists see that art and ministry can be fulfilled in one single action and that the combination could actually lift each practice to a higher level.
I get instill ideas like this this every day directing Ex Creatis, at Saddleback Church, an arts initiative that is all about empowering artists to serve through their creative gifts. This is important to me because I often see that in efforts to combine art and service, the art comes out sub-par or the service would’ve been done better without the extra tac-on. This can change. The art can be excellent and the work done through the art, also excellent. It’s not always an easy task creating this kind of holistic relationship, but I love the challenge.
Jason Leith lives to restore the culture through creativity. He is the director of Ex Creatis, a community-focused arts program at Saddleback Church, and continues to propel the vision of Sacred Streets, an initiative to bring beauty and dignity to at-risk communities through artistic engagement.