Sm{art}: Riva Lehrer's body of art

a vertical painting. The top square features Lehrer from the shoulders up. She wears glasses and has a braid. She has a determined look. At the bottom of the painting is her feet. She is wearing orange tube socks and black orthopedic shoes. Between these two sections is a black space that seems to be eclipsing her torso.

I first heard Riva Lehrer’s name when I spoke with Ann Fox and Jessica Cooley about curating shows dealing with art and disability.

Actually seeing her work though, was inspiring. A Chicago-based painter whose work speaks to identity and disability through her beautifully rendered portraits, and I don’t think I can put it better than Art Critical does when they describe her style as “crisply observed realism mixed with fantastically contrived settings.”

To Lehrer, who has spina bifida, “Disability and art are natural partners. In order to have a good life with a disability, you have to learn to re-invent your world almost hour by hour. You discover ways to re-imagine everything, and how not to take the average answers to everyday questions. There is a great deal of creativity in disability if you decide that “reality” is just a raw material for you to mold. So many times, these re-inventions have been the keys to open new doors for everyone.” (Quote via DisThis).

Her “Circle Stories” are paintings of Lehrer’s friends and colleagues in the creative arts and activist community with disabilities, viewable on her website. By intimately dialoging with her subjects about their work and their understanding disability, a truthful and collaborative representation emerged. But “the most important circle of all” for Lehrer is the way she is honoring and charting these “community of disabled innovators who provide support and context for the work of redefinition of disability in the 21st century.”

a painting of activist Eli Clare. He is in the forest, kneeling. From within his shirt sprouts a tree or branch with tiny red leaves which he clutches while staring at the ground. The forest is lush and richly detailed. A flannel shirt lies in the corner across from Eli, who is illuminated with light.
Circle Stories #10: Eli Clare

A more recent series is “Totems and Familiars,” in which she asks people (both disabled and able-bodied) about their sources of strength and then renders them in charcoal. Access Living had a beautiful description of this piece: “This is a portrait of Los Angeles playwright, actor, artist, and karate master Lynn Manning, best known for his play ‘Weights,’ which explores the relationship between race and blindness. The upper panel of this work includes elements in Braille. The sky behind the tip of Manning’s cane depicts the night constellations from the months of April to October, done in raised dots and engraved lines. The Braille text inside the tail of the comet gives the date of his birth and the date 23 years later that he was shot.”

Lynn Manning: Comet

Lehrer recently received the Critical Fierceness grant (I know, can you think of a cooler grant name?) for queer artistic expression, and will be using it to draw none other than Alison Bechdel (of Dykes to Watch Out For and Funhome) in her Totems and Familiars series. Now that’s FIERCE.

In a short video from 3Arts Lehrer said “One of the things I love about disability is that if one has a profound disability you can’t go about almost anything the way other people do (shaking head). You have to reimagine everything. And when I’m around people who are capable of that, it just knocks me out.”

Lehrer currently works for Access Living in their Art and Culture program and is an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Look for her work on her website,, and see if you can get your hands on Self-Preservation: the Art of Riva Lehrer, a documentary about her work by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder.

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

What an awesome artist!

What an awesome artist! Thanks for bringing her to our attention. :)

Riva Lehrer

Riva helps the community see the ability within the word disability. Her art helps the community to see that there is more to a person then "the community perceived plight". Both her artwork and her work at Access Living is greatly appreciated! Peace.

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