Artist June Leaf, Still Moving Fast At 86 June Leaf sculpts, paints and draws and she's been doing it for most of her 86 years. Now she's got a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
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Artist June Leaf, Still Moving Fast At 86

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Artist June Leaf, Still Moving Fast At 86

Artist June Leaf, Still Moving Fast At 86

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June Leaf's art is dream-like and haunting. The 86-year-old's paintings, drawings and sculptures are currently the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She's married to Robert Frank, who is a renowned photographer. His work has received more attention than has hers. Karen Michel reports that the Whitney exhibit is the museum's way of saying now it's time to pay attention to June Leaf.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: The Whitney exhibition is meant to be funky, less like a sterile gallery show and more like June Leaf's crowded studio in downtown Manhattan, but that's impossible.

JUNE LEAF: I come down, I go tap, and then it begins. Dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dum (ph). Then the work starts to say, OK, now get to work. You do this. You do that.

MICHEL: Leaf's studio is a jumble of work. A metal sculpture of a recumbent woman with wheels is plopped on top of a radiator. Paintings and drawings lean against one another on the floor. The walls are covered with more drawings and paintings, like the overlapping handbills on a construction site barrier. Thin sculptures of hands stick out from anywhere they can take hold.

LEAF: Look, see?

MICHEL: There's so much to see in here. Leaf talks fast and is constantly in motion - more hummingbird that human, tap dancing to show off how well she's healed from her broken hip.

LEAF: That's willpower.

MICHEL: And a determination to get back to work. It's a trait that started when Leaf was in the third grade in Chicago. She'd finished a drawing and ran to show her teacher.

LEAF: I held it, like, in my hands, as though I were holding a light. And I went up to her and said, Ms. Henderson, Mrs. Henderson (ph). And she turned around, and she said, OK, you can go to the bathroom. And I thought, oh, I get it. That's how it is. You see something, and you really see it. And then you must spend your life to get other people to see it, and that's been my story all my life.

MICHEL: Getting noticed, especially in the shadow of her husband, Robert Frank. Writer and photographer Alice Attie first got to know him and later became Leaf's advocate, acting as Leaf's promoter, arranging work around the studio and inviting museum directors and curators to come take a look.

ALICE ATTIE: June's priority is Robert and her work. It's not to enter the art world and to push for recognition, and it's an effort she'd rather don't expend. Women artists of her generation were marginalized. It's still like that.

MICHEL: There's a continual parade of photographers coming to visit Leaf's husband. She doesn't like cameras.

LEAF: But I like the idea of the lens, so I made these glasses.

MICHEL: She's made a bunch of glasses. There's a pair in the Whitney exhibition that have yellow cones in place of lenses.

LEAF: Because I love that idea that you just look at that, right in front of you. It simply lets you focus on something, and therefore you love it because you're focusing on it. You don't have to take a picture. You just have the pleasure of focusing - what's in front of you. But these glasses are so you can look backwards at what's behind you.

MICHEL: June Leaf hands me a pair of glasses with a rearview mirror attached. As an artist, she is always looking back to inform what's ahead. There's a recurring cast of settings and characters in her drawings, paintings and sculptures. Figures astride hobbyhorses and barrels, staircases that just end, robots both human and not, characters up on stilts. What she'd like to do is figure out how to make them move. To do that, she uses the treadles from old sewing machines and the gears from egg beaters - the old, hand-cranked kind.

LEAF: It's the closest I can come. See, the egg beater moves very fast. I just - I have about 2,000 of them here - because, see, that's fast. I reverse it so mine moves slow. See? When the big gear pushes the small gear, it makes it go faster. That's the closest I've come to making things move.

MICHEL: Like those egg beaters, at 86, June Leaf still likes shaking things up. But now, just maybe, it's her time to really get noticed.

LEAF: I'm just now going to be able to do what I wanted to do, OK?

MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.

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