Artistic stitchery

Leisa Rich’s fiber art explores relationships

Leisa Rich’s art literally runs the gamut from trash to gold. Working with thread, fabric, recycled objects, paint and more, she opens a window on an imaginative world that can be fun or unsettling, or both simultaneously.

For example, her “Drink Your Water (or else)” -- a sound message, one might think -- has a jug pouring water onto a woman running from a man with a gun.

“I think I have sort of a dark, macabre sense of humor about these everyday things, like relationships between humans or relationships with nature,” Rich says by phone from her home in Atlanta.

An exhibit of Rich’s work wraps up a six-week run this weekend at the ArtSpace Gallery at Fine Arts Blount, 106 E. Broadway.

Hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. today-Friday and noon-4 p.m. Saturday.

Photographs of some of Rich’s works are on her Web site, www.monaleisa.com, but photos can’t fully communicate the detail and effort Rich puts into her pieces. People approaching her two-dimensional art might think they’re looking at paintings, only to realize as they get closer that she’s created them by stitching.

“Not very many people, adults or children, know what a fiber artist is,” says Rich. “I’ll say to people, ‘I’m an artist’ ... but even today, people look straight at me and say, ‘Oh, what do you paint?’ So there’s an education process that we fiber artists -- people who may use painting, certainly, on fabric or on canvas, but who are primarily obsessed like I am with thread and with the process of stitching and the process of constructing things using fabrics and threads -- have. For me, that’s my thing.”

Rich, who will turn 50 in July, says it took her 45 years -- until she went to graduate school -- to feel comfortable calling herself an artist, even though she’s been creating art since she was 15.

The native of Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, earned a bachelor of fine arts in fibers from the University of Michigan in 1982. Unable to make a living as a full-time artist, she wove sweaters, worked as a clothing designer for a Toronto company and on her own, did work for theater and created hats for TV programs such as “The Arsenio Hall Show” and “Blossom.” She also took time off to have her first daughter, now 23.

In 1992, she entered the University of Western Ontario and earned her bachelor of education in art in 1993. She had another daughter, now 13, before going for her master of fine arts in fibers from the University of North Texas in 2004, graduating in 2007. Oh, and in the middle of all that, she and her husband, who will celebrate their 24th anniversary next month, and their offspring lived in Kauai for a time.

Katie Kinney of Fine Arts Blount learned of Rich’s work after Rich visited Arrowmont and left her card at FAB.

“I went on her Web site and went, ‘Wow!” says Kinney. “She has new ways of looking at things and doing things. It’s amazing to me.

“You have some fiber artists who don’t necessarily draw very well; this woman can do it all. She’s so imaginative.”

Even now, Rich primarily makes an income from teaching instead of her art. She still makes functional and wearable art -- pillows, purses, jewelry, hair barrettes -- and sells it on the Internet and at stores such as Re-Inspiration in Atlanta and Atmosphere in Birmingham.

She spends every minute she can in her studio.

“I’d be happy 24 hours a day in the studio, seven days a week,” she says. “But that’s not how it works these days. At (nearly) 50 years old, I’m finally going, ‘You know, I really want to get a little more exposure before I die.’

“So I’m really putting myself out there now and interacting more and using social media a lot. I’ve got a blog, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook, plus a fan page, and LinkedIn.”

Honing her people skills might be a reflection of the direction she’s taking in her art. Last year she had a solo exhibition at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center Gallery in Atlanta. “Beauty From the Beast” (“humans being the beast,” she explains) was three years in the making and expressed Rich’s ideas about the Top 10 natural disasters that could hit the United States and eradicate humans. Her 2-D and 3-D installation imagined a world in which nature had reclaimed the planet.

“Nature is just really important to me, and it’s full of so much beauty, and I derive so much pleasure from it that humans almost seem to me this irritant and this thing that abuses nature,” Rich says.

Perhaps it’s her impending milestone birthday, but Rich seems to be mellowing.

“After I killed off the people last summer I thought, ‘You know, I’d better start putting some people back into my work,’” she says. “I just felt like, if you can’t beat ‘em, you’ve gotta join ‘em.”

Now she’s looking at humans and thinking, “How can I make them happy?”

Her answer lies not just in her art but also in her viewers. She’s working on a series of interactive pieces, one of which already is in the Fiberart International 2010 exhibition showing in Pittsburgh through Aug. 22. (Afterward it moves on to Rochester, N.Y., and San Francisco. Rich’s work was one of 84 pieces chosen from more than 30 countries.)

She creates a landscape or backdrop -- she’s working on a cityscape in her studio -- as well as people and objects out of a fabric called Veltex. Viewers can choose from the humans and other items to create their own version of Rich’s art. Rich sees it in some ways as grown-up Colorforms.

“I’m kind of sucking in the viewer to participate in my world,” she says. “This is where I’m headed now. There’s more personal, human interaction in these pieces.”

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