Oak Park lawyer uses art to reflect criminal justice system

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By Devin Rose

Staff Reporter

In one corner of the basement of Tim Leeming's Oak Park home, a couple of dozen framed faces stare out at observers.

Mostly African Americans, they were created via printing press or in oil paint. Some are straight black and white. Others are touched up with color. Instead of centering their bodies, many are squeezed up against one side of the frame, or their heads are positioned in the middle. "It's almost like a target in an arcade," says Leeming, the artist.

Their expressions show fear, discomfort and surprise. None of them are smiling.

This series, which Leeming created about 10 years ago, is called "The Accused." It attempts to capture the progression of the criminal justice system in Cook County. Leeming painted or sketched men from just after their arrests, through their time awaiting trial, to their convictions.

The goal, he said, was to "develop images that capture the vulnerability of people in the system and their predicament."

Leeming, who has been working as a criminal defense lawyer for about 30 years, first got the idea for the series from a friend in the Chicago art club he belongs to. Artists are supposed to document their times, he said, and the idea arose during a time when urban areas were experiencing high crime rates and an unprecedented number of incarcerations.

Some of the men Leeming has represented, but he's never asked his clients to pose. He used photos already in the newspapers or created the subjects based on people he's seen over the years.

One documents the interrogation phase, with a man standing up against a wall and an electrical cord plugged in next to him. It evokes former Chicago police commander John Burge and his electrocution tactics, Leeming said.

In another etching, a man sits handcuffed in a cell with faces where his legs should be. Leeming said those could be his siblings or others in his life who contributed to how he got to jail. A bunch of the men in Leeming's portraits are missing hands, and one man's top and bottom halves are not connected. The dismemberment is meant to show that "when you're in the system, you're not empowered," he said.

Leeming was struck by the irony of their clothing — Nike sweatshirts and jerseys representing sports teams — because those symbolize power and affluence.

"He's probably never been to Philly in his life," Leeming said of one man with a Phillies jersey on. He decided to draw scratches on the man's visible chest to emphasize the contrast between surface and the reality underneath.

After he felt he had documented all the phases of men in the system, Leeming realized he needed one final image. So he etched a dead body. Though it's not pleasant, he thought it was necessary because it's what led to many of the convictions.

"It's an unhappy collection," he acknowledged, but he's happy with how it turned out even though it makes people uncomfortable. It shows life in the system without glorifying it, Leeming said, which is important during a time when he's noticed a level of complacency about the number of murders committed in Cook County.

"I try to document the human aspect of it," he said. "This is what's really going on."

Reader Comments

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Chris Miller from Forest Park  

Posted: August 28th, 2012 11:04 AM

It may not be that Mr. Leeming is "in need of exhibiting his art", since the reporter has only visited his basement. But I would like to see his paintings in a gallery anyway, while the concerns about victim abuse appear to be at the far-fetched end of hypothetical. Can anyone following this discussion even name a single one of the men he depicted?

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: August 27th, 2012 10:10 AM

To Chris Miller: "Since amateur artists please nobody but themselves," Why would an artist who has pleased himself be in need of exhibiting his art? Especially at the possibility expense of re- injuring the victims? Would portrait paintings of rape victims be "visualizing a dark corner of contemporary urban life" be just as moving? How about portraits of molested children?

Chris Miller from Forest Park  

Posted: August 27th, 2012 9:07 AM

Since amateur artists need please nobody but themselves, sometimes their work can be among the most compelling work of our time. (Henry Darger etc) Tim is not painting for collectors or academics -- he's visualizing a dark corner of contemporary urban life that he knows all too well. Does anybody do it better?


Posted: August 24th, 2012 1:19 PM

Chris, you're mixing up romanticisation between representation and process. The people in Tims paintings look "pathetic"... But the gesture used to paint them ties to a long history of expressionism which creates a sense of emotional sentiment around each subject. Yes, Tim is "technically" a good painter, but he has a ways to go to understand how that language functions, which separates the hobbyist from the professional.

Chris Miller from Forest Park  

Posted: August 24th, 2012 11:11 AM

<a href="http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/n-c-wyeth/jim-long-john-silver-and-his-parrot">Here <a/> is a painting that romanticizes criminals, but Leeming's work shows us pathetic, even if dangerous, low-life losers. There have not been many civilizations on our planet thaat have given this much contemplative attention to those at the very bottom. But I'm glad when ours does. And Tim is a good painter.


Posted: August 23rd, 2012 12:51 PM

Art is as relevant today as it was in the 60s, but the problem is there are many that neglect to consider its past and how the past affects our experience of the present (case in point here). Joe schmuck, it's fine to picture them as human (cause they are), but what's NOT fine is to romanticise about their immediate situation, where victims of violence are involved.

Joe Magarac  

Posted: August 23rd, 2012 11:16 AM

Who gives a toss about art anyway - especially in a post post-modern society. Leeming is just a Situationist. This isn't 1960's Paris. Guy Debord is surely rolling around in his grave. Why not paint nice things like flowers or a pair of work boots? Leeming is the true criminal. Someone should paint his portrait.


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 8:19 PM

My problem with the work in not that they show "the accused", but the WAY the work shows them, and for such loaded subject matter, it comes across as just lazy, unthoughtful and out of touch with the reality of how the privalaged have historically used painting as a way to define the underprivileged.


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 8:15 PM

Jean, maybe, maybe not... The point was and is, the fact that the people pictured COULD possibly be the perpetrators of violent crimes, and painted the way they are, the work screams of the romantic, which is completely insensitive to their victims. Let's say a criminal had an unfair upbringing... What does the romanticisation of them as potential criminals exactly achieve? Especially making paintings like these coming from a person with privilege . Cont.


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 7:31 PM

Its not that these people are painted that immediately glorifies them, it's the WAY they're painted.

Doogie Howser from Oak Park  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 12:43 PM

The strange juxtaposition occurs perhaps as a result of their particular journey to their respective situations of incarceration. Ms. Lotus offers that the criminals may have come from challenging backgrounds. Thank you for calling out the usage of the word "portend," and had I been carrying a thesaurus, perhaps I might have settled for the less than lofty choice of "conclude" instead. How many 14 year olds are in your 4th grade composition class?

Mrs. Farnsworth from 4th Period Composition Class  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 12:12 PM

Doogie, you indeed write like a 14 year old with a thesaurus, but without the 120 IQ. Beginning with "portend" you use big words improperly and without awareness of their true meaning. The entry of an accused criminal into the "criminal system" (or the criminal justice system) is hardly a "strange juxtaposition". The dude paints mug shots. End of.

Doogie Howser from Oak Park  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 10:56 AM

It is an easy out to portend that this artist's work only serves to glorify the criminal. The notoriety of crimes committed are published each day throughout the news channels. What is happening here, is that the artist has chosen an avenue to show the strange juxtaposition of these individuals and their interaction with the criminal systems. To me the narrative may be nuanced by the artist, but much like your particular opinion(s), this is merely only the viewers' subjectivity.

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 10:17 AM

Plenty of sympathy on both sides, yes, however no one is painting portraits of the victims.Paintings made by John Wayne Gacy were purchased and burned.

Jean Lotus from Oak Park  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 9:56 AM

Artist, maybe they are victims as well of upbringing, addictions, disproportionate sentencing of minorities. There's plenty of sympathy needed on both sides of the bar at 22nd and California.


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 1:31 AM

Cont. The only connection to today's reality shown through these paintings is the culture of spectacle reflected in today's entertainment, and how such spectacle is always at the expense of real victims.


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 12:14 AM

But this totally glorifies the "accused". The neo-expressionistic gestures of the paintings add a sense of romanticism to the individuals, regardless of their facial expressions, which aims to make the viewer sympathies with the subject, when we are not in the position to know whether they deserve sympathy. If a subject in either painting were guilty of murder, then the painting of the subject in this way is highly insensitive to the family members of the REAL victim. Cont.

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