Leonardo Drew was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1961; he lives in New York. Drew came to Salvador, Brazil, on April 3, 1999, on the same flight as Nari Ward. He collaborated with more than 180 children and teenagers from Casa de Cultura and more than 80 children and teenagers from Opaxé.
Drew was in the first group of artists to come to Salvador. During this early phase, neither the artists, nor the children, nor the educators of Projeto Axé knew quite what to expect, and everyone had to reexamine his or her beliefs about what contemporary art was and how it could function as an agent of personal and social transformation. Initially, many of the educators were skeptical about Drew's proposal to make a large-scale installation in which the children would sew discarded objects they found in the streets into a large fishnet that would be hung on a wall. But the discussions that ensued ultimately helped everyone to understand one another more deeply, to let go of their stereotypes, and to find a place of common ground. And Drew succeeded in helping the children to see how it was their choice to perceive the dignity and beauty of their world: "I sought to evoke the transforming potential of every individual. Life is a constant matter of choosing, and I question at what point we are responsible for the permanent choices in our everyday life."
Drew's project was nurtured by his numerous twelve-hour walks through Salvador's various neighborhoods, in which he absorbed the sights, sounds, and character of each. In addition, in contrast to the other artists, he chose to live on his own in a home in Candeal de Brotas, a poor neighborhood. He has stated that this experience was essential to his working process: "I grew up in a similar situation, which I had the chance to see by living in Candeal. I needed access to that, to those energies coming at you, which you digest and then give back." When he was a child, Drew and his family lived in public housing projects in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where drugs, crime, and violence were a part of everyday life. From an early age, he made art as a means of escaping, reflecting on, and transcending the degradation around him.
Drew initiated his project by presenting his work to the children and then discussing it with them. Since the late 1980s, he has created monumental sculptures and sculptural installations from ordinary materials he collects on the streets or purchases in stores, subjects to processes of decay, and then organizes into grids or other structures. In his best known works, he uses materials such as metal, cotton, bone, plastic, and discarded objects from refuse dumps. He then rusts, chars, and stains these materials through labor-intensive processes and arranges them into grid-like sculptural reliefs displayed against the wall. By creating somber yet beautiful works of art from such materials, he suggests the possibility of transcending the memory of the historical past.
After presenting his work, Drew asked the children to go out into the city and collect objects of their choice. They came back with a wide variety. They then discussed why they had selected these objects, whether they were garbage, and what it meant to perceive them as part of a work of art. Next they randomly arranged the objects onto a large fishnet laid out on the ground. As Drew has stated, "It was conceived as their piece; that was the idea. I felt I was just the catalyst, showing them how they could make art of this material. However, when we cut it down and looked at it, it looked like one of my pieces. It came back to me."
When they installed the sculpture in the courtyard of the Casa de Cultura, its visual similarities to the bundles of goods hung from poles and walls throughout Feira de São Joaquim, Salvador's main market, and all across the city, became dramatically visible. Although the sculpture's weight, and the constant rain, eventually made it fall down, creating it made an indelible impression on the children. For example, at Christmas, a group from Opaxé made a Christmas tree out of recycled green plastic bottles that they collected and sewed together.