Fall Home 2022: Activist’s Schenectady home a telling of her life story in painting, photography and sculpture (11 photos)

The porch of Mabel Leon's Schenectady home and Mabel Leon.
The porch of Mabel Leon's Schenectady home and Mabel Leon.

SCHENECTADY There’s barely a square inch of space on the walls of Mabel Leon’s Stockade apartment that isn’t dedicated to telling her life story.

The first-floor unit on Front Street is covered, nearly floor to ceiling, with mementos of the 81-year-old Schenectady peace activist’s life. There are scores of photographs — some her own from her journeys across the globe, some family heirlooms, others passed down from friends and acquaintances throughout the decades.

There are shelves upon shelves of books and oodles of artwork, be they from her travels to places such as Cuba, Bali and Kenya, or pieces bequeathed to her by friends.

To the naked eye it would seem there’s barely space to put anything else.

But, Leon said, there’s always a way to find more room.

“There’s always the ceiling,” she said.

Nearly every piece on Leon’s walls has a story. As to how they’re organized, there’s not really any true rhyme or reason.

If there’s room, she’ll find a place for it.

Photos (11)

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“Yeah,” she said, “I’m a cluttered person.”

Many of the most meaningful pieces of artwork Leon owns are on display in her living room.

Among her favorites are a couple of photographs she took during her travels to Cuba as an activist and social justice advocate.

There’s also a piece by the late Schenectady artist Jerry Burrell, a portrait of poet Nikki Giovanni, done pointillist style in Bic pen and Xeroxed.

“He made art for the people,” Leon said. “So it was never sold. It was always given away.”

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Some of the pieces hanging on the walls were inherited from friends who passed away over the years. Others, Leon acquired on her globetrotting missions — a painting of sunflowers done by a man with cerebral palsy in the Cuban countryside; carved wooden masks from Bali.

In many ways Leon’s home isn’t so much decorated as it is a living document — a representation of her life, her work and those who have impacted her: family, friends, strangers she’s encountered in her work at home and abroad.

“Well,” she said, “I like my stuff.”

The piece with perhaps the most personal significance is also the most famous, a print of Pablo Picasso’s famed painting “Guernica.” One of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever displayed, Leon saw the massive original on display in Spain and the print was the first piece of artwork she owned.

“I was very surprised when I saw the original,” she said. “It’s enormous. You get a stiff neck. I actually was fatigued looking at it. … The reason that I like this particular painting, it is the first bombing of civilians. I have used the [image of] the mother with the dead child — I think I even used that at a peace vigil today. It’s a way to say, ‘stop civilian deaths,’ and I am an activist.”

The home also features a pocket garden, though Leon said this summer’s dry heat wasn’t particularly kind to it.

Inside, however, the artwork is flourishing.

Among Leon’s particular favorites is the print of a piece called “Wailing,” largely because of how the image invites interpretation.

“It could be wailing in grief,” she said, “or, I choose to think that it’s in joy.”

On prominent display is a poster advertising a show from one of her very favorite artists, Frida Kahlo, at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem.

But mixed in with the tributes and displays of the likes of Kahlo and Picasso are far more personal items that Leon has accumulated over the years.

There’s a painting done by her friend’s grandfather, a man who ran a grocery store and began painting in his old age.

There’s a painting of Leon’s late mother-in-law, done by an old friend. There are self-portraits of other friends and more representations of their work.

“This one,” Leon said, gesturing toward another painting, “[is about how] he was choosing between the church and women.

“He obviously chose women,” she added with a laugh.

Even her bedroom is plastered with art, including a print she referred to as “Andy Warhol goes to Cuba” and a student painting copying the work of Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani.

Among the most precious pieces for Leon are a couple of small photographs in the dining room of her late mother, including one of her as a child — with no clothes on, pictured from behind — in a pastoral, Victorian setting.

“This is very precious to me and some people misunderstand it,” she said. “It was really a Victorian tradition to photograph a young child in a pastoral season at their innocence. It’s my mother, with a very Victorian grandmother, and she’s about 6 years old here at that time when all the limbs on a child are soft.”

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Categories: Fall Home 2022, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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