AS FAR as multi-disciplinary artists go, Lang Leav’s first love is books. She makes them, lovingly handcrafting and binding the pages. Inside are a magical array of characters. Large, innocent round faces with rouged lips and eyes that seem to be both dead and dreaming, staring out at you in intricate pastels. The Sydney-based artist makes limited edition handcrafted pieces. Few get their hands on her works. Over the years, her art has garnered a large following. But just how large is only just becoming apparent.
Love And Misadventure, a book of poetry, is her first piece to be made available in mass print, and since it was released in mid-September, her publishers are on their third print run.
“We just did another 50,000 last week,” Leav exclaims during our recent interview.
We got a strict 15 minutes to chat before her meet-the-poet session starts. The crowd’s already gathered, visible from our vantage point at the cafe in the Kinokuniya bookstore at Suria KLCC. Leav, 33, is as pretty in person as she is in her photos: delicate rosy complexion, long lashes and a cute little button nose.
The recipient of the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award and Churchill Fellowship, she was in Malaysia to launch Love And Misadventure. There are four of her signature portraits inside, each with the same dreamy quality, fragile and timeless little creatures that appear to be either too grown up, or suspended in some form of lost innocence. The poems are about love – short, simple, but packing a punch. Each turn of the page is greeted with an expanse of warm white space, and her words, committed in a neat block of Times New Roman.
For someone known best for her visual pieces – including the creation of characters like Akina, the pretty little villain who attacks teddy bears to steal their button eyes – Leav’s written work has proven equally popular. All the art she produces is personal, but not in quite the sustained fashion this book is. The poems (and prose) are separated into three parts – Misadventure, The Circus Of Sorrows and Love – in sequence of events relating to her life. “It’s having my heart broken, and then, that journey to finding love again. That’s why I ended the book on love, because I wanted it to be uplifting, hopeful,” she says.
The book represents a journey over ten years of her life. But it’s not just her journey, as many of the poems were inspired by the experiences of her friends.
“I’ve been drawing some influence from poem requests on social media too. One recurring theme was what it’s like to love someone who is just a friend, which led to the piece Just Friends in the book.”
Leav says she has an excellent memory, especially when it comes to her own poems. Some verses may float around in her head for years before she thinks of an appropriate ending. Others would just come.
The book represents a collection of all these musings, which have never been published before.
Her style is simple. Leav says that’s what she loves about poetry: “The directness, there doesn’t have to be ambiguity.” She thinks, however, that many have become disillusioned with poetry today, because sometimes it’s just too difficult to understand.
“What I really love about poetry is the immediacy of it, you know? You just get it, but it’s clever. Sometimes, it’s really difficult to make something simple, I think it’s a lot easier to make something complex,” she says.
Her biggest inspiration has been Piet Hein, a scientist famous for his short poems, known as gruks, whose work she discovered when she was 27.
“He was a genius, he really believed in simplicity. I like the idea that you can communicate so much with so little.”
As for her own life influences, Leav says she had a pretty happy childhood. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, her family moved to Melbourne, Australia, and then to Sydney when she was five.
“Where I lived was dubbed the drug capital of Australia, and I attended one of the worst schools. But I really enjoyed my time there.”
Her parents sheltered her, and in many ways, she was cushioned from what was going on around her. She’d get lost in books; a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales in it’s original, macabre version, was the root of a lot of her artistic influences, and shaped how she viewed the world.
“It was full of incredibly dark stories about things like children getting murdered and kidnapped.”
Her childhood – stepping over junkies to get to school, and going home to the strictly-parented four walls of her home – seems to explain that signature expression, a mix of wonder and cynicism, found on the faces of so many of her artworks. In her neighbourhood, many kids turned to drugs and crime. Leav says she teetered towards that for a while, hanging out with a bad crowd, getting abysmal grades, until she grew out of it.
“I wanted to make something of my life. I wanted to go to university, and that’s when I started studying.”
Her teachers were so shocked by her test scores that they thought she’d cheated, and she had to take the test again – a humble beginning indeed for an artist who today, has built up a loyal fan base worldwide, and found success in fields as diverse as fashion, art, poetry and books.