An Interview with Leonid Osseny

"Self Portrait" by Leonid Osseny

Leonid Osseny is an architect, designer, teacher, and the latest artist to be featured in our ongoing exhibition series Local Art @ EPL.  His show  – titled 36 Views of Ulysses – is currently on display on the 2nd floor of EPL’s Main Branch and insightfully interprets scenes from James Joyce’s landmark novel with a stunningly original collection of inventive graphic works.  You can catch 36 Views of Ulysses through April 5th and also learn more about Mr. Osseny’s work at the website for his Lincoln Terrace Art Studio and Gallery.  What’s more, you can meet Mr. Osseny in person and hear him speak about 36 Views of Ulysses when he visits EPL’s 1st Floor Community Meeting Room on Tuesday, March 29th at 6:30 p.m.  In anticipation of his visit, we recently spoke with him via email about his artistic beginnings in Belarus, his experiences at the 2004 International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin, and his future plans as an artist and writer.

Evanston Public Library:  Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist?  How did you get started in art?  Was there something in your life that sparked a need to create?  What drove you to create in the beginning?  What drives you now?

Leonid Osseny:  I started my formal study of art at the Ural College of Applied Arts in 1963 and later at the Belarusian State Theater and Art Institute in Minsk in 1972.  I was fortunate I started in art during Khrushchev’s “Thaw” which allowed for more artistic freedoms and a brief lifting of the stylistic strictures imposed on all officially taught art.

My field of study at the Art Institute was design and architecture, but it also extended to the study of art history, painting, and composition.  After graduating in 1977 I worked as an architect and restorer at the Belarusian Institute of Conservation.  The projects included restoration of historical monuments, among them Radziwill castle in Township Mir, the Folk Art Museum in Vetka, and Minsk’s Troetskae Predmest’e (The Trinity Suburb).

In 1991, I moved to Chicago with my family where I continued to work as an architect, designer and also continued to paint.  A major source of inspiration is the architecture of Chicago.  I have completed numerous paintings and drawings of the city at different times and in different styles.  I have also composed several “visual” poems dedicated to the city.

L. Bloom and Stephen P 649

In the last several years, in addition to illustrations for James Joyce’s Ulysses, I have worked on decorations and stage designs for plays put on by Boston’s Basement on the Hill Theater.  I also teach art at my studio and am proud to say some of my students have become excellent artists in their own right.

EPL:  How do you describe your art?  Do you see yourself as fitting in with any specific artistic movements or styles?  Do you work in other mediums in addition to the graphic works you created for “36 Views of Ulysses?”

LO:  When I am painting or drawing I work instinctively – then I step back and think, “How did I do that?”  I am familiar with many artistic styles.  From my architectural background, I’ve worked from Gothic to Constructivism and in my art, most of the traditional styles.  Using computers to draw became an important tool – old ideas viewed through the prism of a new language.  Of course, I still work with traditional media, but not as much.        

EPL:  What is it about James Joyce’s Ulysses that so inspires you as a reader and as an artist?  You stated that while studying the notoriously difficult novel you began “to draw, to explicate on paper elusive Joycean characters” and that “from drawing to drawing [you] advanced [your] knowledge of the masterpiece.”  Could you further discuss this creative process of discovery?  Do you often explore literature through art and find artistic inspiration in literature?

LO:  I often look for inspiration in literary masterpieces.  So, when I found the “Book” – Ulysses by James Joyce – it was immediately very different from all my previous artistic experiences.

My vision of Ulysses and my graphical works have been formed by the compositional school of Sergei Eisenstein, who made use of the device of “Inner Monologue” to convey his ideas.  Having studied works of Eisenstein in movies, art and architecture, I obtained the necessary background to begin working on illustrations for the novel.

EPL:  In 2004 you exhibited your work at the 19th International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin.  Can you tell us more about your experience?  How was your art received, and what was it like walking the same Dublin streets that Joyce immortalized in Ulysses?

LO:  Once while reading a literary calendar I came across an unfamiliar word: Bloomsday.  It turned out it refers to Ulysses’ main character Leopold Bloom, and it’s celebrated every year by the world literary community on June 16.  Here began my dream to one day celebrate Bloomsday in Dublin.  It seemed so simple – just purchase a ticket and fly to the Centennial celebration that year.  But, I wanted to celebrate in my own way – with an art exhibit!

Leonid Osseny in Dublin, 2004

At this time I started to study the novel, and to better navigate the labyrinth of events, I began to sketch the scenes and characters.  Like a rock climber, step by step I moved from chapter to chapter, and from drawing to drawing advanced my knowledge of this masterpiece.

When I got to Dublin, it was very important for me to see the James Joyce Tower in Sandycove because it was a mysterious object while I was reading the book.  The top of the tower – where “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” emerges for his  morning shave – still commands a panoramic view of Dublin Bay while the round room below appears as it did during Joyce’s short , but significant, stay there in 1904.  At the tower, there is now also a famous James Joyce Museum.  Letters, documents, personal possessions and portraits of the writer are on display as well as first editions of his books and items associated with the Dublin of Ulysses.  The 19th International James Joyce Symposium at The National College of Ireland in Dublin gave me a chance to discover Ireland, the beautiful Emerald Island.

EPL:  Do you have plans to develop “36 Views of Ulysses” further?  What other future plans do you have as an artist, designer, and poet?

LO:  James Joyce is not only Ulysses.  I hope to “wrap” my mind around Finnegans Wake and to start doing illustrations for the novel.  I always work on new oil paintings.  But first, I want to finish organizing some of my writings which I started in 1986 and titled “Flowers of Chernobyl.”  I am also finishing my research on the “Mausoleum of Lenin” in Moscow, a monument I try to study in its historical context and as a work of architecture.

EPL:  How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist?  What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live?

LO:  Evanston, for me, is like a little Paris with its cafes, antique book shops, art galleries, and Northwestern University of course.  The Noyes Cultural Art Center became my first organized artistic experience in the United States.  I started to attend figurative art classes, and there I met Misha Livchultz, Richard Halstead, Michael Montenegro, Bert Menco and Judith Ross who became my friends.  I attended the Noyes Art Center from 1991 to 1994, and there I participated in my first group show. 

My other connection to Evanston is that two of the principles from Frye Gillan Molinaro Architects Ltd. in Chicago live in Evanston.  The firm is one of the more important architectural companies in the Midwest when it comes to building libraries.  I spent 5 years at the company creating models and renderings for presentation.  Among more than 50 projects during my time there were Northbrook Public Library, Niles Public Library and Gurnee Public Library.  Architect John Gillan is an Irishman who was the first to tell me about Ireland, and I believe, he still lives in Evanston.  His descriptions helped me a lot to understand the people of Ireland.  Architect Michael Molinaro is also a resident of Evanston.  Both called me Leonardo – like da Vinci – when they liked my work.

Interview by Russell J.

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