Leah Tacha (b. 1984, Lawrence, KS) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BFA in Painting from The Cleveland Institute of Art in 2007 and her MFA from SUNY Purchase College in 2009. Her first solo exhibition in NY was curated by Jon Lutz at Sardine in Brooklyn, NY in 2014. She has shown with Daily Operation, RARE Gallery, New Baroque, and the Torrance Art Museum, among others. In 2015 she was awarded the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop SIP Fellowship and had a solo exhibition at Gallery 106 Green in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in November of 2016.
Q&A with Leah Tacha
Questions by Emily Burns
Seeing your work in photographs, I know that the three dimensional ceramic works in particular must generate a totally different experience when viewed in person. How do you negotiate this effect when artwork today is so often viewed on a screen?
Because I live in New York, space is always an issue, so for the most part I have shown my work up against a wall even though it is 3-dimensional—so there always kind of feels like there's a "front" of the piece...which works for me for the screen I suppose. But to be honest I don't think about the screen very much - maybe I should? :) My recent show at 106 Green was the first time I've been able to show my works in the middle of a space, side by side and the physicality and scale and vantage points of each piece became very real and present with that show—it was very exciting. I wish I could translate that experience to the screen but you just can't. My most recent work is definitely about being able to experience the piece in person, walk around it, feel its scale in relation to you - so hopefully I can entice with a photograph, or pique interest.
Your recent body of work includes works on paper in addition to 3-dimensional ceramic work. Have you always worked with clay or is this a new direction for you?
I have been in and out of clay since undergrad, but it has become a much larger focus in the last 3–4 years I would say. There is just so much to learn with it, the possibilities are endless and it has a body to it that no other material that I've found has. The material feels alive, and I love the way you can manipulate that feeling within each sculpture with balance, weight, scale and gesture. For the most part, clay is meant to be "decorated", either with glaze, pattern, etc. (Of course not everyone does this) But for me, the body of clay becomes a surface for me to manipulate with color and pattern.
Can you tell us more about the process of using C-print and screen print on ceramic? When did you start to incorporate printmaking elements into your work?
Drawing and collage has always been a huge part of my work. It's how I start every piece, work through ideas or just play with color and line. After grad school I couldn't really afford to make sculpture so collage and drawing were my main studio practice, but when I decided to get back into sculpture (therefore, clay) I started wondering how I could incorporate the drawing and the photography of the collage elements to be a part of the sculptures—or even maybe BE the sculpture itself. It was a way to take the sculptures less seriously and think about them more in the way that I build a collage. Have more fun with them. I also love the push and pull of the "real" and the "fake". Is the clay the real part or is the photograph the real part, what am I hiding and what am I exposing.
Do you see these works as vessels or sculptures, or somewhere in-beteween? What is the importance of the relationship with functional ceramics?
I think the pieces rest somewhere in between vessels and sculpture formally—but in my mind they are most definitely sculptures. The original functions of clay, whether it be for utility, decoration or ceremony are all a part of the piece. I think some of my pieces could be considered ceremonial in their own right but paying homage to this specific moment in time or giving stature and importance to an otherwise awkward looking pose/shape.
Can you tell us more about your choices for titles?
Titles are super important to me. They need to be spot on, have a bit of an edge or humor but just enough information to give the viewer a jumping off point. I like my titles to be sharp yet slightly empathetic, if that makes sense. I often allude to a human action, such as "Flyer" or "Swayer", but often they have more to do with the imagery used in the piece, such as "We Ride" where there were running horses in the prints, but I also liked the title as it alluded to either escaping the scene or going out on a Saturday night. Sometimes the titles come from lyrics of songs that I was listening to when I was making the piece. Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Portishead have been big ones lately. I try to make the pieces feel mid-motion, or mid action and the titles need to reflect these human actions.
You were recently awarded the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop SIP Fellowship in New York. What was that experience like? How did it change or affect your work?
That residency really changed my work. I learned a ton there and I would recommend that residency to anyone. I have always been interested in pattern either from fabrics or nature and this residency allowed me to bring the pattern and photograph into the print and the sculptures. Screenprint, chine collé and intaglio all found their way into the work and they are still techniques I rely on heavily. I used printmaking as basically another way of making a collage but the marks, the colors and the deep blacks that you get on paper is an effect like none other. Also, similar to ceramics, I am really interested in the history of printmaking—using this historical, craft-heavy and traditional technique and making it my own. Pattern and line allows me to "dress up" my pieces—covering a strange form and giving it life and importance.
One of the photos of you making prints shows an intricate array of collaging different materials and processes. Can you tell us more about how you found/created this part of your process?
This was also a part of the Robert Blackburn SIP program—I learned how to use a pronto plate which was awesome for me, because I had been searching for a way to make my collages more archival—and with a pronto plate print, you can print photographically but with ink so it loses that magazine glossy look and becomes a new entity when you ink it up, I used super thin Japanese gampi papers for color.
What you're seeing in that photo is a combination of me using chine collé, intaglio, sugar lift and screenprinted techniques all ending up on one image. At the time I was really thinking about a way to build a "sculpture" through printmaking. So I wanted to take all these disparate parts and build them on the page. These prints became blue prints for future sculptures.
In the piece Skydiver, it seems that there might be another material in addition to clay filling up the top of the form, is this true? If so, what is the material and how does this function for you conceptually?
Yes, there are cut up photographs at the top of that piece and coming out of the side of it. There is an element of trompe l'oeil to some of my work where I want the line between photography, clay and drawing becomes blurred. Where perhaps the viewer is unsure if they're looking at paper or clay and how does this affect their reaction to the piece viscerally as well as emotionally.
What is one of the most exciting things happening in your studio right now?
Well I am currently a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana and basically this whole place is the most exciting thing happening in my studio! It is SO beautiful here, but beyond that I have SO MUCH SPACE. I have access to some pretty enormous kilns and I am excited to make some work that is almost life size in scale. I want to keep pushing this blurred line between photography/collage/and sculpture in these larger pieces. I am becoming more and more confident with each new sculpture—trying to emulate the collages in real life and learning how the sculpture changes from a drawing into 3 dimensions. I want to make these pieces that feel almost like an outsider or some kind of alien form, but cloaking them with color and pattern and photographer in a way that is definitely not subtle, commanding attention and standing their ground.
What is a typical day like for you?
Well, this residency is really atypical for me. I feel really lucky to be here working all day every day where I can see the mountains from my window and I walk to the studio on a dirt road with horses and cows. It is very Montana and I'm loving it! It's honestly kind of a dream come true. It is very rare to get this kind of time for your work, at least for me, so I"m trying to relish every day.
Back in Brooklyn I have a great job at an architectural design studio in Manhattan that I work at 4 days a week called DFA. I am there during the day and then I'll either head to Greenwich House Pottery after that to keep working on my work or my husband and I are pretty into Crossfit so that's been fun after work lately too! Weekends are always spent in the studio and then Sean and I meet up for dinner in the evenings. It's a balancing act in Brooklyn for sure.
What do you listen to while you work?
It sort of depends on my mood, but lately I have had Lemon Jelly on repeat. I found out about Lemon Jelly when I was living in Australia in undergrad and I would listen to it on my walk to school along the ocean and I've always returned to them when I need to feel real good, zone out and get work done.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Matthew Ronay has been in my mind quite a bit lately, Phyllida Barlow is amazing, Wendy White's paintings are incredible. Peter Shire...
To be honest, when I'm deep into my own work I try not to look at too much work. I think those first loves always find a way back into the work, but sometimes I just want tunnel vision.
I think about Sophie Tauber Arp and her artistic relationship with her husband, Hans Arp quite a bit. She made so many different types of works: collage, painting, textile design puppets! Sometimes I like to pretend I'm a little bit like that—with my hand in several different types of art making. She and Hans collaborated quite a bit as well. My partner, Sean, is not a visual artist, but he is a writer and has an incredible eye—I always work with him to test run my titles or I bring him into my studio when I need an honest opinion. He doesn't even have to say anything. I can tell the second he looks at something if he likes it or not. Which can be good and bad!
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
In undergrad I took a Latin American Art History course that really changed the way I thought about work and art making. Reading Frida Kahlo's diary during that time as well as the Communist Manifesto changed the way I thought about personal words paired with artmaking. Also physically seeing the artist's handwriting coinciding with the work seemed really important to me. It is something I still do in my studio—I'll lay a huge piece of paper all over my floor and write on it whenever I need to remember a title, word or idea and then photograph the writing and use it later.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
"If you are not 100% sure that you want to be an artist, then don't."
That statement has really stuck with me... I'm not sure if it's helpful or not, in fact it's a little scary, but it's true. Art making has 100% complicated my life and also 100% enriched my life in a way I couldn't have imagined at 18 years old. I can't imagine living the rest of my life without having this practice. So I am 100% sure I want to be an artist.
Do you have any advice for artists who are interested in building community and finding a sincere audience for their work?
Apply to everything and don't get discouraged with rejections. If at all possible find a community studio to start with where you can meet like-minded people making work. Never be afraid to cold email people, it has led to some fantastic relationships in my life. Also never be afraid to ask for help or advice or even studio visits from people you don't know. Always write thank you notes to people who help you or show interest/encouragement for your work.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Dave Hardy at Skibum MacArthur in LA this past February. That show blew me out of the water and I still think about the installation constantly. It was an incredible show.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
Finding the right balance between a day job and making work. Just finding the time and sometimes forcing the energy and the will to go to the studio after a day at work. I'm also learning to give up on "art guilt". I used to feel so guilty if I didn't make it to the studio every day—but working in NYC along with having a partner and friends and still seeing other people's shows and going to openings—sometimes that's simply not possible. I"m learning to do the best I can do in all aspects of my life while still fostering my artistic practice.
How do you interact with social media, both personally and professionally as an artist?
I am pretty open with my social media. I post a lot of studio shots, but I also post a lot about my personal life as well. Sometimes I wonder if I should keep the instagram more professional "art stuff" ...but whatever—I like sharing more personal stuff as well—it can lead to some fun conversations in the real world later on.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Right now I am at the exciting news—at the Archie Bray in Helena, MT. Making a ton of new work I'm super excited to show people when I get back to NYC.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Leah and her work, check out her website.