Why Leelee Kimmel traded the silver screen for the art gallery
Leelee Kimmel (née Sobieski) has always been an artist. As a child, she regularly drew on her arms and legs with Sharpie markers and watched her father, the painter Jean Sobieski, use their New York City living room as a studio. Even when Kimmel began acting as a teen to help pay the family bills—and ended up a rising Hollywood star after appearing in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 thriller Eyes Wide Shut—she covered the inside of her trailers in plastic so she could paint. “I always said, ‘I don’t want to act. I paint,’ ” she recalls, to which her parents replied, “ ‘You can’t say that, because it sounds like you’re not grateful. You are grateful, so you have to hold it in.’ ”
Now 34, having left Hollywood behind and working on canvases in private for years, Kimmel is ready to let the painter out. “I only wanted to put stuff out there if I was 100 percent confident that I felt good about it,” she says from her Upper East Side atelier. Last summer marked the first time Kimmel publicly showed her work, when one of her large-scale abstract paintings appeared in a group exhibition at New York’s Marlborough Contemporary. Kimmel often listens to public radio while working, channeling her feelings into vibrant acrylic squiggles and thick overlapping blocks that float like amoebas across black or white canvases. “It all comes out on the painting,” she says, “like it’s a vomit of what’s going on inside of me and in the world.”
When Kimmel isn’t in her studio, she’s likely in virtual reality. She finds making art in a space where real-world rules don’t apply an exhilarating counterpoint to her physical process. “I’ve always been lost in time and space,” she says. “When I first started doing VR, I was like, ‘Ahh! I feel space this way.’ ” Whether her abstractions appear on the canvas or the screen, she hopes people feel the power in her work. “The fight in life is always worthwhile,” she says, “no matter what the end result is.”
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