The interview was conducted on June 7th in Leah’s booth at the 57th street art fair in Hyde Park.
Bryan- So I think you could start by telling me a little about your background. I read your bio on the wall of your booth, but I think I need a little more detail about how you came from Kansas to Madison and how you started doing these art fairs.
Leah- I grew up in Kansas in the Flint Hills, which are geologically distinct. I went to KU for textile design. Then right after I graduated I started working at a National Park in Michigan. There, I met my boyfriend and he wanted to go to school in Madison, so I went with him. I kind of like the upper Midwest. Madison is a great place to work if you’re an artist, but not a great place to sell art. So that’s part of why I’m doing the art fair thing.
B- So how did you decide to become an artist? And where you making art before your undergraduate?
L- I grew up going to these craft fairs as a child. My family has always been working with their hands or constructing something; mostly woodworking. My dad actually is showing his woodworking in the tent next to mine.
B- Really? That’s great that you guys are next to each other.
L- When I graduated high school my parents really wanted me to go to college. They didn’t care what I did, they just wanted me to get a degree. I was first thinking of fashion but then I realized that I wasn’t cut out for that and just stumbled upon textile design and realized that I could work with my hands.
B- So I’m really interested in how people decide to become artists, because step one is going to school and step two is making a living with your art. Have you ever shown your work at galleries?
L- At some, whatever presents itself. I haven’t actively tried to show my work at them. It’s this act of progression, it’s like this is what I like to do and this is what I know how to do, so what else would I do? I kind of make enough money to stay afloat and I just don’t think about it. This is what I do, and it seems to be working right now.
B- So then how did you starting doing these fairs? Did you make a choice once you graduated to make art for the fairs?
L- So when I graduated I kept making work. I grew up going to the fairs with my parents, so I decided to try it. My parents were disappointed with me. They told me that it was a horrible way to make a living. So I started applying to the shows and getting into some of the better shows and they kind of got excited for me. It’s pretty great. I work for myself, and at least break even at the shows. I rarely lose money.
B- Do you feel that there is a community of people that go to these fairs? And do you try and keep in touch with those people? Or do you just set up your booth and then go home?
L- No, it’s definitely a community all its own. I don’t know of another place where you would experience the same thing. It’s kind of grueling. You’re on the street for two to five days at a time; putting yourself out there trying to sell your work. We are all in the same boat and help each other out. You have to deal with thunderstorms, a chance of getting mugged- there are definitely things that you don’t experience with any other job. We can all commiserate with each other. It’s a great group of down to earth people who probably couldn’t find another job.
B- I’ve been photographing at these fairs for a little while and I see that’s how they survive in the world; not just monetarily but actually functioning. That’s just what they have to do with themselves.
L- It’s interesting; a lot of the people live in fairly isolated areas. They find these interesting places to live in the country where it is inexpensive and they start their own artist communities. There is a lot in the South where they start these communities to live and do fairs to sell their art and make a living.
B- Do you see it as a political gesture or a counter culture thing to make your work outside of this whole art world thing?
L- No, I don’t see it as being against something. A lot of the work at these fairs is the same, and really only about five percent of it is fascinating work that you wouldn’t see anywhere else.
B- How do you feel about the audience that comes through these fairs? Do you try and build relationships with the people that buy the work?
L- I think that there are very few people that connect with what I’m doing, and when they do; I think it is a very special thing. They somehow find a way to come back and support me. I have had students that have followed my work and when they have a decent paying job they come back and buy a piece. It’s really satisfying to know that people who aren’t just throwing around money want to buy my work, but for people who it’s a big deal to buy my work for $300, simply because they like it.
B- In last five years there has been this boom in the art world about purchasing works as investments.
L- I wasn’t aware of that…(laughs) I think I heard something about that. I’m kind of outside that experience.
B- In my opinion the commoditization of the art world has become quite big. The work is judged on its sale ability value, not its aesthetic value. I think it’s interesting in how you describe the people who buy your work. It seems they buy it as this object they enjoy, not because when they turn fifty or sixty they can sell it or donate to a museum because of its value.
L- Maybe some of the people I sell to typically don’t even buy art, they are just taken by the piece and enjoy it for its aesthetic qualities.
B- I guess we should probably talk about your maps and maybe we could start with if they are direct references of places, and what is the inspiration behind the maps and why you choose the different elements that are in the maps.
L- My maps are not specific places. I kind of start with an idea and lately I have been focusing on impacted landscapes. This new series is based on strip mining, where they are searching for different types of materials; zinc, coal, lead. So when they are done digging for these materials the areas fill up with water and become these man made lakes. A lot of my work explores the boarders of different elements like roads and rivers and different settlements that interact with those natural and geographical elements. It explores how our society deals with land and also with its terrain and water systems.
B- It’s great how you approach this medium, because instead of starting with the form you start with the subject, allowing the subject to dictate the form.
L- A lot of people come to my booth and look at my work and say, “wow, I’ve always seen a quilted landscape while looking out of airplane windows.” I always viewed it as dissecting these lands into strips and piecing them back together. (It starts to rain heavily and the fair is about to close) I think I need to start packing up.
B- Do you need a hand in packing up?
L- Do you think you could pull down the front flap the booth so we don’t get any more water coming in? It’s interesting how we can be carrying our entire year’s income at one of these fairs, and it could all be destroyed fairly quickly.
B- Well we’re here to help, so if there’s anything else- let us know.