Leather Life: The Surprising Art of Leslie J. Anderson

Artist and bootblack Leslie J. Anderson stands in front of “Forever Leather,” a work of art that was created using boot and shoe polish. Anderson is wearing one of her limited-edition T-shirts. Photo by Steve Lenius.

Artist and bootblack Leslie J. Anderson stands in front of “Forever Leather,” a work of art that was created using boot and shoe polish. Anderson is wearing one of her limited-edition T-shirts. Photo by Steve Lenius.

Leslie J. Anderson is a classically trained artist. She also is a bootblack who has been involved in the leather community for over 25 years. She has combined these two passions into what is perhaps an artistic first: using a surprising art medium, boot and shoe polish, to create dazzling works of art.

I caught up with Anderson during her recent “Naked Leather” exhibit in the Guest Artist Gallery at the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago, where she was selling and signing prints and limited-edition T-shirts featuring some of her artworks.

Anderson’s artistic credentials, all from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, include a BA in history and art, a BFA in photography and printmaking and a master’s degree in education and art therapy. Her art training led to work in museums planning and preparing exhibits.

She began her bootblacking activities at an early age when she started shining her mother’s shoes. Later, in the early 1990s, Anderson honed her bootblacking skills with the help of a mentor she found when she started attending New Mexico’s leather bars. In 1999 she had the honor of becoming the first International Ms Bootblack. Today she describes herself in her artist’s statement as an “artist, activist, educator, and master bootblack.”

As far as Anderson knows, no one has ever before created art using shoe or boot polish, but it seems like a natural medium for her. Many examples of her art are inspired by leather sex: illustrations of leather jackets and boots and of people in various bondage situations, for which boot polish seems a very appropriate art medium. But Anderson also uses shoe and boot polish for non-leather-related art, including expressive and soulful drawings of turtles, lions, dogs, elephants, gorillas, and other wildlife.

In her artist’s statement, Anderson says she feels the combination of her love of both bootblacking and art “creates the perfect storm. By interacting directly with the polish on various surfaces, it becomes a playful medium that allows her to create images in the same manner as bootblacking. Dirty and tactile.”

Anderson’s art ranges from small sketches to large pieces. She is a fast and prolific artist who works on as many as three pieces at a time, arranging them in her hallway and adding to them as she passes.

While photographs or other reproductions of Anderson’s art are amazing, seeing the original artworks themselves reveals deeper levels of meaning and artistic significance. Looking at an original piece of Anderson’s art, you can see varying levels of sheen imparted by the polish, depending on how Anderson has applied it. You can even faintly smell the polish, which adds a new level of sensory stimulation to the art-viewing experience.

Anderson’s knowledge of both art and leather also have combined to make her an expert leather preservation and conservation specialist. She often works as a volunteer at the Leather Archives & Museum, caring for leathers in their collection. Many of these leathers belonged to members of the leather community who are no longer alive, but Anderson says she still feels their presence in and through the leathers. “It’s intense!”

At the end of this summer, Anderson told me she will be exhibiting her wildlife art in Denver. She also said her future plans include creating some art pieces for next year’s CLAW (Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend) as a fundraiser for the Leather Archives & Museum.

Anderson sums up her art by saying, “Who knew shoe polish could do so much? It’s amazing!”

See more examples of Anderson’s art or buy limited-edition T-shirts and art prints at www.instagram.com/thebootblackdaddy.

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