Shining a Light on the Forgotten: the Evocative Work of Leigh Bongiorno
Leigh Bongiorno creates work that allows the invisible members of society to be seen. From the homeless of Los Angeles and Miami to a transgender couple she met on a city street to Cleveland’s poor, it is the people she encounters every day who inspire her to produce art that elevates and bears permanent witness to their marginalized lives.
“I look for subjects who have an authentic story to tell,” Leigh says. “They are real, they are human, and I want the people who experience my work to recognize their humanity and feel empathy for them.”
Leigh believes that art needs to reflect society and inspire dialogue about our lives today. “As a white woman, I have enjoyed certain privileges in my life,” she shares. “You start to realize after talking to other people that they don’t share your life experience. In fact, they’re right next to you, living a different life entirely.”
An important aspect of Leigh’s work is researching her subjects to ensure they are portrayed sensitively and accurately. When creating pieces highlighting the deaf community for the Rapid Transit Authority’s Inter Urban Art Project, she conducted extensive research in order to understand what it means to live as a deaf person. The same holds particularly true for her latest piece, “American Portrait,” which represents the lives and innocence lost in America’s tragic era of mass shootings. Each emblem worn by the subject and many other details in the piece were meticulously researched and painstakingly crafted to represent the incalculable devastation caused by the most deadly shootings in our nation’s history.
A highly trained medical illustrator, Leigh also relies on her extraordinary talent for painting with surgical precision to achieve a near-photographic depiction of her subject. Her method of layering paints, alternating lights and darks to mimic the complex contours of the human face, and her recent move toward painting life-sized figures, are part of her effort to honor the humanity of her subjects. “I don’t like to paint small,” Leigh explains. “Making my portraits larger makes the subjects feel more real and more relatable.”
Leigh’s art is also shaped by her ability to connect with her subjects in ways that are both personal and meaningful. Like most of those she’s painted, the inspiration for her highly recognized piece, “King James,” was a stranger who became a friend. He has since passed away, but Leigh stays in contact with his family via social media, as she does with the transgender couple who inspired her to create her piece, “Love.”
Reflecting on the art that Leigh sees in major galleries and at art shows across the nation, she feels too much of it is created to reflect beauty, not truth. “It doesn’t matter how good something looks if it doesn’t speak the truth,” Leigh says.
“A teacher once told me that a good work of art is something you walk away from and keep thinking about. I hope one day my work is in museums, inspiring future generations to remember―and truly think about―the forgotten among us.”