Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Leo Kamen

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Leo Kamen

Sculptor, art dealer and author Leo Kamen talks to Open Book about his fascinating trajectory from the streets of Ottawa into a world of art. Kamen, whose gallery has been a destination in Toronto since 1985, shares his remarkable and often nail-biting experiences with readers in his newly released memoir, Rolling the Bones.

Open Book:

You have recently published Rolling the Bones, a lively memoir about your experiences in the art world. What made you want to write this book?

Leo Kamen:

I wrote the book trying to make sense of my life. Over the years many people asked me how I became an art dealer, and each time my response was different. I didn’t grow up with art. I hadn’t studied it in school. I found my way by trusting intuition and chance.

The book was difficult to write. The narrative squirmed and thrashed around for years. I spent a great deal of time trying to pin it down, which is why its central metaphor comes from Emily Dickinson’s poem “Snake.”

OB:

Tell us about the writing process for Rolling the Bones. How did you get started, and where did you do most of your writing?

LK:

I started with stories. Hundreds of them. Most were cut. The ones that survived were either exceptionally vivid, felt like markers or had a compelling need to be told. Over time, a voice emerged that pulled all of the stories together. A narrative arc presented itself. It was odd to discover it so near the time I was completing the book.

Much of the time I wrote in public places. I found the white noise soothing. I have several favourite bars in Toronto. I also used the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas as a writer’s retreat every summer for about a month. Since my stories often took their cue from some aspect of gambling, the Golden Nugget’s cafés, bars and restaurants were the perfect place for me to write.

OB:

What was the biggest challenge you encountered in the writing of your memoir?

LK:

Learning to write was extraordinarily difficult. I was blessed with other good writers who read early drafts and helped me sort through their wonkiness, editors who were thankfully merciless and several kind souls who read the manuscript and weren’t afraid to tell me what they really thought. I had to relinquish so many bad habits and attitudes I am constantly amazed I didn’t need a therapist to get me through the whole process.

OB:

Though you didn't grow up surrounded by art, it has become your livelihood and your means of survival. When did you first feel affected by art?

LK:

A trick question! Was it the black velvet painting of a ballerina and swan that adorned our basement apartment when I was growing up? Maybe it was my accidental and disturbing visit to the Diane Arbus exhibition at the National Gallery when I was a teenager. Most likely, it was when I was a twenty-year-old instructor at a “free school” in Toronto. One cold February weekend in 1972, all 30 of us, teachers and students alike, went to a farmhouse retreat near Orangeville, Ontario, where we spent the entire weekend nude. One of the students posed for a clay-modeling class. I sat down to work, as naked as the model herself, and discovered a window into a whole new realm. It was a revelation. Hilarious too. A roomful of nubile young bodies, and I was having a spiritual breakthrough!

OB:

Your early years involved in the arts scene were spent in Muskoka and Barrie. How much did living in these communities influence your development as an artist?

LK:

Nobody minced words. I once traded a sculpture for food. The man who bought it ran a highway Food Mart. He placed the sculpture on the top of his TV set back home, where he said he’d look at it most often. A month later he was forced to return it by his angry wife. He rode up to my cabin on his Harley and handed it back. He was near tears. Which is to say, for people like Butch, art was either a pile of shit, or it really mattered. As an artist, I found this to be a compelling reason to keep making it. It was the closest I came to feeling that I had a purpose in the greater scheme of things. And it had nothing to do with being part of the cultural zeitgeist.

OB:

You first opened the Leo Kamen Gallery in 1985. What has changed about the art business since that time?

LK:

I can’t say the marketplace wasn’t a concern — artists were a hungry lot back then. But the marketplace wasn’t as pivotal as it is today. Nor was status. Sure, artists cared about being good and becoming famous, but meaning was still the nut of what we were after. I’m not saying artists today are indifferent to this. It’s just that the approach is more professional now. There is greater order in the chaos. Order was the last thing on my mind as a young artist. I wanted people who bought my work to “really care” about its meaning, which is a pretty chaotic idea if you consider it from a business point of view. Caring is hard to quantify. Meaning is hard to market. That’s why an artist’s reputation has become so important. Most people today still don’t know how to look at art, and they have little time to learn how. But if you give them easily digestible reasons to believe in the product, they will. A clever dealer has to be good at marketing.

OB:

Is the Leo Kamen Gallery known for a particular style of art? How do you select the artwork that you show in your gallery?

LK:

People say the gallery has a look. I may be too close to see it. I’ve always had an eye for artwork that combines beauty with intelligence. Beauty tantalizes. It draws you into its knowing, hungry heart. Intelligence ensures that the work has staying power. It keeps you alert to the artwork’s metaphor, which ideally deepens with prolonged viewing. If the work relies too much on beauty it runs the risk of being easily forgotten. If it is too intellectual, the meaning dries out too soon. Work that is overly intellectual is only interested in itself. You might say the same is true for work that is only beautiful. The viewer has to be reached on both levels. Otherwise they move back into the world untouched.

OB:

Do you find the creative process for writing to be much different from your creative process for sculpting? Do the two practices inform one another, or do prefer to think of them as separate endeavours?

LK:

A rock is unforgiving. It is heartless. One false move and you’re screwed. You have to work carefully. By comparison, writing is such freedom! You put something down, change it or throw it out entirely and begin again. The computer makes this even easier. Eventually, you are blessed with an editor. I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. In sculpting, the dynamic is reversed. Rock punishes you for not paying attention every millimetre of the way.

OB:

You title Rolling the Bones with a gambling metaphor, and the cover even displays a set of dice. Will you tell us a bit about the role of gambling in this book and in your life?

LK:

The dice are real bone dice. They’re Roman, pre-Christian. “Rolling the bones” is a craps term for throwing dice at the table. As I was writing the book I realized that I’d “rolled my bones” many times in my life. I had a habit of taking chances, sometimes calculated, other times based on gut feeling. I was wrong often enough, but when I was right, things moved forward dramatically. As they say in the financial world, I had a high tolerance for risk. I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to balance my yearning with my fear. As a sculptor I did this every time I put chisel to stone. As an art dealer I do this every time I take on a new artist. We all make decisions. Many determine the course of our lives. Knowing how to roll with the outcome is just as important as knowing that another opportunity waits just around the corner. Sounds like the writing process, doesn’t it!

OB:

If you were to encounter yourself at 16 again, would there be a particular artist's work that you could show yourself to give a hint about how important art would be to you in the future?

LK:

When I was 16, I went to the National Gallery in Ottawa for only one reason: to eat French Fries in the cafeteria on the eighth floor. They were the best in the world! I thought the art was bizarre. You couldn’t have shown me anything at the time to change my mind. My interest in art only came later, when I had my hands-on experience at the age of 20. This event was truly a long shot. At the craps table, the equivalent would have been rolling snake eyes (the number 2), with the house odds being 35 to 1. But these sorts of things happen much more often than we realize. Rodin changed my world. His work was so knuckle-gnawing physical. I could have stared at The Thinker’s hands for hours and never grown weary.

These days I’m a lot less worshipful of artists, though my knuckles were back in my mouth last year, when I saw photographs of the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Tate Modern. The work was beautiful. It was brilliant. And it was so wildly improbably, so original, words escaped me. I wanted to crawl inside it, which is how Rodin’s work had affected me some 40 years earlier. I guess this means I must add “wildly improbable” to my list of what makes a good work of art.


Leo Kamen was born in 1951 in Ottawa, son of a Russian mother and a Latvian father, both post-war refugees. In the early 1970s, he left University of Toronto midstream to focus on writing and sculpture, settling in a log cabin two hours north of Toronto. By a twist of fate, he discovered a boarded-up schoolhouse in the nearby town of Craighurst that was once the studio of Emanuel Hahn and Elizabeth Wyn Wood, two of Canada’s great sculptors. He lived there for three years — sculpting, taking photographs, and putting up shows for local artists — before moving back to Toronto to start a family. In 1982, he became manager of the Tatay Gallery. In 1985 he opened the Leo Kamen Gallery at 80 Spadina Avenue, where he has remained for 25 years.

In 2000 he began to focus on writing; Rolling the Bones, his first book, was published in September 2010. A novel, The Ten Ways of Craps, is in first draft. For more information about Rolling the Bones please visit the www.leokamenauthor.com.

Rolling the Bones can be purchased from the Leo Kamen Gallery or by phoning (416) 504-9515. It is also available at Ben McNally Books and Book City in Toronto. An e-book edition is available in .mobi and in e-pub for $12, and can be ordered through the website or at the gallery. Both editions can be ordered through Amazon.ca.

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