Leisa Rich is an experimental artist who creates visceral, tactile, and interactive artworks and installations. She uses fiber art-based techniques, 3D printing, laser cutting, and engraving to invent visual realities that transform tangible materials into touchable artwork environments. Her art invites and encourages interaction, suspending reality for a brief moment in time. She uses both historical and current techniques drawn from fine art and fiber art in unabashedly alternative ways. Pulling from the auto industry, the hardware store, and the junkyard, Leisa transforms materials into places of wonder and invites others to share them with her.
Can you tell us about your process?
I wouldn’t say I have a specific process. At best, I am a collector of many assorted and varied materials that please me, that I store in a highly organized fashion, that can last in my storage cupboards and drawers for a mere 15 minutes or 15 years and I cull from these materials when ideas strike me. At worst, having so much stuff can sometimes overwhelm and constrain me! An idea will literally assail me in an almost fully formed concept, and it is then that I pull from what I have, order what I need, or make do, and begin to pull it all together immediately. I work intuitively and spontaneously. My artworks can take as much as 600-800 hours each. Each evolves, morphs, and is manipulated by me until the piece tells me it is done. Before I made my 2020 move from Atlanta, Georgia to Howe Island, Ontario, Canada, I donated most of my materials to Atlanta arts organizations and school art programs. Once I got settled in Canada and had a tiny studio, I made it my goal to use up almost everything I brought with me, and that effort has been successful and is still ongoing. In the interim though, I built a 1,000 SF dream studio, so I find myself amassing things again!
Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a professional artist?
I was born and raised in Canada. My destiny as a textile artist began early when I was a baby; I had to run my satin-trimmed “blankie” through my fingers from one end to the other before I could fall asleep. Childhood illness - and deafness that resulted - meant I spent a great deal of time in the hospital as a very young child. During this time I finger-painted in the hospital art room and dressed my Barbie and Ken dolls in satiny, lacy, and nubbly clothes my Mom hand-made from her cast-off work attire. To celebrate my improved health my family made a trip to Disneyland in California in 1965. I was struck by the “It’s A Small World” ride: the tinny music, bright colors, international children, and exotic scenes greatly impacted me and continues to inform my work today.
I spent my Saturdays creating tiaras and tables from wire, nuts, and bolts in my Dad’s electrical shop, and holding teddy bear tea parties under the rustling canopy of a massive backyard weeping willow tree in our yard. In 1975 I attended Interlochen Center for the Arts, a private boarding school, as a pianist and ballet dancer, but had to take a break from the dance program due to an illness. I took a weaving class to briefly replace dance and fell in love with fiber, immediately changing my major to art. I received a BFA-Fibers from The University of Michigan School of Visual Art in 1982, then moved back to Canada. In 1993 I graduated with a Bachelor of Education in Art from the University of Western Ontario- Althouse College while raising a daughter. A return to the U.S. in 1998 with my husband and 2 daughters led to an MFA-Fibers degree from the University of North Texas in 2007. Since then, I have exhibited in museums, galleries, and other venues, taught in many capacities, and in 2020, moved permanently back to Canada, where I am establishing myself.
When you are looking for inspiration, what resources do you turn to?
Like many artists, nature is – and always has been - especially inspiring to me, and in the midst of global warming and its resulting stressors placed on the world now, I am extremely concerned about Mother Earth. I am not interested in replicating nature in my artworks, rather, I seek to create a human-affected, pseudo-nature that can transport viewers away from darkness into a unique environment. Of course, I look at other art and artists, too, by going to exhibitions, museums, galleries, online publications, and social media, but I am hyper-aware of not ‘copying’ others. If one only opens their eyes, everything is inspirational, and fodder for art-making.
Walk us through a typical day in your studio. What is your routine?
As of just a few months ago, I am in a particularly enviable position in my art practice - one I spent 45 years seeking. Being of retirement age, and having gone without for most of my life, working hard teaching for 46 years, and saving and investing wisely, I don’t have to work any longer and I just built my dream studio. So, my days are mostly spent in the studio (when I am not weeding my vegetable garden!) I get up really early, as I function best in the morning. After breakfast, I thrust myself immediately into doing artwork, then take a break mid-morning to attend to any computer business, then back to the art for a while, have lunch, and back to the studio for a good deal of the afternoon. I almost never work in the studio at night as my energy is low, and I need the evenings to recharge. In my 60’s I am still a driven, prolific, Energizer bunny.
Finding the right rhythm to be productive in the studio can be a challenge, what advice do you have for staying productive and focused?
I wish I could clone myself, as I have enough ideas for 30 people and am constantly frustrated by the fact that I don’t have enough time, money, or energy, to achieve everything I have in this head of mine! Organization, commitment, head-to-the-ground steadfastness, no wasted moments…these traits would be the best advice I could give. I worked full-time, raised two kids, went back to school for two more degrees after my first degree while raising the kids, managed a household alone often as my husband was often away for business, and I still had an art practice. The only way I did that and balanced it all was through following that advice. Sometimes, that meant only 15 minutes in the studio while the kids were otherwise occupied, but to the studio I went, and I never wasted available moments! It IS doable!
What advice do you have for combating creative block?
I have never experienced this! Inspiration is all around us. I was looking at my wrinkled, old legs the other day, marveling at the way the patterns in the skin undulated, and so I began doing some stitching based on my chicken skin legs! It is here, it is there, it is everywhere. Just show up, do, and don’t get caught up with too much worry. Just make marks, make something, it doesn’t matter what. Do the processes until the ideas come to you.
As an artist, how do you measure success? Can you recall a specific event in your career that made you feel successful?
I am still seeking the ever-elusive definition of success for myself as an artist. It has changed throughout my career. As an aging artist, I have come to the point where I am accepting whatever good things come my way, as it just seems too distressing to try to push it, beat myself up, or expect things that may never come. Make the work, do your best, and what will be, will be.
How do you see the art market changing? Where you do see yourself in this transition?
I don’t pay too much attention to the art market. If one does, your work will not end up being authentic. It will be done for others, not for purity and truth.
What advice do you have for artists who are beginning to build their careers?
Make the work. Constantly. Make no excuses. Make the work “in between”…in between raising kids, in between working two jobs, in between hanging out with friends or family, just make work. Show up. Show up at art centers and galleries to help out, show up to volunteer, show up to exhibit, be on time, don’t keep others waiting, have integrity, be kind, be firm, ask for what you need in a nice way, and get to know everyone you can, but be genuine about it. Don’t name-drop. Don’t let anyone belittle you, but don’t be arrogant. Make yourself aware of other art forms…ALL other art forms. Painting is not everything. Us other artists are out there… the fiber artists, the printmakers, the installation artists, the digital artists, metal designers, ceramicists, on and on and on… Don’t limit yourself. Learn it all. Be fearless, be full of life.
Do you consider yourself, and all artists, to be entrepreneurs? Why or why not?
I’d rather not be. I yearn for the days when you had a patron if you had talent. Nowadays, artists have to be everything to everyone and do everything. It is exhausting, it spreads us too thin, and it pulls us apart. It is what it is. We must do our best, keep learning and growing, and put ourselves out there!
Failure is an inevitable part of success in any field. Do you have advice for overcoming setbacks?
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is so absolutely true. You WILL fail. You WILL experience devastating self-doubt. The arts are the hardest careers to succeed in. Form a group of art friends and do crits. Ask for truth, but then do with their truth what feels right, and only that. Ask people you admire and respect for words of wisdom. Be open. Pat yourself on the back…sometimes, you will be your only supporter. Figure out how to be that- your best cheerleader.
I have a hard copy file of rejection letters from before digital that is HUGE, and I have a digital rejection file that is enormous. I am in an age group that struggles greatly with this; becoming invisible suddenly, watching as “emerging” artists shove you out of all kinds of opportunities, or those ubiquitous “30 Under 30” art shows you can’t enter because you are over 30 (what the heck does age have to do with art?!) So, find other opportunities!
What sparked your interest in partnering with TurningArt?
I am interested in availing myself of opportunities given by all art entities who have advice, who show business-related integrity, and who seek to help my career as they make their business successful. I will try anything until it proves itself not the right fit for me. I support all services that champion artists!
What does having your artwork in the workplace and other commercial or public spaces mean to you?
Absolutely everything. I am not a closeted, outsider artist who is insular and not seeking validation. I want to show everyone my world and have them delight in my delights in a shared experience. What a wonderful thing it is to live in a world where we can share ideas, passions, and lived experiences, in a profoundly visual way. I will keep doing this until they take me out in the pine box.