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.”
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, RivaLehrer.com, 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.