“Worlds Within Worlds”

Archaeology and the Art of Leonardo Drew

Leonardo Drew spoke on October 27, 2016 as the Prentice Distinguished Lecturer. 
 Last semester, artist Leonardo Drew visited Colby to deliver the Miles and Katharine Culbertson Prentice Distinguished Lecture. He charmed the audience of students, faculty, and community members with stories of his early career and shared insights gained over decades of practice. But Drew’s talk resonated with Kyra Webb ’17 for a different reason—its connections with archaeology. A classics major and aspiring archaeologist, Webb associates Drew’s use of weathered and decaying materials and his incorporation of past works into new with her own experiences in the classroom.

Leonardo Drew addressing the Colby community in Given Auditorium. Photograph by Jackson Hall.

Last semester, I was fortunate to see visual artist Leonardo Drew deliver the annual Prentice Lecture. Drew spoke not only retrospectively about his art and his development as an artist, but also about his fascinating creative process in which he submits what he calls “brand-new stuff” to weathering and decaying processes in his studio. An object might be soaked in water for months, metallic materials oxidized, all in order to alter the condition and/or appearance of the material. This “brand-new stuff” is then put together to create one of Drew’s three-dimensional works.

As an aspiring archaeologist, I am drawn to this procedure of deliberate destruction, which presents such a stark contrast to my own desire to uncover and, more importantly, to preserve the past for the enjoyment of future generations. Drew’s art reflects the beauty of ruin and decay. His work holds a temporal aspect, exemplified through its sense of impermanence and delicacy. His pieces are numbered, not named (he lovingly refers to them as his “monstrosities”), and organized chronologically, allowing viewers to catch a glimpse of his personal artistic journey.

Left: Body fragment of Attic red-figured krater, 5th century BCE. Painted pottery. British Museum, 1934,1105.5; Right: Tondo sherd of Attic black-figured pottery, 510-500 BCE. Painted and incised pottery. British Museum, 1886,0401.1161


For me that sense of temporality is reminiscent of the production of ancient ceramic materials and the ways in which technological advances allowed for new artistic forms. Materials recovered by archaeologists have been damaged by the passage of time, but the study of these objects still offers valuable information about the past. Archaeologists use typology charts created by ceramic specialists to assign theoretical date ranges to objects based on the evolution of pottery over time. A fragment is given a date range that places its creation between that of an earlier object and that of a later object, defining it in relation to other objects. I am particularly enamored by Athenian pottery from the Archaic Period to the Classical Period, during which ceramic wares become more refined and elaborately decorated as new technologies and techniques developed.

Leonardo Drew, Number 8, 1988. Animal carcasses, animal hides, feathers, paint, paper, rope, and wood, 108 x 120 x 4 inches. Photograph by Frank Stewart. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

“You have to lose things to gain things,” Drew says of his process of finding his artistic voice.
In a similar fashion, Drew’s titles portray his own unique artistic journey as he experiments with new media and forms. The names of his “monstrosities” create a conversation and a temporal relationship between his pieces. The artist will often deconstruct his past works to begin anew, utilizing components of former works to create a fresh work. “You have to lose things to gain things,” Drew says of his process of finding his artistic voice. One of his most influential monstrosities, Number 8, which he calls “The Mother Piece,” was created in 1988 as he contemplated the fine line between what could be considered art, what could not, and how far to push the boundaries. Number 8 is what became of 1 through 7, he says, adding, “Materials have a life, but they also regenerate.” He later explains that destroying one piece to create a new work adds a layer of life and strength to the materials. Would his art be where it is today if he had not dismantled 1 through 7? Through destruction, Drew’s artistic voice and work experience a sort of mythical rebirth from the ashes.

Drew’s work is indeed thought-provoking. Through his destruction, creation, repurposing, and reuse of materials he is able to create “worlds within worlds,” languages through art, and rhythms that allow viewers to perceive his experiences. His lecture took me into his world of art, allowing me to understand his unique materials and processes. Drew invited me to think differently about the ancient objects and ruins that I study each day, to see them in a new context of beauty and decay.