By Emma Castleberry
It’s arguable that Leo Monahan’s entire life and career were defined by a single suggestion. Monahan served in the Navy during the Korean War. While on leave in Long Beach, CA, he met motion picture designer Louis B. DeWitt. They became friends and, when Monahan was discharged in 1953, DeWitt suggested he should use the GI Bill to attend Chouinard Art Institute. “His suggestion changed my life,” says Monahan.
One semester into his time at Chouinard, Monahan was awarded the Walt Disney Honor Scholarship. During his last year at the Institute, he was a student teacher for the Bauhaus design and color course. After he graduated in 1958, he completed his first paper sculpture: an advertisement for Liberty Records featuring a man in a truck. This project started a long-term working relationship for the artist. “My partners and I were suddenly in the record business,” he says. “I was essentially a graphic designer. In the next five years we designed approximately 1,200 record covers.” Some of those featured paper sculptures, but most did not.
Meanwhile, Monahan did occasional paper sculptures for other advertising agencies and built a reputation for himself as a paper sculpture illustrator in Los Angeles, then nationally and internationally. He has received Life Time Achievement awards from the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles and, just last year, the Disney-funded art school, California Institute of the Arts. His pieces can be found in numerous private collections, as well as the Smithsonian Institution.
Monahan’s work is detail-oriented and his primary tool is an X-acto knife. A resident of Barnardsville, the artist says his home reminds him of his youth in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is one of the main inspirations for his work. Monahan is currently represented by the Grovewood Gallery and he will also be the central feature of the NC Arboretum’s summer exhibition, Compositions of Color: Paper Art by Leo Monahan, on display through September 2. “Paper sculpture as an art medium has endless possibilities and working in paper is inspiring in itself,” he says. “My ideas have continued to evolve and in the Arboretum show I combine the guitar and iconic songs and performers as well as my other works as a contrast in direction.”
Clara Curtis, senior director for mission delivery at the Arboretum, says that the creative combination of themes is one of the primary draws for Monahan’s work. “Leo’s work has an organic and textural quality that embodies all the colors of the natural world,” she says. “His artistry with paper and paint makes the inanimate media of paper come to life. Leo’s manipulation of paper is truly unique.”