Leisa Rich interview: Free motion machine embroidery
Leisa Rich is responsible for creating magnificent mixed media sculptures, using plastics, threads, fabrics, and other materials.
Armed with a deep rooted sense of social justice, Leisa has overcome numerous personal challenges – including deafness – to establish herself as a leading textile artist, talented with dyes, paints, burns, melts, embroidery, casts, and more.
Leisa shares with us her passion for the pursuit of higher learning, the importance of social issues in her work, and how her extensive experience with traveling has deeply impacted her creative energies.
39 years of learning
TextArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Leisa Rich: Textile art was initially something I serendipitously stumbled onto in 1975 at age 15. The cathartic rhythm of weaving, the earthy ritual of communing with nature in the ’70s via gathering plants for yarn dyeing, the meditative process of dyeing, and the forming of interesting sculptural elements from assorted organic materials, paved the way for 39 years of learning, growth and experimentation in fibers and mixed media.
At first it was merely a fascination with materials and process that led to my interest in pursuing a career in the fiber arts. However, as I continued on in this art discipline into my twenties and beyond, concept became increasingly important: domesticity, women/children issues, forming personal identity, making tactile human connections, provoking viewer interaction, pulling viewers in for a closer look, these began informing my practice and have continued on today as I make connections between my personal and global life and my art.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
There are positive and negatives that form who we are as people, and as artists. All of it is fodder for ideas and direction. Huge medical challenges, parents who never understood me, growing up in Canada in a more natural environment surrounded by farms, living on a lake, the ever-changing, sometimes harsh and sometimes stunningly beautiful seasons inherent to living in the North, summer camp, a very talented and artistic sister and brother-in-law, teachers who eschewed and ridiculed me, important people who shunned me, blue collar people who embraced me, these are the things that have molded me in many ways.
I have worked hard to turn those negatives into positives and I still struggle to do so. Negative experiences in some people raise their hackles enough so that they rise above just to spite those individuals, and thus it is in my case. When I was dealt deafness and numerous other physical challenges I refused to let them get me down and strove to overcome.
When my father said, “Why can’t you paint pretty pictures and make money or get a real job?” I ignored him and worked harder to be a better artist. I drew on my love of nature and used it in my art.
When I hung out with the university art professors at my sister and brother-in-law’s great ’60s parties, I listened and learned from their artistic conversations and debates. When my famous fiber arts professor ignored me to focus instead on her talented and “pet” grad students, I took university classes in other art school disciplines and learned invaluable skills. And when I talked my way into a job as a knit, leather, and fur designer in the mid ’80s for an international company and the designers refused to speak to me, the production staff taught me everything I needed to know and on their own time.
These are the influences I carry with me to this day. I am not impressed with who someone is; rather, I am impressed with integrity, honesty, kindness and true interest in their fellow artist.
Multiple methods and materials
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Although I spent my early childhood in the company of many professional artists who were connected with my artist sister and art professor brother-in-law, it wasn’t until I went to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan in 1975 for 10th grade that I took art seriously. I do still have a little slip of paper from a public high school 9th grade art class that says, “Leisa has an affinity for art.” That teacher must have seen something in me that I didn’t really see until the year following.
I graduated from IAA and went to Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for a semester but was unhappy with the school and so I returned to my family home for the winter semester and worked in a pizza parlor while applying to art schools in the States.
I graduated Cum Laude with my Bachelor of Fine Art from The University of Michigan in 1978, and then ended up using my art degree to do fashion design for a number of years – first with Norma, an international fashion design company based in Toronto, and then on my own, creating wearable works including sweaters, hats and jewelry that were worn on prominent television shows and featured in magazine interviews and features.
I have always taught, so I decided to return for a teaching degree in art, graduating from The University of Western Ontario Althouse Teacher’s College with a Bachelor of Education in Art in 1993. More years afterward of designing and teaching, several moves from Toronto, Ontario to Vancouver, British Columbia, to Kauai, Hawaii, to Dallas, Texas, to Atlanta, Georgia, a year spent traveling to England, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti. All of this traveling happened with my husband and 6-year-old daughter thrown in, means I have had many diverse experiences and influences studying the art of many cultures!
While in Dallas, I went back to school at The University of North Texas for my Master of Fine Arts in Fibers. During all of this moving and travel I always worked part or full-time and also raised two daughters. I love going to school and learning… if I could, I would continue my education in various programs, as the professors and fellow students encountered in an institution of learning always inspire me and help me creatively grow.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Had you asked me that a mere six months ago, I would have said Free Motion machine embroidery, which has been my passion since the day in 1971 my mother taught me how to darn socks by dropping the feed dogs and putting the darning foot on her Bernina 807. I used that technique to instead draw a dog that day, thus driving her crazy at my inability to do as I was told. I still use that very machine as my main sewing machine, although I have eight other sewing machines, as well!
I have also always incorporated multiple methods and materials in experimental ways in addition to free motion and the recent purchase of a 3D printer means that I am now combining fibers’ materials and processes along with plant-based, biodegradable plastics, forming new art pieces with this combination. I am constantly challenged, excited and pushing my work.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I rarely say I am a fiber artist any more, as this seems limiting in a world in which fiber materials and processes have hit the art mainstream and been watered down. Everyone seems to be using these in today’s creative world! I have been known though, to debate the validity of calling an artist – who merely incorporates fiber into other art forms without the historical connection and technical accomplishments achieved – a ‘fiber’ artist. I am a bit of a snob that way; I want artists who have put in the time learning their craft and perfecting it to be recognized as masters in their field.
My own work is nearly impossible to describe. I often say I am an artist working with mixed media, who incorporates fibers – especially free motion stitching – and 3D printing into 2D, 3D and installations that are very conceptual. I am a trained weaver, experienced dyer with organic and non-organic dyes. I am also accomplished at basketry, crochet, sewing, draping, garment construction of every kind, average at silk-screen, knitting, wet felt, and have done much more. I actually like to call myself an experimentalist and, if in person with someone, jokingly emphasize the mental part. You have to be a bit mental to do art day after day with little recognition or financial compensation.
I have a healthy and self-deprecating sense of humor and am able to laugh at myself while also working to be taken seriously.
If I lived a thousand years
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in.
Because of my deafness as a child, and the fact I am still deaf in one ear and have compromised hearing in the other, I previously preferred working in silence. When we got the 3D printer last fall, I was surprised that it “makes music” as it is printing, and that that sound varies depending on the item being printed. It has become a comforting and lively background sound that I have become quite accustomed to!
I have a studio in my home that is suitable, but in a perfect world I would have a huge, industrial studio with high ceilings, lots of windows and light, large steel tables on which to work, huge stainless sinks, lots of hidden storage to hide messes in and a gallery in which to display my work on a rotating and constant basis. I do like to work alone, but would also like to be in a space with other artists so there could also be a sharing of ideas and skills. I am working toward achieving those things.
Do you use a sketchbook?
Only if someone makes me! Right now, I am having to do a lot of sketching, as I am a finalist for a Fulton County Library art commission in Atlanta, Georgia – a very large one – and it has been fine to do as a necessary part of showing others my vision, but I am a 3D person and really don’t enjoy paper and drawing implements. My sketches are the million ideas fully formed in my head, so many that if I lived a thousand years I could not create them all.
Tenacity, talent and humor
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I have found Facebook – yes, Facebook – to be a huge inspiration.
Things that are posted there lead me to do research in areas I might never have been exposed to, such as new literature that has just come out. This includes art books, research papers on art, technological advancements, TED talks on a variety of subjects, art, artists, exhibitions, art-related ideas, information about environmental issues which are important to me as a vegetarian, heated, individual discussions about politics, food, and more.
These have led me down various wonderful and sometimes frustratingly difficult-to-navigate bunny holes! I am a very sensitive person and my heart is poured into my work.
Recently, an artist who has greatly inspired me is Kate Kretz. I am inspired by her fiber works and her paintings, but more so by her views on life and animal rights. It is comforting to know another artist who shares my passions, is extremely talented, and creates on her own terms. For years everyone told me I needed to be more “conforming” to create a body of work that would sell, and my best efforts trying these things never worked out.
When I reached my 50s and said “screw that and everyone, too” the tides turned, and I started getting into more shows, selling more, my work being accepted for what it is, not for what everyone else thinks it should be. Kate embodies that, too.
I admire Luke Haynes for his tenacity, talent and humor and new take on quilting.
I admire Anila Agha for her beautiful vision, and I am so excited she won the huge Art Prize as she deserves it.
Every day there are 10 artists I admire for so many different reasons. Too many to name!
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why.
During the late ’90s and early 2000s art phase – what I call my “women and children phase” – I created many passionately sad and hopeful pieces. Missing Children is one of my favorites from that time. It is a piece about the fragility and strength of life, the necessity of holding our little ones dear and keeping them safe, the horrors perpetrated on children, the sadness of facing frigidity and infertility, the horrors of the then much publicized Dumpster Babies and, the infamous Elizabeth Smart disappearance.
On this piece is a cocoon that relates to the disappearance of Elizabeth, an event that occurred as I was working on Missing Children. However, some months later and after I had completed this piece, she was miraculously found alive. I was able to alter the piece by adding “Found Alive” to it.
Many look at this piece and think it a very depressing, sombre piece; I view it as a hopeful piece.
I was also influenced by three months I spent in Indonesia in 1993, by the practice in Bali of not allowing babies to touch the ground until their 210th day of life. They are considered sacred until that day, when they cross over and become human.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work has gotten better both technically and conceptually as I have worked, researched, and practiced.
I have tried to stop creating a few times, and tried to form a different life in which to make more money to survive and I was abysmally unhappy. My work has become more interactive as I attempt to draw viewers in and form ways in which they can become participants and co-creators in my creativity. I continue to push boundaries by learning and growing consistently. Due to my carpal tunnel and arthritis, I see less and less emphasis on handwork as my abilities to do the fine detail and tight work of days past fade, which is one of the reasons that I adopted 3D printing into my creative practice.
As my human limitations impede my efforts, I am hoping to continue to create via technology. I wish it were otherwise, as I dearly love to work with my hands, but I am energized by the thought that I won’t have to stop completely.
Practice, practice, and practice
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Hold yourself to no boundaries and remember that you are enough. Push, work, learn, grow. Practice, practice, and practice.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
I can’t stop at just three or four!
Art to Wear by Julie Schafler Dale is the tried and true “old” fiber art wearables book that never ceases to amaze. It is also a great book to look at to compare to some artists’ modern copying; I have seen many artists of today “steal” from that book!
Textile Art Around the World by Ellen Bakker is wonderful for seeing a variety of contemporary fiber artists and their works, and I am also in that book.
I also adore the following:
- Colorworks by Deb Menz
- Pattern Magic I and II by Tomoko Nakamichi
- The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff is excellent.
- By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art by Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro
- Digital Fabrications by Lisa Iwamoto
- Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed by The Met
What other resources do you use?
I really don’t use that many on a regular basis, but I will list some of the ones I know about here.
- Surface Design Association Magazine
- Sculpture Magazine
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
My sewing machine and my 3D printer.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so, where can readers find information about these?
Yes, I do. I travel to teach and I teach private classes in Atlanta and at Binders Art School here. I just left my job as the lead educator for a children’s art program at The Galloway School to pursue my career. I would like to travel to teach even more! My website has information about my upcoming teaching and what I can teach. I do lectures, as well, anywhere I am asked!
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
Curators contact me to include me in exhibitions. I also apply to various exhibitions, although I am applying to juried shows less and less due to the expense of the entry fee plus shipping, insurance, etc. I am trying to show more locally in Atlanta so I can do more installations.
Where can readers see your work this year ?
In 2015, I am curating a fascinating exhibition featuring 12 artists with invisible disabilities that is titled Invisible:VisAble to be held at Abernathy Arts Center Gallery, Atlanta October 30- November 27, 2015.
I am also working on collaboration with quilt artist Virginia Greaves based on car wash photos I take while driving through car washes September 18 – October 20 at Abernathy Art Center Gallery in Sandy Springs, GA.
I also have a children’s book out this year that was a five year labor of love. It is an animal alphabet, tongue twister, and early reader picture book. There are 26 diorama I constructed and the type is made to match by using 3D elements from the character diorama. It was professionally photographed by Michael West and I also did quite a lot of the photography. The characters and many elements are made from free motion machine embroidery, hand crochet, hand painted and dyed fabrics, and more fiber art elements.
There is nothing like it out on the market and I can’t wait to see it out there! It should be available for purchase by May. Stay tuned at www.animalalphabettravelingtwisters.com for information on publication and ordering.
Get more information on Leisa Rich by visiting www.monaleisa.com