Three years after graduating from Bowdoin, visual arts major Shaun El C. Leonardo '03 had an artistic experience that made "[art] grad school look like kid stuff."

The summer after his first year of graduate school, Leonardo received a grant to go to the art colony in Skowhegan, Maine, a highly competitive and selective artist-in-residency program that accepts only 65 people a year. At age 24, Leonardo had been one of the three youngest artists.

"It was very surreal at first, being there," Leonardo said of the experience. "People like Jeff Koons were there. All of a sudden I was being exposed to all of these high level artists because the other participants were in all different areas in their careers."

"There were people there who'd already been exhibiting—who'd been exhibiting for 40 years. And there I was at was 24," Leonardo added.

Yet, despite the initial intimidation, Leonardo explained that it was at Skowhegan that he produced the best and most formative work he's ever created.

Leonardo entered the program in 2005, producing work similar to that which he'd been making at Bowdoin and at the San Francisco Art Institute: very personal paintings, often self-portraits, that explored questions of identity, community and what it meant to be a man.

Upon receiving feedback at Skowhegan, however, Leonardo's art began to shift.

"During critiques [at Skowhegan], I was receiving commentary that the viewers felt I could reenact what I was doing in the imagery I was painting—that I could live my work," he said.

Leonardo explained that there was one lunch where he spontaneously showed up and wrestled in front of his fellow artists—his first performance piece.

"There was something about the sheer physical presence of that," said Leonardo. "There was a directness and an interaction that I just could not achieve in another form. All of a sudden there was an immediacy to my work that felt amazing."

Through these reenactment performance pieces, Leonardo explained that the difference became that, rather than just portraying—as he had been with painting—through performance, he was actually "channeling the iconography."

"I'd gotten to a point where I was discussing these issues in a very real way, "Leonaro said. "It was becoming closer and closer to home as I was able to embody the iconography—to delve into the feelings it produced—and push you, the viewer, to go back and relive these experiences you had as a child."

Following his experience in Skowhegan, Leonardo returned to San Francisco to finish graduate school. After graduation, Leonardo was featured in his first Chelsea show in New York.

"There's been no looking back since then," said Leonardo, who, in addition to showing his work in New York has participated in many of international shows, as well.

One of the most meaningful experiences that Leonardo had was when he returned to Bowdoin in 2005 to perform his work.

Before returning to Bowdoin, he had called on the help of the school's football team—on which he had once played—to create his first American football performance.

"It was a performance to reflect my time at Bowdoin on the football team and at Bowdoin," said Leoanardo.

Leonardo explained that, upon entering Bowdoin, he became part of the football team undergoing a huge transition.

"My freshman and sophomore year I was part of the two best teams in Bowdoin history, and my junior year the team became one of the worst football teams the College has ever seen," said Leoardo.

"It was a huge and very difficult transition," Leonardo explained. Not only did the head coach leave, causing uncomfortable and unpredictable ups and downs, but the team dynamic also became tense for cultural reasons.

"I was coming from Queens and at the time there were only two or three dark kids on the entire team. I definitely felt that feeling of difference during my entire four years—a feeling that I certainly channel into my work now," he said.

"At the same time that I look back fondly at those four years, it was a really difficult time for me culturally," explained Leonardo, and he pointed to the art he made while studying at Bowdoin, much of which grappled with these ideas of displacement and community.

In terms of transformative artistic experiences at Bowdoin, Leonardo explained that it was largely his experience studying abroad and then returning to Bowdoin that really changed him.

"I really began to understand what it meant to be an artist in another context," he said.

Leonardo explained that, partly, it was just being around the work of artists like Dali, Picasso and Miro, work that he termed "incredibly individualized," that pushed him to investigate what it is he wanted to speak about as an artist.

"That push eventually resulted in my senior show—the first senior show ever to be in Fort Andross. It was such massive work that they wanted to grant me the space," said Leonardo of the large-scale acrylic paintings that he made which were all geared towards the Bowdoin population.

Leonardo explained that, "[The works] were all specifically filled with personal feelings and issues of place on campus."

"I was exploring it through the format of self-portraiture. They actually caused quite a stir when they got back to Admissions—which I think is fantastic, that ability to really communicate something with my audience," he said.

Although his work has changed considerably since he produced these self-portrait pieces as an undergraduate—both formally and contextually—issues of the self and community remain integral to his work.

"In the end," said Leonardo, "I'm just trying to get closer to my own truths. I've learned that, in order to be universal, you have to be as specific as possible."

"One of the last things I want to say—to artists, to Bowdoin students, to everyone—is that it seems like there were a million times that I could have backed away from art. There were always—there are always—doubts in my head that I couldn't make it, that I couldn't do it. What it comes down to is a decision," Leonardo said.

To Bowdoin artists, both those graduating and those with years of college art ahead, Leonardo said: "Being an artist is never easy. It's not about glamour. It's often a struggle. You just have to give up that sense of normalcy—what others look on as normal."

"As an artist," Leonardo explained, "my life path won't follow any of my friends and I just have to be secure in it and know this is what I meant to do."

He added, "You have to look at yourself and come to terms with the fact: you'll either follow your passions and be happy, or come up with a different game plan entirely."