“I believe the artwork of contemporary artists should be a mirror through which society can see its reality re-interpreted and, in the best case, by which it can right itself.”Rhea Leonard
Vanessa Lopez is a sophomore majoring in English Education at Florida International University. Having a passion for literature and academia, she hopes to be an English professor. She is currently a Desk Assistant for FIU Housing. As a part of Art Society Conflict, she is looking forward to being exposed to unfamiliar areas of history and art.
Rhea Leonard (b. 1991) is an African American artist born and raised in Miami, Florida. While she specializes in drawing, Leonard also utilizes sculpture and printmaking in her work. Through her work, she places an emphasis on the black body and addressing social injustices.
Leonard went to Design and Architecture Senior High (D.A.S.H.), a magnet high school located in Miami’s Design District. In 2010, she studied a semester at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Here, she learned intaglio printmaking. In 2014, she finished her BFA at New World of School of Arts in Downtown Miami. Afterwards, she went on to earn her MFA at Florida International University (FIU) in 2018.
Leonard’s pieces have been on display at Bridge Red Studios, The Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Art Africa Miami, as well as RAW Popup. In 2018, she became a Betty Laird Perry Award recipient. In the same year, she began her residency at The Bakehouse Art Complex in Wynwood.
When asked about any personal experiences that helped shape her work, Leonard talked about her experience transitioning from undergraduate to graduate school. “I had gone through a rather discouraging time during my undergraduate days in regard to my artwork,” she said. “I had just begun exploring my identity and what impact that had on me and it started showing up in my artwork.”Because of the lack of resources and experience, Leonard couldn’t challenge these opinions.
Despite the discoragement towards exploring her identity, Leonard pursued her MFA at FIU. Here, she met her professor, William Burke, who she cited as one of the many key figures during her academic career. She had conversations with him regarding her undergraduate experience, to which he gave her encouragement. “From there, I created my drawing Tituba (2016), and it set me on the path I’m on today,” she wrote.
The critiques that Leonard received ended up shaping her current work, such as “lack of color” and “blatant representation of black features.” Leonard told me her experience made her more persistent in delivering her message. “I endured numerous, bad faith questioning about my artwork during my developmental phase,” she said. “This made me explicit, to a degree, about what my work is about so others would not be comfortable twisting, imposing or erasing the meaning behind my work due to it being on display in each and every one of my works in some way.”
As an African American, cultural identity is something important to Leonard as an artist. In fact, it’s the centerpiece of her artwork. “I keep my ancestors in my thoughts at all times as I make my artwork because without determination to survive despite the inhumane treatment and torture that visited upon them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today,” she says. There’s a clear influence of her culture weaved into her pieces.
For instance, there’s her sculpture, “Community (2018),” which is a way of honoring her ancestral ties. Through this piece, Leonard addresses the African Diaspora, a term to describe the separation of African people during the Transatlantic Slave Trades. In this piece, everything is connected and unbroken, and each jaw represents a life lost to cruelty. Such a work is meant to honor all those lives.
Furthermore, all of the subjects in her work are black bodies. Some appear gruesome, depicting scars and injuries, telling stories of the trauma that African Americans experience. However, Leonard has directed some of her artwork towards upliftment and celebration instead. “…I’ve made a few artworks that celebrate the large chain that I am a part of because without them I really don’t think I’d have the strength to face some of the situations I have found myself in throughout my life.”
In addition, Leonard explains her emphasis on respecting the black body. “While there are dozens of reasons for this in my practice, respecting my own image, and theirs, is how I honor them. So I am careful about how I present the black body to a wider audience.”
SUBJECT OF ARTWORK
Through drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, Leonard explores the psychological experience of being black in current society. Through her gruesome imagery, Leonard presents stories of the effects of dealing with racism and anti-blackness. She explained to me that her art is her way of speaking up over these injustices, which led to me asking this question: what role do you think an artist has in a society?
“I believe an artist has the duty to be a vector of their time. To observe, document, discuss and critique the time in which they live,” she says. “I believe the artwork of contemporary artists should be a mirror through which society can see it’s reality re-interpreted and in the best case, by which it can right itself.” Leonard’s art is relevant and fitting in today’s conversations regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and growing up as an African American. Therefore, her pieces are extremely contemporary and needed in the art world.
Her artwork is gruesome and gritty for a reason. In social media and in the news, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to speak out and grab people’s attention. Some of these bodies have missing body parts, lack facial features, or just seem to be floating and fading. When asked about this in an interview with Rocking Chair Sessions, Leonard explained that she wanted to emphasize the loss of identity and sense of self that you can experience as a black person.
At the same time, the “missing pieces” in her work allow for multiple people to put themselves within that figure. The missing features clears away the idea that these people aren’t modeled after any specific person, making it easier for people to see themselves within her work.
Leonard’s passion and desire to bring this discussion of race in America extends to the point she wants to teach someday. While she is greatly focused on her art right now, she hopes to do it someday. “Making and showing work is also a concern but I would also like to teach eventually,” she says.
FORMAL ELEMENTS OF ARTWORK
Back when I visited her studio in January, I noticed that some of her pieces had similar copies and sketches plastered all over her wall. Leonard explained that she likes to have a clear idea of what she’s doing before making the final piece. When I asked more about her creative process during our interview, she further expanded on this. “I work with my images for 1 to 3 weeks before they are even thought of in terms of becoming a drawing, sculpture or print,” she says. To avoid confusion, Leonard likes to create test sheets and small sketches to guide her throughout the process.
Especially in her drawing pieces, I could clearly see an emphasis on line and value. The bodies in her pieces are well-defined and enhanced by the shadows. The result is beautiful, floating figures. “I’m a drawing artist first and foremost so line, value and shape are most important to me,” she says. “I get to know the images as a whole, the lines and shadows that will make them up before I commit to working on them in their destined forms.” Leonard also places an emphasis on time. “Things don’t happen overnight,” Leonard explains in her interview with Rocking Chair Sessions. She explained that you can’t rush through your pieces or skip steps, or else you will end up with a product you won’t be satisfied with.
Despite specializing in drawing, Leonard has begun venturing into other forms of art. Through printmaking is where Leonard experiments the most. She sees printmaking as a challenge and a way for her to push herself and learn new techniques. In terms of her sculptures, she utilizes different materials, such as random gathered materials and metal castings.
In addition, Leonard has recently begun to show her process on Instagram. Her posts consist of glimpses of her studio and various works in progress. Leonard also utilizes the “Story” feature to show current projects and bring a closer look at her daily life.
EXHIBITION AND PROJECT HISTORY
Leonard’s pieces have been a part of a variety of shows. In 2017, her art has been on display at Bridge Red Studios in North Miami, and she was a participating artist in “CAPS Lab: Overload” at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. In 2018, she was a part of RAW Popup X Art Basel, as well as the Art Africa Miami Art Fair. In the same year, her art became a part of The Betty Laird Perry Emerging Artist Collection at FIU’s Patricia & Philip Frost Art Museum. In 2019, she was a part of “Restructuring Identity,” presented by The Miami Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora. She was also a part of Miami Urban Contemporary Experience’s (M.U.C.E.) “Who Owns Black Art: Questions of Cultural Ownership” show in Little Haiti. Most recently, it has been announced that Leonard is leading Local Views at Perez Art Museum Miami in April.
However, when asked which of these experiences were most important to her, Leonard brought up the show she did at the African Heritage Cultural Center while she was in graduate school. According to her, it was the first time a curator contacted her directly and offered a spot in the show. “That show was also special because I got to show alongside an artist friend of mine and we’d wanted to show together for a while before then,” she wrote in her email to me.
With each show, Leonard has gained more confidence through going outside of her comfort zone. “Since graduating with my Masters I’ve done a few talks and each one is nerve-racking,” she says, “but I find I’m getting better with each one I do.”
Overall, I had a pleasant experience talking to Rhea Leonard. Ever since I had the chance to visit her studio back in January through the Art Society Conflict class, I was captured by her work. I could also relate to her on her struggles with public speaking, as I’m more comfortable expressing my feelings through my writing. It is a bit unfortunate that I did not have the chance to visit her in her studio at the Bakehouse, but we still made things work through email. Leonard was generous enough to take time out of her day to answer all of my questions. It was also fun to see her creative process on her Instagram page (@rhea.leonard_art). I also admire Leonard’s persistence in getting her message across, ensuring it reaches the viewer successfully.
Through Leonard’s art and her words, I learned more about the contemporary art world. Her pieces are extremely detailed and gritty, its memory glued onto my brain. What’s more unforgettable is the messages and themes that drive her work. I still think about what she said back in January, where she expressed her recent desires to “celebrate the black body.” It was my first instance of an open conversation of the black experience, and now I feel that there should be more such conversations in the art world.
RHEA LEONARD’S CONTACT INFORMATION
“African Diaspora Cultures | Oldways.” Oldways, 2020, oldwayspt.org/traditional-diets/african-heritage-diet/african-diaspora-cultures.
“Art & Life with Rhea Leonard – Voyage MIA Magazine | Miami City Guide.” Voyagemia.Com, 23 Aug. 2018, voyagemia.com/interview/art-life-rhea-leonard/.
Eligon, John. “‘Who Owns Black Art?’: A Question Resounds at Art Basel Miami.” The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/arts/design/art-basel-miami-black-art.html.
“RCS Vol. 143 | Rhea Leonard.” SoundCloud, SoundCloud, 2020, soundcloud.com/rockingchairsessions/rcs-vol-143-rhea-leonard.
“Rhea Leonard.” Cargocollective.Com, 2020, cargocollective.com/rlart.
“Rhea Leonard – Oolite Arts.” Oolite Arts, 2018, oolitearts.org/resident/rhea-leonard/.