Leisa Rich




Leisa Rich




Leisa Rich


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Houston, Texas


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am conducting an interview with Leisa Rich for Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Leisa was originally interviewed in 2002 at our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in International Quilt Festival, Houston, Texas but there were technical problems, and her interview was lost. It was important to me that Leisa be included in this project, so we are conducting this interview by e-mail. We are beginning this interview on June 5, 2006. Thanks, Leisa, for agreeing to this interview. Please tell me about the quilt that you selected for the interview. Tell me about the quilt you selected for this interview.

Leisa Rich (LR): When I started thinking about this piece ["New Day."] it was early 2000 and fast approaching July, which was to be the month of my 40th birthday. Instead of feeling desperate or negative about this milestone, I felt a sense of relief; it was as if I was over the hump of youth, with all of its uncertainties and personality-forming stresses. I wanted to do a piece that would convey the joy of new beginnings and the pleasure of being a middle-aged female. I used the whirlwind of flowers to convey this exuberance. I also wanted to push the boundaries of 'quilt.'

The various elements and materials, along with the techniques used in this quilt, represent the traditional and non-traditional. There are vintage buttons; old and new appliqu├ęs; hand and machine embroidery; stitched realism on a painted background; two layers of cloth with batting; asymmetry. I do not usually sketch ideas; pieces tend to come to me as completed works that I then make come alive. During this process, I do allow for changes and new directions. "New Day" was a mentally complete piece; as I wrote out the poem, the image for the quilt came into mind almost exactly as you see it. Bringing it to fruition then became just a fun job!

KM: Is this quilt typical of your work and style?

LR: At that time, the quilt was indicative of my style. Since then, I have returned to school in the MFA program at the University of North Texas and my work has drastically changed. I am working more conceptually, am working with installation more and have become more in touch with why I am an artist and how to articulate that.

KM: So how has your worked changed? What made you decide to return to school? Explain more about being in touch with being an artist.

LR: Prior to returning to school my work tended toward the literal. I had a voice to speak my opinions, feelings to express, and chose to smack the viewer in the face with images that didn't require much involvement from them. I also tried to balance the making with the selling, so sometimes thought too much about what would sell. Having said that, I didn't manage to ever sell much, as my works were always a bit weird no matter how hard I tried to make them more visually accessible. Now, I think about what I have to express and how I am going to entice the viewer to figure out my message with almost no real clues while also provoking them to formulate their own feeling or opinion about the piece. You could say that the work leans heavily toward the conceptual and sculptural now. Form before function.

I decided to return to school from an 'It's now or never' stance. I wanted (and still want) to grab life; I desire to have my cake and eat it, too! I can't believe the people that are bored or say they don't have time for something. There is always time for following a passion and I am raising two children, working 30 hours a week, teach all day Sunday, manage to get a straight 4.0 GPA and enter multitudes of shows, etc. I knew that the M.F.A. program would shake me up, make me question everything, give me other perspectives, teach me new techniques, force me to be a bit uncomfortable and to change. I have definitely seen that happen. I have grown so much in my work, in myself, and in what I bring to teaching others.

It has always been important to me to be a part of helping to change the public's perception of 'fiber art.' It's had a bad rap for so long; great strides over the last 50 years made by important fiber artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz, fiber sculptors like Do Ho Suh, painters like Rauschenberg who use quilts and other fiber materials and techniques in their work have helped to validate the discipline more. More awareness is still needed. The worst insult I get when I tell someone I am an artist is the question, 'What do you paint?'

There is no 'being in touch with being an artist' for me. That implies a choice, something that has to be worked on. While I DO have to work every day at becoming better at technical and conceptual skills, every fiber of my very being (no pun intended!) MUST do this. I am driven, passionate, I just 'AM.'

KM: I think you've touched on this a little. What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

LR: Yes. There is a challenge for quilters. I think there should always be crafts, fine craft, functional art and non-functional art. There is certainly room for diversity in all areas. The trick is to know where you fit in, what pushes all of the right buttons for you, personally. And always, superior technical skill, excellent use of color, great design, wonderful materials, these are the things that make things works out, whether it is a great scrapbook or a massive sculpture yet, there ARE those individuals who bring something special, something magical, that we can't quite put our finger on. Those are the lucky ones. They naturally go beyond the usual.

To be human is to explore and to challenge old ways. Quilters must continue to explore their skill and passion and push themselves. Most viewers will see a quilt as a quilt only unless the quilters stretch themselves as artists to do something unexpected with both the functional form of quilts and with the imagery, materials and concepts. That includes the older generation of quilters. Never get comfortable. In comfort lies mediocrity.

KM: What makes a quilt artistically powerful? Whose works are you drawn to and why?

LR: Do you want to know quilt artists or any fiber, etc. artists whose work I look at? [LR answered before KM could.] For me, it is the power of the emotion elicited that makes a quilt artistically powerful. That can be conveyed through effective use of color, unique technique, intriguing imagery, the artist's story (if it is included) and anything that I haven't seen done the same way before.

I would consider El Anatsui a quilt artist, although his material is tin from soda cans! I love the following artists:

Annette Messager- I am fascinated with the creepy way she uses techniques like knitting to convey powerful religious and spiritual messages.
Petah Coyne- I love that she uses kitschy materials, covers the assemblages with wax and turns them into sculptural Dr. Zhivago-like environments.
Piper Shepherd- her obsessiveness
Machiko Agano-ethereal qualities she brings through her use of crochet and
Andy Goldsworthy- using nature for art/returning art back to nature
Ding Ye- irreverent use of fabric as ground for paintings
Robert Rauschenberg- irreverent use of materials in painting
Ann Hamilton- statements of over-consumption
Andrea Zittel- re-thinking the environment/function and form
Jessica Rankin- the embroidered stitch transformed
Anna Torma- cartoon otherworld of her images is very contemporary use of embroidery
Ghada Amer- size, scale, use of the stitch in painting

Just to name a few! I look at everything-- painting, sculpture, fibers, metal, ceramics, architecture, interior design, etc., etc. I subscribe to Surface Design, FiberArts, American Craft, Art in America, Art News, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Ready Made, Mac World. I look at plant cell systems, tidal patterns, blood, the way a fork bends, anything and everything becomes fodder for my work. I think the mistake a lot of artists make is not being aware of everything that is out there.

KM: From whom did you learn to quilt? How does your art impact your family?

LR: I am a self-taught quilter. My art impacts my family in a number of ways both positive and negative. I am caught between a rock and a hard place sometimes. I love to be with my children, but the pull of the art is sometimes so great that I get grumpy if I am away from it for too long. It costs us huge amounts of money, with very little monetary return, and has been known to cause major stress for this reason between my husband and I. I went back to school the year before my oldest left for college herself, so last year was a doozy with two of us in school! I've never been rich, but we've always had what we've needed.

It has inspired my children to try to find their bliss, as they have seen how happy I am as a result of following mine. It has also kept my husband interested in staying in the relationship, because life is never dull with me around! It has made my oldest swear never to be broke or have money problems. It was also the catalyst for her teenage rebellion--creative denial so she'd NEVER be like Mom--yet now, at 19 years old, she is just acknowledging the huge part creativity plays in her life and that she needs to embrace that part of her.

It is the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.

KM: What do you plan to do once you finish school?

LR: Over the next couple of months, I will begin the process of applying for tenure-track positions teaching fibers at university level institutions. I also plan to continue as a studio artist and do juried and curated shows. I will also look for gallery representation. In addition, if I do not get a tenure-track position I will teach in other capacities such as workshops, private lessons, etc. I am presently looking for those opportunities.

KM: Why is teaching important to you?

LR: It is intensely satisfying to me to impart some of my passion about fibers to others. I also try to educate about the validity of fibers as an art form. I teach a lot of children and they don't know much, if anything, about fibers. Most of their education is the 'Dead White Guys' as I call the old Master's that most schools focus on! They really are being shortchanged!

KM: How do you think fiber should be taught to children and adults too?

LR: A HUGE question that would take me hours to answer!

Visual art is absolutely NOT valued by our educational systems or by parents. There are conflicting messages given by society and by our schools about visual art. On the one hand, it is encouraged in early childhood as a creative outlet, but discouraged as students edge closer to middle and high school age and graduation as a poor way to make a living. Even in adulthood there is a belief that it is a discipline fully understood only by those educated about it in higher level institutions. Note how many people do not like contemporary art because they 'do not understand it.' Many people don't trust their judgment about art, or they put it down from a lack of comprehension and a fear of looking stupid.

Fiber sinks right down to the bottom of the list of 'valid' art forms. Since many of our elementary, middle and secondary school teachers are either scantily educated about fiber art themselves by post-secondary institutions that do not value it, or not even educated about art itself AT ALL but teaching it because the school needed SOMEONE to teach it. After all, how hard can it be? There is a massive black hole it has sunk right down into.

So, what do I think about how it should be taught to children and adults? Artists themselves do not value what they do enough, so it has to start with their own individual self-esteem and self-validation. They must advocate and demand fiber art to take a valued place in the visual arts. They must rise above themselves and the usual and push their work into stronger professional territory both creatively and conceptually. The generation just coming into art schools or just leaving them right now is helping to do that, but I see even the grad students at University of North Texas right now being ignorant of what fiber art is. Even the professors can be ill-informed about fiber art. I was in a print-making mini-class last spring. My professor, a young 30-year-old, was appalled that I didn't know a few names of printmakers he had mentioned. Yet, I had known every other name of painters and printmakers he'd told us about. I retorted back at him, 'So, do you know so-and-so, so-and-so and so-and-so,' (really famous fiber artists) and he didn't. I said, 'Get my point? You expect me to know all of the painters and printmakers, yet you don't know much at all about important fiber artists.' He totally agreed with me that I had a good point!

All fibers artists need to vocally advocate for visual arts to take a stronger role in our educational institutions. We must band together and fight to have visual art be viewed every bit as important as math, science, etc. Visual artists themselves have to take a proactive stance. When that happens, then we must oversee that the teaching of art includes fiber art, from historical to contemporary perspectives. There need to be some of us that assist in writing the textbooks, overseeing programs, etc. but that is not happening.

What do I do about it? I recently lectured in Canada about how artists of every discipline TODAY and in the last 50 years are using or have used some form of fibers or fiber techniques in their work. I have a power point of 93 artists and growing. At last year's SDA [Surface Design Association.] conference, I asked to have any fiber artist interested in participating in my research and presentation to send me images. One person from hundreds sent me images and they were too predictable--nothing fresh about them at all. I will lecture in any venue I can find. I recently took a group of students under the age of 11 to view the Embroiderers Guild of America show at the Irving Arts Center and I explained to them what fiber art is and how important it is to art. I must add that I was not very impressed by the show. There were few new ideas or interesting works. I felt that the show was perpetuating exactly what I am trying to change about fiber art. It was an excellent show technically but lacked in any aesthetic or conceptual value. More fresh ideas have to come into the fiber arts guilds. The problem is that most guilds have older individuals in them who are not coming up with fresh ideas. I went to the Dallas chapter of the fiber guild when I first moved here, and I was bored out of my skull by bad presentations of old techniques I was doing 10 or 20 years ago and a really apathetic view of fiber art. As a middle-aged artist myself, I have to constantly challenge myself to go beyond my age to look to current issues and new ways of using the traditional forms of fibers. I have banded together with a group of younger fibers artists around the Chicago area, and we are getting ready to do a show later this year. I don't care about the age of a person and do not think it is relevant EXCEPT when it hinders the progress of fibers getting recognized as a valid contemporary art form. Fresh ideas can come at 8 or 80. It is stagnant ideas that scare me!

I also teach private students all art forms on Sundays, and I incorporate many different types of art into my lesson plans. I teach fiber art workshops in stores, independent art schools, etc. I plan to do more of that upon graduation. I'd love to teach in some of the recognized programs, residencies, etc. but first have to improve myself more. I'm always challenging myself and expecting to improve! I try to teach that to others--. that it is an on-going, never-ending quest.

KM: Tell me about this "band of fiber artist from Chicago." How did you connect with them? What kind of show are you putting on and where?

LR: We met at the SDA conference. Some of us noticed that the ideas put forth at the conference and lecture materials were lacking in contemporary issues content and representation of what was going on that was fresh and new. So, we got together over drinks and talked until the wee hours of the morning about ways that we could get something going that was more in line with contemporary fibers. At this time, we have a venue that is not quite completely finalized and no set date, but it's in the works. There will be an installation component. I'll keep you posted. The definition of what we are doing is: 'explores fiber related processes in a unique contemporary approach; strong conceptual content that includes the use of fiber or any fiber related technique but not necessarily in traditional approach; sculptural explorations; proposals for large outdoor constructions....'

One of the problems is that a lot of the younger fiber artists don't have money to attend these types of conferences, etc. so we see the crowd with the funds to go, which is usually more traditional. I'm in somewhat of the same boat (money-wise) as I am in grad school, supporting two children, but much older. I apply for any scholarships, etc. to make it to these functions so that I can try to get more info and see what is (or isn't) going on--networking is a beneficial part of these events, but the new and really fresh is underrepresented.

KM: Why do you think the new and the fresh are being underrepresented? How important do you think knowing what is on in the art fiber scene is important to artists?

LR: It isn't really that the new and fresh is being underrepresented, overall. It's there for the seeing and experiencing, just not in the venues it needs to be seen in. Humans tend to be creatures of habit and usually stay within their personal comfort zone and don't take the time to find out more about what is out there. Our lives today are complicated and overly full of things to do. We're tired and staying abreast of what is going on in art takes energy. I was like that before going back to school. I also didn't know where to look.

Now I know about various publications, organizations, shows, conferences, residencies, etc. that I need to subscribe to, belong to, go to and lecture in. I am much more aware that I need to stay aware, even after I am done my MFA next spring. I am a fibers artist, but I now subscribe to Art News, Art in America, Art Forum, Sculpture, Surface Design, FiberArts, American Craft, etc. I look everywhere, not just at things related to fiber arts. That is too limiting. It is crucial for all artists to know what is going on in all art areas. I plan to try to go to Pilchuk, for instance, to learn how to blow glass, because it will enhance my own work as I stretch myself and become knowledgeable in other areas. I recently did a bookmaking class, and I came away from that with a new appreciation for the intricacies of that discipline. I'm now making these fabulous books, a process that I may work in some day with my fibers work. Or it may open up some new teaching opportunities. It's all good.

KM: I agree with you that it is all good! Is there anything else you would like to add before we close?

LR: Yes. I'd like to say thank you. I am really appreciative of this opportunity to be a part of SOS [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] and think that it is an important part of validating fibers. I believe that what makes most people interested in art is basically a human need to understand one another. Dialogue is so important, and it is crucial that artists speak to one another, speak about their art, grow and learn, and never be afraid that there are not enough opportunities for ALL artists.

Thanks Karen!

KM: Leisa, you are more than welcome. I'm sorry it took so long to get your interview redone. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Leisa again. We concluded our Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview on June 18, 2006.



“Leisa Rich,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 19, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1346.