I first met Canada-born, Atlanta-based Leisa Rich in November 2018 when she exhibited at Piedmont College, where I work. Her colorful, fiber-based art and dedication were impressive. The day after her show came down, she had the first of several surgeries for melanoma.
Rich’s experience informs two new exhibitions: Aftermath: In the Pink, on view through May 29 at Thomas Deans Fine Art on Miami Circle, and The Saccharine Sublime, on view May 18–June 15 at Buckhead’s Signature Gallery. Rich recently visited with ARTS ATL to talk about healing, her art and her life.
ARTS ATL: There were unexpected complications in your healing. How did the act of making art factor into your recovery?
Leisa Rich: Two days after I had major surgery, my head was wrapped in bandages that covered my left eye. There were drainage tubes coming from that. My husband came downstairs to see me watching TV with one eye and my giant crochet hook. I was crocheting some of the large pod forms that hang from the ceiling in Aftermath: In the Pink. I slowly went back to the studio and found, as I have many times in my life, that art heals me and helps me recover. It takes you to a place where you’re no longer bothered by those things.
ARTS ATL: This isn’t the only time that art has done that for you, right?
Rich: In 1989, I got rear-ended by a transport truck. I started having a lot of extreme back issues until I was in complete and total pain. Doctors were trying to treat it with physical therapy and a variety of other things. Ultimately, I had major reconstructive back surgery. While this was going on, I was lying in bed with my hands above me, making things. I think that kept my mind off the pain. It kept me going.
ARTS ATL: You also experienced health issues as a child. How did those influence your work?
Rich: When I was really young, I was in the hospital for deafness and some illness challenges. My earliest memories are of finger painting in the hospital in the art room and watching the scuttling clouds and the blue sky go by. My mother would make me Barbie and Ken clothes out of her old work suits. I would play with all of those tactile things. I think it’s a recurring theme in my life that tactile things have been healing. I framed one of my Barbie doll dresses. It’s up on the wall of my studio. It’s a constant reminder of where I come from and of how something so simple and so innocent can carry you through the rest of your life.
ARTS ATL: In Aftermath, you suggest both scarring and beauty, trauma and healing. How do these dualities inform your aesthetic?
Rich: It didn’t begin conscientiously as a reflection of what I was going through. It started as a way of building with fabric. When I stitch with a free-motion embroidery machine on a fabric that has a nap, like a velvet or crushed velvet, the stitches crush part of it so that it becomes really textural. I understood as it was evolving that I was suggesting a scar in the dimensional puffed areas. And I realized I was recreating my face. What is outside can be scarred, but you can be a whole different person inside. In [the Aftermath work] What Counts Is What’s Inside, the beauty of what’s inside comes spilling out from that zipper.
ARTS ATL: We’re always negotiating our interior and exterior selves. Traumatic experiences make us stronger and more beautiful. Your work is a meditation on that as well, isn’t it?
Rich: They make us more human and more empathetic for what others are going through. I took drawing implements, which are not my favorite thing, to my Hambidge [Center residency]. Drawings of my face evolved. Those drawings were very hard-core, really disturbing and very representational. I wanted to depart from that and not give so much direct information.
I really consider myself to be mostly a fiber artist. I took these drawings into [the Aftermath works] Ripped Apart, Put Back Together Again: 1, Bliss and 2, Pain. They’re still just as deep, but they’re not as representational. It’s a more valuable piece of artwork if we intuit, if we aren’t directly given clues or straightforward information. We fall deeper into that work. We have more empathy.
ARTS ATL: In some ways, you’re talking about catharsis — an ancient, Aristotelian idea about why we make art, right?
Rich: Absolutely! Art can alert and awaken people to things they have not considered.