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Artist Ashleigh Sumner

Ashleigh Sumner (b.1979) is a contemporary painter living and working out of East Oakland, CA. Sumner received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre from Western Carolina University before moving west to Los Angeles in 2003 and then north to Oakland, California in 2017. Sumner’s early artistic career is firmly rooted in theatre arts with professional credits in stage, independent queer film, and network television. Her years of experience as a performer provided a natural evolution of translating elements of text into the visual medium of painting.

Recent solo exhibitions include Touch The Sky (2024) with Themes + Projects Gallery located within the Minnesota Street Project of San Francisco.

Public installations include a collaboration with 2K Foundations and NBA athlete, Damian Lillard. The project included the complete refurbishment of the basketball court and gymnasium of the historic Boys and Girls Club of Oakland. Sumner designed and installed two, 12ft x 24ft mixed media, murals applied directly to the basketball court floor. Additional collaborations with 2K Foundations include permanent installations for the Gameheads organization of Oakland; an organization dedicated to teaching video game design and coding to the underserved youth of the Bay Area.

Publications include the 2023 monograph, Hype Means Nothing. The book a collaboration with photographer and designer, Shaun Roberts.

In 2020, Sumner created a definitive body of work as a visual diary of the Covid-19 pandemic. The collection of paintings was presented as a solo exhibition with the College of Marin titled, "Mortem | Renovamen: The Covid Diaries."

Notable museum exhibitions include the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art's JUSTICE (2020) curated by Karen Jenkins-Johnson. Sumner’s painting, “American Idiot” was awarded Honorable Mention.

Curated exhibitions include "Street Preachers," an exhibition of the premier, female street artists of Los Angeles. The exhibition was mounted with the support of The Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock and was awarded grants from the Los Angeles Arts Commission and the Pasadena Art Alliance.

Additional awards include the winner of the Red Bull Curates competition for Los Angeles. As a result, her work was highlighted in a special exhibition with Scope Miami that year.

Ashleigh Sumner’s work can be found in both public and private collections throughout Europe and the United States.

"The foundation of my collaged paintings are scavenged from the discarded materials of urban life. I’m particularly drawn to articles with a history and existence of their own. Every repurposed sneaker box housed someone’s fresh, new pair of kicks. Each street poster is evidence of a collective experience or communal memory. These fragments of paper are a study of the cultural remains we leave behind. Once these materials are collected from the outside world, they are torn apart, deconstructed, and transformed into multilayered collages imprinted with the DNA of the landscape they were harvested from. My process is about breaking down, ripping apart, painting over, washing away, and rebuilding a material (and its meaning) into something new. It’s a physical cycle that echoes my blue-collar roots yet allows for both an honest investigation of myself and the intemperate society we live in. At first glance, my paintings may appear as if they are worn down and disintegrating. From a different perspective, a new visual appears on the verge of breaking through. Ruin or rebirth. This is an overarching theme in my work symbolic of the precipice our society currently stands at politically and socially. It’s the exploration of this definitive moment that keeps me pushing forward in my work. The paintings of Mark Bradford, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mary Weatherford are influences in my practice. Inspiration is also drawn from the authoritative language and politically charged paintings of Barbara Kruger. However, the greatest driver of my work originates with the stage. A background in theatre arts is responsible for my affinity toward the written word. Years as a performer provided a natural evolution of translating elements of text into the visual medium of painting. The foundational cornerstone to my practice is the narrative. Words have power. This understanding motivates the subtle, and not so subtle, messaging consistently printed within my work that explores issues of gender inequity, class, culture, and ideology. Ultimately, my practice is an abstract interpretation of our diverse ways of being in the world and our shared humanity. Or lack thereof."

Tell us a little about yourself (where you are from) and your background in the arts.

I'm originally from North Carolina but after receiving my BA in Theatre Arts from Western Carolina University, I moved to Los Angeles at the age of 23. For past 6 years, I have lived in Oakland, CA with my wife. My formal training in the arts is with theatre (acting). Before pursuing visual arts, I worked in film, television and theatre as a SAG performer for many years.

So much of my background and experience with acting techniques are applied in my studio practice. I find those techniques help me remain connected to a work, stay flexible within the exploration of a piece and (most importantly) to stay "moment to moment" with a painting. I'm naturally impatient so remaining "moment to moment" with a work, especially my very layered collage pieces, is imperative. It allows me to stay connected and respond to how a work is naturally evolving even if that evolution is not what I initially expected.

What kind of work are you currently making?

I'm preparing for a solo exhibition, Touch The Sky, with Themes + Projects Gallery located with San Francisco's Minnesota Street Project. In Touch The Sky, I’ve repurposed street posters, luxury brand shopping bags, and Nike shoe boxes into multi- layered collages. This new body of work is an abstract exploration into our relationship with corporate branding. I’m curious how these companies drive cultural discourse, establish economic hierarchy, and influence our personal identities through consumption.

My generation grew up during the height of Air Jordan and to this day, I am still hypnotized by the Nike representation of self-mastery, champions, and transcendentalism. It’s universally accepted that Dior and Gucci are more than designer brands. They are symbols of luxury and economic upward mobility. Wealth. With one purchase, powered by the omni-presence of corporate advertising, we can rise to a better version of ourselves. Buy it and touch the sky.

No artist understood the American relationship to commercial advertising better than Andy Warhol. With Campbell Soup Cans and Coke Bottles, Warhol critiqued an expanding consumer-driven society in a mid-century America. His work created a provoking dialogue on the societal effects of mass media advertising (television) coupled with industrialized-consumerism and identity.

Today, we live in the era of social media, endless scrolling advertisements, a widening economic gap, and an amplified identification to extreme wealth. Like Warhol, I’m exploring the influence of our modern consumer-culture. By deconstructing posters, boxes and shopping bags, these branded materials are transformed and elevated into multi-layered, collage paintings. Each piece is imprinted with the brand’s DNA.

What is a day like in the studio for you?

Coffee. Then, I start out the day with a morning jog with wife. Any administrative work is completed in the morning at my home. I don't work on administrative work in my studio. The studio space is reserved for creating work. I usually arrive in the studio around 1 -2pm and immediately have another cup of coffee. I take in the space over coffee, while looking at the piece(s) that I'm working on. I usually spend a good 30 minutes just looking, connecting to the work and getting settled into the studio space.

After that, I put on music. I always work to music. It's an integral part of my process as an actor or visual artist. I feel like music informs the vibe or energy of piece. Most of my solo show this summer was created to Beyonce's new album, Cowboy Carter. I find music can open my mind, help me find rhythms within the work, drop out of my head and into my body and just really help me connect to a piece, help me find my way in.

I usually work for about 5-6 hours, especially in the long days of summer and then call it a night. Go home. Walk the dog. Enjoy the rest of the evening.

What are you looking at right now and/or reading?

I'm currently looking at my cat sleeping on a chair. I'm reading "Demon Copperhead" by Barbara Kingsolver and re reading, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

Where can we find more of your work? (ex. website/insta/gallery/upcoming shows)

Upcoming solo exhibition with Themes + Projects Gallery within the Minnesota Street Project of San Francisco,CA

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