Why I Make: Turning Negatives into Positives

Why I Make: Turning Negatives into Positives

Leisa Rich collaborative exhibition

Detail from installation, collaborative exhibition "LAIR"; Crochet, netting, knotting, free-motion stitching, interactive toadstool; assorted recycled materials

Leisa Rich

I’ve told some of this story before but as with all stories kept close, there are always more layers to peel back.

Deafness caused me to spend most of my early childhood in silence, looking for things to comfort me. My first blankie’s satin trim that I had to stroke from one end to the other before I could fall sleep in the eerie hospital silence, homemade doll clothes my mother brought for me to dress my Barbie in during endless hours confined to a hospital bed, finger painting in the cheerful hospital art room; this is the stuff of my first memories.

Tactile things were there even when humans and sound were not.

My father’s electrical contracting company was situated in an enclave of blue-collar businesses: plumbers, pipefitters and roofers. Every Saturday I went to work with Dad. Bell wire, copper pipe, spools, nuts, bolts, and more became diamond tiaras, magical toadstools, tea tables, extravagant, otherworldly costumes and sets. I was “one of the boys” at lunch but the rest of the time I was queen of my kingdom.

At age 15, I received a piano scholarship with a dance minor and headed off to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Mononucleosis I caught from a boarding school friend caused thyroid problems, a sudden 40-pound weight gain, and another hospital visit. Temporarily kicked out of the dance department until I lost some of the weight, I took a weaving course. I was an immediate fiber addict. It chose me.

So, that’s what I did. I wove, machine-knit sweaters, sewed and sewed, designed for an international fashion company, honed my free-motion stitching skills, made art in droves, and became a mom and a teacher. When I hear people make excuses for why they don’t have time to indulge their creative side, I have to turn away and bite my lip. There is always time for things you have a passion for. You make time.

Then, in 1989, another big medical event hit. A transport truck crushed me from behind, paralyzing me. During months of contemplation confined to bed prior to surgery, and during post-surgical recovery, I decided that not a single moment of my life would ever be wasted. I had been given life back again and it was beautiful. I have kept that promise to myself. I am a dynamo: extremely prolific, I have fun each and every day bringing my ideas to life.

However, I didn’t come to the realization how any of this – and the many additional surgeries and personal challenges I have faced since – informed my art, until I took a class in 2005 called Professional Practices at the University of North Texas School of Visual Art while getting my MFA in fibers.

Professor/Associate Dean Don Schol had us trace out “why an artist makes” through a simple genealogical format. I turned this process inward after the class ended, expended considerable time and effort culling from the social, medical, family, artist, and other parts of living to discover how the above-mentioned medical (and other) events in my life had been highly influential in forming my present artistic self. I now teach workshops in this technique and love watching others discover new ways of peeling back the layers to create artwork that is more personally, socially, and technologically informed. I keep making art, I keep hoping my dreams come true. I keep jumping over any obstacle in my way.

Challenges provide us with new avenues of self-discovery. There have been so many times I have felt like quitting, but making is actually what keeps me alive…what keeps me sane in what can often be a cold, hard, disturbing world.

Leisa Rich is a fiber artist working with mixed media in 2D, sculptural, and installation format. She holds MFA, BFA, and BEA degrees and teaches in colleges, arts centers, educational institutions. She is the lead art educator for the GASP art program at The Galloway School in Atlanta, Georgia. Leisa is in many magazine and blog articles and books, most recently Mastering the Art of Embroidery, The Best of America Sculpture and Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape, and she writes for magazines and online publications. She has pieces in permanent collections of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Kamm Foundation, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas- Pan American and private collections.

Why I Make is a guest series exploring the human impulse to create. Read more posts in the Why I Make archives or submit your own story.