Infusing her paintings with powerful activism, Riva Lehrer has explored such themes on the body, disability, and identity for over 20 years. She was born with spina bifida and has used her artwork to identify critical questions about bodies, creativity, and perspective. Her art has been featured in galleries and museums across the country, and Riva is also a writer and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Her work frequently is composed of portrait series like “Totems + Familiars” which addresses the connection between imagination, survival, and metaphor as well as “Mirror Shards” which extends her use of visual metaphor to explore human’s reliance upon animal symbols to produce empathy. We’ve included some examples of Riva’s pieces below but we encourage you to check out more of her fantastic work.
And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Riva Lehrer.
Suzanna Bobadilla: One of the things that always fascinates me about visual artists is their process. Along with the extraordinary technical skill, I’ve always been impressed by their conceptual work before paint ever reaches canvass. Could you describe your own process?
Riva Lehrer: I have a couple of processes that are often spilt between what I’m doing with portraits of other people and self-portraiture. When I work for portraits of other people, usually what’s happened is I find somebody whose work interests me, often with the arts or in academia. I look at their work, I read it, I watch it or whatever it is that they do, and then we get together for a series of interviews. This can be anywhere from a couple of hour-long interviews to months, it’s varied enormously.
In my first series, I was just interviewing people about their work and their life. Since then, I’ve come up with a central unifying questions for a series. For instance, I was interested in the way the imagination works when you are under stress. So I was asking people for things they went to in their imagination in order to deal with difficulties. I asked them if they either had a kind of an animal familiar or an offbeat personal hero. Based on whatever answer they gave me, we would structure the interview around that and I would go away and make a series of thumbnail sketches to address what we were talking about. Once I had those, then we sit down and talk about what makes sense for them, what’s the most true and most exciting for them. There are usually a lot of changes that happen. Once we have the image set, then I work from a combination of photograph and life sittings. It’s a really long process. That’s if I’m working on a portrait of someone else, they generally take many months, up to years.
If I’m working on a self-portrait, I’m trying to work with more formal concerns or things that I don’t want to ask somebody else to do because it would be emotionally difficult or physically difficult. It splits in those two directions. In the last two years, I’ve also done a lot of writing and public speaking. Very often, that will circle back into visual work.
SB: Could you share with us an example of when that has happened?
RL: I delivered a couple of talks lately. One was called “Beauty in Exile,” talking about the relationship between disability in various aspects. The other was called “Jarred: Self Portrait in Formaldehyde” which was about seeing fetuses with my disability in jars in a glass case at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. What I’ve been doing is instead of talking directly about my work, I let my work show up behind me. “This is a portrait of Naomi Lamb and this is what we were doing, this is what the portrait is about.” I might talk about sexuality and body acceptance, while showing Naomi’s portrait at the same time so the connection is made less obviously. In writing about beauty, I’ll go back to discuss it in an aspect that I might have not before, so it makes an interesting feedback loop.
SB: What projects are coming up next for you?
RL: I’m working on a piece called “Ghost Prayed.” I’m just finishing the first formal piece. I’m interviewing people about what I’ve been called the Lost Body. I’m interested in the bodies that people have that thought they would have as kids, or used to have before a major change, or want to have in some complicated way, not in terms of “I want to look like Audrey Hepburn” but more, gender-variant or species variant or completely fantastic. My feeling is that we get followed by these invisible bodies and that disrupts our ability to live peaceful in the bodies that we have. We’re haunted by them. I’m doing portraits that focus on that impossible body.
I’m also writing a book that’s about being a member of a transitional period, at least in terms of my specific disability and this happened to different disabilities at different points. Whether you are talking about polio, spina bifida, osteogenesis imperfecta, or dwarfism, there is this periods where something changes medically and people start living with disabilities that they would have died from, mostly likely a short period. You end up being an unprecedented. My book focuses on being a particular generation of people for whom there is no history. It’s called Golden Girl Gets Lucky.
SB: What’s a recent news-story that made you want to scream?
RL: The most recent one is what’s going on with assisted suicide in Belgium. I’m not entirely sure how much of what I read is accurate, but the gist of it seems to be that parents are getting permission to euthanize their disabled children who basically couldn’t say no. But every couple of days there is always something, it could be about disability, it could be about women’s rights, animal rights. There’s a lot of stuff I care about.
SB: And finally, you’re stranded on a desert island, you get to choose one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
RL: Cheese grits, ice wine, and Susan Sontag.
Suzanna remembers her grandmother’s paint-speckled studio and, once again, is reminded that her first hero was an artist.