The Magical World of Ron Leax

Ron Leax in studio. Photos by Danielle Leventhal.

Posted by Danielle Leventhal, Student Life December 7, 2015

 

This story originally appeared in Washington University's Student Life on December 2, 2015

On the top floor of the City Museum sits a studio bursting with natural light, scattered with contraptions built using test tubes, tongs, metal clamps, misshapen organs, and twisted, preserved organisms like rabbit fetuses. Tables of colored ink, paint brushes, and newspapers cover the floor space, drawers overflowing with hardware, shelves filled with large, framed prints as well as a comprehensive library of science glossaries and artists' catalogues covering the walls. This magical, taxonomic collection is all part of professor Ron Leax's art studio.

Leax is embarking on his 30th and final year as a teacher of 3D studio and sculpture in the Sam Fox School. The trait that has set him apart over the years is his generosity—Leax has always granted his students with a boundless wealth of knowledge and unremitting guidance. Each semester, freshmen walk out of his 3D class with a sophisticated understanding of studio practices, materials, concepts, and systems in art; Leax provides a tool kit of the fundamental devices to not only be a successful art student, but also a curious observer.

While his toolkit is chock-full of knowledge, he also gifts pigments, microscopes, snakeskins, and other uncommon subjects of his own scientific sculptures. He gives these awards selectively when he sees a spark in a student's insight, as a token to encourage him or her to keep going. While not everyone walks away with a rabbit fetus in a mason jar, all of Leax's students are invited to visit his studio at the end of each semester. One peek into this space serves as inspiration enough to take one's own art seriously—he has accomplished so much, producing work nonstop for almost 50 years now, and with such a persistent style and fervor.

"1968 is when I figured out I was an artist," Leax said confidently. He had been studying architecture at Brown University and felt limited by the idea of a client and the rigidity of the training program. He discovered some abstract pieces to the building process, and the fact that "form has power." From then on, Leax never looked back—he dove into the painting curriculum, and later recognized his need to build sculptures with just as much passion.

One of his art professors at Brown still serves as an inspiration to Leax's teaching philosophy. "His sensibility overwhelmed me," Leax remembered. "I did figure out what I wanted to do, and I didn't know if I was good at it, but he kind of put his arm around me and gave me permission to just keep doing it. I was doing all these really, really bad Jackson Pollock-like paintings," he laughs, "but he was not going to interfere with my passion." Leax is just as generous with encouragement as his old professor, influencing anyone and everyone to follow their gut instincts.

You might wonder: How does Leax have time to be such an incredible teacher and keep up a healthy art practice?

"Being a teacher and being an artist hasn't been a binomial thing for me," he says. "It's always been very comfortable." On a typical day, Leax wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and goes to his studio to get some solitary work done before heading to Washington University to teach a full 3D class of 20 freshmen. He reads two newspapers a day and listens to NPR while he works. "I resent phone calls," he said. "I don't like interruptions. You have to make demands of your work and yourself. You have to set up a situation, a place where that can happen; these are those magic moments. I'm a romantic, but you're building a place with your materials and ideas to ask some questions and to hopefully have some insight."

He has also served as associate dean, dean, and director of the graduate program during his time at the Sam Fox School since he started teaching in the fall of 1986.

Leax's interest in science and building has always been a thread through his artwork that stemmed from his upbringing in a carpentry construction family. His parents were supportive of his plan to study architecture as a natural progression from the everyday work he did in the fields at home, and he was of the first generation in his family to go to college. He's always had an aptitude for analytical thinking, and when he was in the sixth grade, Sputnik launched and changed his school's curriculum. "Sputnik completely freaked the Americans out," Leax said. "We had this national hysteria that we have to educate in the math and sciences…so I was put in the X-group—for accelerated," he chuckled.

Leax's studies in biology, chemistry, physics, meteorology, oceanography, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus (all before he got out of high school) certainly still affect his artwork, as he uses these systems for cross-inspiration in both his sculptures and prints. "There is a certain reassurance for me from the empirical world," he explained. "There are things you can grab a hold of…and the rest of life, of course, is a complete mess. So I just find that really helpful to navigate through the mess."

That is not to say, however, that Leax addresses his and others' artwork with this gravity all the time. He believes that we make art simply because it's the way we understand the world. He is able to see the big picture, and keeps an open mind to all artists' investigations, which is what makes him such an effective teacher. "Art makes a lot of people happy," he explained. "There is a huge role in art that is about decoration and elaboration as well as inquiry and invention—whether you want to get incredibly conceptual or incredibly narrative, there is a huge role for the artist, but that becomes pretty narcissistic if you're not engaged with an audience and your culture."

There is not enough time in the world for an academic and hardworking artist like Leax to complete everything he wants to make before the end of one day, let alone in 50 years of working rigorously. But he has never relinquished his ambitions. When Leax first started in this studio in St. Louis, he would keep a timesheet and punch in and out with a goal of 40 hours a week. "I very rarely made it, but it was a device that kept me focused," he said. "That's what I wanted to do; I couldn't conceive of not working in studio." He may have an impressive studio space now, but Leax pointed out that he would do anything to find a place to work as a student—his kitchen table, storage units, walk-in closet, you name it, and he's utilized the space to assemble sculptures.

But next fall will be Leax's final semester as a professor before he retires and moves to Maine with his wife to work full-time in his house and studio there. He believes that while his studio production is growing stronger, his sense of time is growing further apart from his students nowadays. He feels out of date compared to the generation he is teaching, and that his students' life experiences and how they process information is displaced from his systems of thinking. "I am not done in my sense of time, my sense of inquiry and object making or image making," he said. "Generations go really fast these days, but you have to act and be formed in the time…When you're in a conversation with a student, there has to be pertinence to what you're saying to them." Leax clearly values his ability to be the most impactful he can be as a teacher, and time is one aspect of the job that cannot possibly be maintained in a kindred relationship with his students forever.

Following his retirement, Leax is also set up to work in Paris for one semester in a studio owned by the Sam Fox School called the Cité Internationale des Arts. The building holds more than 300 studios for artists from around the world. It will be a big transition from the City Museum, as it is a bare, 500-square-foot room with two chairs, a table for dinner, a little alcove for a bed, a hotplate, and a shower. "If you push your nose up against the window and look west you can see the Eiffel Tower," Leax said. The professor doesn't need more than a modest space to be over the moon about the potential to produce more work for a semester straight, but the WashU community will certainly be missing his magical talent and teaching.