Timothy J. Leeming sees a quiet beauty in alleyways.
Sunlight bounces off corners of garage rooftops. Power lines cast shadows across concrete. Stairwells, trash bins, cars and discarded furniture provide geometric lines, shapes and textures that painters love to work with.
“Alleys are interesting to walk down because they reveal themselves,” Leeming said. “Every 150 yards, it’s like a whole different composition.”
Leeming, 52, is a Cook County assistant public defender and artist known for painting unlikely subjects — from alleys to people caught up in the criminal justice system.
He considers himself a lifelong student of the fine arts — and can’t recall a time he wasn’t passionate about it.
“When I started law school, one of the first things (professors) said is law school is important, but there’s nothing more important than your health,” he said. “If you have a hobby, keep doing it.”
After graduating from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1986, Leeming went to work for the public defender’s office and had a scholarship to a master of fine arts program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
For a while, he was a lawyer during the day and an art student at night, but he didn’t finish because juggling work, school and his personal life became too hard to manage.
He made a commitment, though, to stick with art as a hobby, and he still occasionally takes classes.
He started painting alleys both because of their aesthetic intrigue and the fact that they are more private spaces where he could paint without interruption.
Last winter, he photographed alleys along his commute and near the Leighton Criminal Court Building. Using those shots, he finished a series of 10 paintings in his small studio in the basement of the home he shares with his wife, Cook County Circuit Judge Pamela M. Leeming.
In the warmer months, Leeming does plein air paintings, a process in which an artist paints outdoors in order to capture a space and moment in real time. With lighting constantly changing throughout the day, Leeming can only spend about three hours on a piece. After that, he doesn’t revisit it.
“You don’t touch it, you don’t try to make it better,” he said. “There’s a freshness I like about it.”
Documenting his time
On the weekends, he often paints outdoors with the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, a local art school and artist club that gathers to paint and sculpt and critique each other’s work.
About 15 years ago, a fellow Palette & Chisel artist dared Leeming to capture law-related subjects in his artwork, pushing him to document the times he was living in.
Leeming always found painting landscapes to be a diversion that helped him get away from work, but he accepted the challenge anyway.
In 2000, he spent a year painting and printmaking — a process involving etching on copper — and portraits of defendants and prisoners in a series he called “The Accused.”
The pieces depict people during various stages of the criminal justice process — arrest, booking, interrogation, jail, trial and sentencing.
The faces of his subjects range from wide-eyed juveniles to older, hardened criminals.
“Public defenders would recognize these images because that’s who we work with,” he said.
The backdrops are in institutional colors — gray, white, sea-foam green. Many of the pieces hide the subject’s hands, feet or legs, symbolizing dismemberment, Leeming said, “because that’s how you feel when you’re in the system. You’re not going anywhere.”
Each piece is a meditation on the criminal justice system and is meant to make people feel uncomfortable
One painting shows a beat-up man high on drugs. He has strange tattoos and a jacket emblazoned with the name of a sports team — common wardrobe, he said, among men affiliated with gangs that have adopted those brands and symbols.
In another painting, a suspect in baggy jeans with a troubled look on his face stands squeezed against the corner of interrogation room with an electrical outlet and cord near him. It’s meant to be a reflection on former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who was accused of torturing suspects and generating false confessions throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The most challenging piece for him to create was the final one in the series. The black-and-white print depicts a murder victim — a person lying naked and sideways on the floor in a small pool of blood. A partially open door nearby sheds a sliver of street light onto the floor, illuminating the room and victim.
The painting intends to portray the vulnerability of crime victims, Leeming said.
“I’m not glorifying it. I’m just documenting it. People don’t want to be reminded how terrible it is,” he said. “But that’s my experience working in the criminal courts. It’s actually the experience of everyone working in the criminal courts.”
“The Accused” was exhibited in a show at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2001. Since then, Leeming has loaned pieces to other groups interested in it for a variety of uses — Foundation Youth Services in Ford Heights had a show, and a family friend used some of the pieces as part of a Bible study discussion group.
“They were very striking,” said Stuart D. Fullerton, an assistant U.S. attorney, recalling the series. “Beautiful, very sensitive prints.”
Fullerton, a fellow Palette & Chisel artist, said Leeming paints gritty, urban industrial scenes that are overlooked by others.
“Most of us will chase after the pretty subject,” Fullerton said. “Tim obviously does not do that.”
Mary Qian, a full-time artist who is also a Palette & Chisel member, said Leeming’s style is very “truthful and raw,” and “he never flatters what’s in front of him.”
It’s evident in Leeming’s work, Qian said, that he draws inspiration from Lucian Freud, the 20th-century painter famous for his detailed portraits and figure work.
Qian met Leeming when they were seated next to each other in an art class, and she asked to borrow his eraser. He joked that he would trade her the eraser for an orange she was eating.
They’ve been friends ever since.
“He’s a very casual and humorous person,” she said.
Qian said she was initially surprised to learn that Leeming is an attorney, due to his funny, creative, eccentric personality and great artistic skill. Fullerton, meanwhile, said it’s rare to meet other attorney-artists.
Both said they think of Leeming as an artist first and a lawyer second.
The effort and attention to detail that goes into painting is similar to preparing for a big court case, Leeming said, except that the end result gets to be on display rather than filed away forever.
“It’s obsessive — you ruminate, you meditate. It’s project-based. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end,” he said. “I think it’s kind of the same juice that attorneys work on cases with. But with the artwork, there’s something to show for it.”
Painting has taken Leeming to places around the Midwest and as far away as Alaska. Whenever his family goes on vacation, he carries his oil paints and brushes with him and looks for places to paint.
In 2010, he went on a painting trip to China with Qian and other art club members. The group didn’t do any sightseeing or paint large landscapes. Instead, they focused on daily life in Shanghai and Zhujiajiao, which for Leeming included plenty of “great alleys.”
Leeming looks forward to getting outdoors this summer and possibly taking some painting trips.
He has a friend who is a military doctor stationed in Afghanistan and has been taking pictures of alleys there for him. The photographs will probably become another series.
“There’s subject matter all over,” Leeming said. “You don’t have to find grandiose, picturesque things.”