Leisa Rich interview: Endless possibilities
Fiber artist Leisa Rich creates conceptual 2D art, sculpture and installations. Leisa’s work has a sense of freedom and experimentation that we found fascinating; her techniques are eclectic, her style highly individual yet impossible to label. In our interview with Leisa, we find out more about what inspires her to create, and how she approaches her practice.
Pushing the limits of materials, techniques & concepts
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Leisa Rich: I have a very vivid imagination of a quite Utopian nature. I envision a spectacular world similar in character to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Little Shop of Horrors, or that conceived by Dr. Suess, where there are wonderful things to touch and experience (but the people co-exist happily!)
I am also quite inquisitive; I love learning, exploring new directions, pushing the limits of materials, techniques and concepts. Fiber art is perfect for that. Although every visual art form has possibilities inherent to it in genre, artistic influence, material choices and more, I really believe that textile art has a distinct advantage over other art media due to its variety: painting and printing on textiles, sculptural forms in felt, mixed media constructions, digital images on fabric, jacquard weaving, drawing via machine or hand embroidery and more… the list is endless.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I was probably sub-consciously drawn to fibers while a very young child. Tactile things have always comforted me. I spent years in hospital from illness that led to deafness: my mother would bring Barbie clothes she had made for me, and I would finger paint in silence in the art room. Although I do now have hearing in one ear, I prefer to work without auditory distractions. Another illness led me to a weaving class when I was 15. Three days into it and I knew I had found the direction of my career and the passion of my creative life.
But my very first artistic influences were my sister and her husband. My sister was a talented artist with an MFA from Michigan State University who later went on to graduate from MIT in architecture and is now an architect in Seattle. My ex brother-in-law, a Painting professor at Michigan State University for 27 years, is retired, living in NYC and still painting professionally in his 80s. Their house was an artistic spring board for me, where the ethnic food parties they threw, attended by the art professors and deans of MSU, exposed me to wild points of view, exciting perspectives, creative ideas, and the open-minded art world that was the 60s and 70s.
I was also greatly influenced when I met and spoke with Magdalena Abakanowicz in ’76, whose art practice I admire to this day. I made the piece Venus’s Hair shortly after meeting Magdalena, a piece that met its untimely death in the mid 1990s after becoming infested with moths and larvae, a demise common to thick, hairy, hippie art works hung for long periods of time against a wall, improperly cared for!
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I took art at Interlochen Arts Academy (now Interlochen Center for the Arts) from 1975-1978, specializing in Fibers. I then returned to Canada, my country of birth, to attend The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in fall of 1978. Unhappy with its program I took a semester off, then attended the University of Michigan from 1979-1982, receiving a BFA in Fibers in ’82.
A few years afterward, I got married and had a baby. I returned to school while running a full-time business and raising my first daughter and received my Bachelor of Education in Art from The University of Western Ontario in 1993. After selling off everything we owned, I traveled around the world with my husband and daughter for a year. We later had another baby and, while teaching part-time, I returned for my Master of Fine Arts in Fibers at The University of North Texas, graduating in 2007.
I have always baked my cake and ate it, too; what you conceive of CAN become reality if you put your mind to it. I want to encourage those who hesitate about going back to art school to go for it, if that is what will nurture and further their creative experience!
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Free Motion stitching, or machine embroidery, is my favorite fiber art technique to use in the creation of my pieces and installations.
I often use that method in conjunction with cast resin, mixed media, obtainium, plastics, digital images from my original photographs and much more.
Although I have several sewing machines, I work most often on my favoured Bernina 807 Minimatic that I learned to sew on in 1971.
There are disadvantages AND advantages to being an exploratory artist; on the one hand, it makes me a bit of a misfit in the arena of fiber art as I do not have a recognizable style that uses ONLY fiber materials and techniques but on the other, it does make me a current, conceptual artist who can move easily in the broader art world without being labeled or pigeon-holed, who is excited each and every day by the serendipitous directions my work can take.
New ways of looking at old things
How would you describe your work and what or who currently inspires you?
I still usually call myself a fiber artist as a painter would call him/herself a painter, but I am much more than the sum of that label. The internet has affected how we see and digest art.
I have some favourite, well-known artists such as Do Ho Suh, Ann Hamilton, Tara Donovan, Ernesto Neto, El Anatsui, Lin TianMiao, Andy Goldsworthy, and some up-and-coming artists I love such as Luke Haynes, Aubrey Longley-Cook, Catherine Heard, Ann Wood. I could go on and on…there is so much talent on this earth! I am inspired by new ways of looking at old things, by the manipulation of organic materials, by artists who make a difference or a statement – whether titillating, offensive or political- by artists showing me their thoughts, dreams, and fears. I am not interested in things that reproduce patterns, match a sofa, or replicate an idea that has been done…and done…and done again.
How has your work developed over the last few years?
Intense personal experiences and reactions I have to the overwhelming challenge of existing in the world of today informs my recent work. Earlier work (mid 90s-early 2000s) addressed issues I was concerned about in a quite literal manner. For instance, I used a great deal of eggshell and vintage porcelain doll parts in a series of works I made during the Elizabeth Smart disappearance and the exposing of the plight of the dumpster babies. I was a doting mother of two and understandably, highly disturbed by the abuse of children that was then at the forefront of the media.
In my 2009 solo exhibition, Beauty From the Beast I killed off humans, leaving their detritus behind to morph via the wonder and power of nature, resulting in a wild world, devoid of humans, I wished fervently to become a part of.
Over the last years I put humans back into the equation in viewer-interactive works that encourages communication, instigates play, and highlights a fun, bright world in which to immerse oneself for an interlude in between emails and expectations.
As I write this, I am making works that focus on an expression of fear and frustration about my Mother’s descent into Dementia. I use birds as the analogy.
In other works, I concentrate on biological mutations, ruminations on aging, and on creations that exist solely as happiness procurers. I just left my 6 year position as the teacher of after school art at a private school, ages 3-18.
Hope and an obsessive passion
Tell us a bit about your teaching work
I have been teaching for 39 years in just about every type of educational venue. I am nurturing more adult, surface design teaching opportunities now. This summer I will be teaching a surface design workshop at Peters Valley Craft Center in Layton NJ.
What are your plans for the future?
I am always striving to be a better artist and am concentrating on becoming a more successful business person and have enrolled in an 8 week class. To grow and blossom one must always be watered! I have been reducing the number of juried exhibitions I apply to, as it seems many are becoming merely income generators for the galleries holding them.
In addition, as the prices of entries rise and shipping costs go through the roof, I can no longer justify a frequent expense output with little return. I am looking for more curatorial events in which to participate, innovative ways to promote and sell my work and working more on making better connections in the art world. I accept every opportunity given me…no matter how big or small, one thing just might lead to another!
Surviving as an artist requires a lot of hope. It is not an easy road. It takes broad shoulders, self-fortitude, hard work, tons of money, lots of luck, an obsessive passion and the ability to pat yourself on the back. There are moments when I wish I could turn this brain off and live “normally”. Like ageing, the choice to have an art career is not for wimps. But, it is the most rewarding and nurturing endeavor I can think of. Each moment is special, and each day a new opportunity to change one thing by making a thing grown from your head and heart come to fruition and offering it to the world.
To find out more about Leisa Rich visit MonaLeisa.com.
More from Leisa on TextileArtist.org