In Studio: Matthew Leavell

At the vibrant Tyson's Corner Center, an innovative initiative blends art with local culture to create immersive visual experiences in public spaces for visitors and locals alike.

At the heart of this endeavor is Matthew Leavell, the sculptor behind the captivating piece, "Synergy," set to grace the outdoor landscape of Tyson's Corner Center this summer as a hub for photos and gathering. Leavell's creations, marked by whimsy and meticulous craftsmanship, breathe life into discarded materials, offering profound reflections on resilience and renewal.

With "Synergy," Leavell invites viewers to ponder the harmonious convergence of diverse elements, mirroring the rich tapestry of human experience. This endeavor, born from countless hours of labor and unwavering dedication, stands not merely as a sculpture, but as a testament to the boundless potential of collaboration.

Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a professional artist?

I began my professional art career in a dilapidated airplane hangar in Wilmington, NC. I had operated a handful of trade related small businesses previously in a frustrated attempt to create an economically sustainable creative career, before dropping the pragmatic trappings and committing to a life as a professional artist. 

I was an intensely creative human raised in an intensely pragmatic atmosphere, and much of my personal and professional development was a process of letting go of self perceptions and worldviews that limited me. 

The early years were spent traveling the country from art show to exhibit to gallery opening and then back to my studio to obsessively create. Those years were unbelievably rewarding and unbelievably challenging as well. 

That life was adventurous, audacious, and ultimately unsustainable. I established a studio in the quaint bayside village of Mobjack, VA in 2016, before settling in Lititz, PA in 2021, where I now live and create.

Tell us about your work.

My creations are more often than not defined by their whimsical and fantastical nature as much as by their scale and craftsmanship. While striving to pursue creative and technical excellence in my chosen craft, I am careful to maintain an ever present emphasis on not taking myself or my art too seriously. 

Angst is well represented and expressed in the modern art world. I choose to mine the depths of whimsy and joy in this work, and to create enduring reminders to myself and others of those elements in our shared human existence which are beautiful, joyful, and life-giving.

My work is often created using recycled, salvaged, and upcycled raw materials which bring their own unique history and character to a sculpture. I see an abandoned or discarded piece of rusted steel as a literal representation of a broken life, an abandoned dream, or a damaged relationship. Salvaging such materials and through inspiration, creativity, and persistence creating an entirely new and beautiful work of art, is not only a personally fulfilling process, but one that stands as an analogy of the nature of life in general.



Tell us about your process.

I am neurodivergent in significant ways, as are many creative people. My creative process as well as my professional life have been tailored to accommodate and access my own flow state. I invest heavily in my studio, to the point that the structure itself is evolving into a work of art in its own right. 

While I’ve read dozens of books on human optimization and the creative process (I am quite fond of Steven Pressfield’s non-fiction offerings as well as those by David Bayes and Ted Orland), I’ve discovered that I myself work best by adapting my workflow and work environment to my own inherent nature. My studio features many workstations so that multiple projects can be ongoing at any given time. I have done some of my best work during moments where I walk across the room to grind something at 10am and realize at 4pm that I’ve lost myself in another project altogether. I struggled with that propensity for years; read books, tried therapy and medication, then decided to regard my “disorders” as the superpowers that they are. 

I create obsessively and endlessly, but in a very fluid and occasionally non-strategic manner. I have staff and a support system that allows me to remain cognizant of deadlines, my physical limitations, and the laws of physics, but only in the loosest of manners.

When you are looking for inspiration, what resources do you turn to?

The question of what inspires is omnipresent in interviews and conversations as an artist, and my answer usually begins with the word “everything”.  Emotional states, memories, music, color, joy, grief, nature, longing, relationships, form, sexuality, literature, spirituality… it is all fuel that flows into this magnificent entity that is each of us, and creativity is the product. 

All that we are and have experienced colors our perceptions of all that we will be and experience. To identify a single source of inspiration is to fundamentally misunderstand the unbelievably complex and interconnected nature of inspiration.


Finding the right rhythm to be productive can be a challenge, what advice do you have for staying productive and focused?

I have built a studio space, career, and life that facilitates making “ADD work for me”. My studio is laid out in such a way that a multitude of creative endeavors are ongoing at any given time, providing me with multiple on-ramps to creatively rich experiences and states of mind. I structure my professional life in such a way that creative freedom is paramount, and continually refine the details of my marketing, communication, and contracting to further increase my own creative freedom. 

I’ve long since abandoned the objective of confining my activities to those that are deemed important by some manner of internal logical process, and surrendered to a life of chasing flow. Therein lies the magic and the splendor. Fear is usually that which impedes this process, courage and surrendering to what is, seems at this point to be that which catalyzes it. 

Productivity has seldom been a problem for me, though staying on task when there is little life or creative juice left in the task has been my Achilles Heel. Rather than adapting myself to work in an uninspired state, I continually refine my workflow to prioritize those tasks which provide their own inspiration. There are often creative ways to delegate or automate much of what remains.

What is your advice for combating creative block?

A creative block is the experience of departing or one’s own personal state of creative flow. It is not the act of disciplining oneself to work outside of flow that addresses this frustrating experience, in my opinion, but finding personally viable ways to return to it. I follow joy, inspiration, and energy back  to the flow. 

When feeling blocked, I will literally wander through my studio in search of a project or task in which I am genuinely interested, at that very moment. The space itself is constantly evolving as a functional work of art for this reason. Oftentimes this means starting my work sessions by engaging with a minor creative project that is certainly not the most pressing task at hand, but rather the most presently interesting. I might take an hour or two to fabricate a custom rack, hook, or shelf for a very specific tool that I would like to be mounted in a very specific location, in an aesthetic manner that pleases me, and then ride the resulting flow state into the project or projects that are pressing for some reason. 

A creative professional is indeed different from a laborer or craftsman in my opinion and experience. What we offer to the world is the product of our creativity expressed through our labor. Labor devoid of creativity is worth little as an artist. We progress and grow as creative professionals by refining our ability to return to and maintain a state of creative flow, not by developing our ability to work outside of it. 


As an artist, how do you measure your success? Can you recall a specific event or milestone(s) in your career that made you feel successful?

I measure success by the degree that I feel at peace with where I am in life. Feeling successful is a state of mind, accessible at any season in an artist’s career, should the artist choose to focus on what has been accomplished rather than what remains to be. 

Some of my most intense and splendid moments came much earlier in my career when I was much less established. I have so many wonderful memories of throwing caution to the wind and chasing my creative dreams with reckless abandon, experiencing magic moments that could not be encountered in any other manner. I once left my Wilmington, NC art studio with thousands of pounds of artwork strapped to an old trailer being pulled by an even older truck with my wife and young son inside. We were headed to a sculpture exhibition hundreds of miles away and literally did not have the funds to even pay for lodging, let alone the return trip. 

I received a phone call while driving from a client who had met me years prior and just happened to choose that specific moment to reach out to purchase another piece of art. She happened to live 30 minutes away from the event I was traveling to, and wanted to buy a piece that I had with me and could not easily be shipped. I met her in a parking lot, sold her a sculpture that she genuinely wanted, then turned to see another woman who had happened to park beside us asking me if she could buy the other sculpture I had taken out to show my client. 

I left that parking lot with more than enough money to pay the show’s entry fee, a hotel for the weekend, and all that my family needed to thrive while there. At that moment, I felt successful. I wasn’t rich or even financially secure. I wasn’t famous. I was exhausted, ignorant of so many things, and nearly broke, but I was authentically and genuinely me, courageous as I knew how to be at the moment, and this magnificent world we inhabit provided all that I needed when I needed it. Success is not what you have, or have accomplished, it is how you choose to perceive both.

What advice do you have for artists who are beginning to build their careers?

The reservoir of practical or technical advice I might offer after a decade of struggle is nearly endless, but the gist of it all is this: pursue authenticity in an informed manner. 

Whether the topic being discussed is medium, design, pricing, display, marketing, or salesmanship, strive to understand the relevant data, educate yourself on what others have done and why, but be authentically you. 

Learn from others but don’t emulate them. Your life and career are your greatest works of art, and truly wonderful art is wonderfully unique. 


Do you consider yourself, and all artists, to be entrepreneurs? Why or why not?

Perhaps. The inverse is likely also true in a broader sense, in that entrepreneurship is a fundamentally creative act that engages many of the same personal and emotional barriers that artists confront. Especially when working with steel on a large scale, the sculptor’s ability to access funding and resources so directly impacts the creative process, that it should rightly be regarded as fully part of the creative act. 

Our lives and careers as professional artists are our greatest and most honest works of art. The creativity with which we manipulate our chosen media flows from the same internal reservoir that fuels our efforts to fund, support, and market our work. The idea that pure art can only be created independent of capitalistic influences is misguided in my opinion. 

Pure art is made in whatever environment an artist finds themselves in, and I happen to reside in a society that is obviously obsessed with consumerism and wealth. I don’t do this to make money, but I do need to make money in order to do this. I want to build large-scale artwork in a medium where the material, equipment, and workspaces needed are all quite expensive, while residing in a society that will never value that act as highly or intensely as myself. 

Failure is an inevitable part of success in any field. Do you have advice for overcoming setbacks? 

I experience setbacks and failures in a non-dualistic manner, or at least genuinely intend to do so. Failure is such a vital part of growth and expansion that in my experience, one cannot be separated from the other. 

Genuine depth, growth, and peace seem to come more from heart-rending failure and loss than from soaring achievement. The challenge is to recall that reality while immersed in the fear, anger, and grief that failure often brings. I don’t regard failure as something to be overcome, but genuinely embraced as the necessary element of growth and life that it is. Every natural process of growth is inextricably intertwined with a process of decay. 

What sparked your interest in partnering with TurningArt? Has your experience with TurningArt differed from other art companies you have worked with? 

I encountered TurningArt via an email from Art Advisor Devon Franz seeking options for an exhibition in my region. What followed was an extended collaborative process in which we developed multiple options for the client, revised them based on feedback from both the client and TurningArt staff, and ultimately developed a solution that was beneficial to all parties involved. 

The level of flexibility, engagement, and collaboration I have experienced thus far with TurningArt far exceeds anything I have encountered with similar organizations in the past.

What does having your artwork in public spaces mean to you? 

Artwork is a form of communication and expression, among other things. The pieces I create are the physical products of my own journey and essence; a window into my inner world. Having my own artwork exhibited in public spaces is the experience of being seen, witnessed, heard. 

In doing so, there exists the opportunity to influence and impact the lives and journeys of other human beings, which facilitates myriad interactions and connections. The process and experience of making things and placing them in a public setting is the language in which I communicate most fluently and genuinely. 

What aspect of the Tyson project's goals and objectives resonated most with you as an artist? 

The primary motivation behind my participation in this project was the sheer volume of beautiful humans that are attracted to all that Tyson’s Corner Center offers. The Center draws over 16 million visitors annually to its many attractions, and the opportunity to exhibit my work in front of such a large audience in such a beautiful venue was quite compelling.

What inspired the specific elements in your sculpture?  

Beyond the philosophic inspirations discussed above, the basic conceptual premise of the piece began as the words "Pollock in 3D" scrawled across the idea board in my Mobjack, VA studio. 

The intent was to sculpt a fluid subject matter in a durable 3D medium. I studied the photographic work of Swiss artist Fabian Oefner and others as a means of visualizing the properties of fluid moving through space. 

My capacity to realistically render fluid in steel developed significantly as the piece progressed, in such a way that the inspiration for elements fabricated later in the creation of the sculpture were my own previous experiences with the same piece. 

Can you discuss any unique challenges or opportunities presented through creating or displaying this piece? 

Synergy is a directly fabricated steel sculpture; it is not a cast piece. The method of construction can best be described as a fusion of sculpting cold steel and modeling using molten steel as a medium. 

The project represents hundreds of hours shaping, welding, grinding, and sanding heavy steel components. The piece has been reworked twice; in 2019 and 2023. The finish currently is comprised of 11 layers of Imron 3.5 Urethane paint. The primary challenge with this piece was the insanely labor intensive manner in which it was created.

What do you hope visitors will take away from experiencing your piece during their visit to Tyson’s?

The overarching theme of Synergy is the synergistic potential inherent in a society that genuinely celebrates diversity among its populace. Diversity is the cornerstone of our American society; one forged from a disparate array of cultures and individual values

Though red blends with yellow in the sculpture to create orange, neither primary color is diminished in any way by the fusion. There is room for all in our world and society, if we can just resist the voices telling us otherwise.



To see more featured TurningArtists, return to our blog. To get Matthew Leavell's art in your space, set up a free consultation with an Art Advisor here! 

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