Conversation with the Artist: Leslie Grigsby
Private Thoughts: Beadwork Sculpture by Leslie Grigsby
*All images are courtesy of the artist. Please do not use without permission.*
The title for this discussion is taken from an exhibition in 2017, when I had the honor of creating a single artist show for the New York Ceramics and Glass Fair, an internationally-respected venue for early through contemporary American, European, and Asian objects. The reason for my being invited to display there as an artist—rather than continuing my normal involvement as a specialist in early ceramics and glass--reflected surprise on the part of the fair organizers. They, like my colleagues and others who knew me as a life-long museum professional, were unaware that I also am an artist. (Actually, many museum professionals also are artists!) Until then, they thought of me only as the Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass at Winterthur Museum, Library and Garden, a post I have held since 1999. In reality, I have been an exhibited sculptor for over 15 years.
Happily, I have been able to spend my life surrounded by inspiring objects and works of art, old and new. I was raised by parents who collected a wonderful range of British and American antiques and contemporary paintings. For the past many years, my husband and I have shared that same general aesthetic. In our home, however, we mix early English and Chinese ceramics and furniture with contemporary paintings and craft.
So, why did I take an interest in creating beadwork sculpture? As a young person, I had drawn and done needlework, though those talents faded into the mists of time as my museum career progressed. Then, after many years, I hit a rocky patch…a time when my “real job,” on a daily basis, carried with it many challenges and causes of intense frustration. Not a depressed person by nature, I didn’t know where to turn. Luckily, a close friend saw my distress and encouraged me to seek out a new creative outlet. In response, I ended up wandering around a craft supplies shop. Nothing caught my eye until I arrived at the instruction book section and stumbled upon a beginner’s guide to off-loom bead weaving. “Why not?,” I thought, “At least this looks colorful and the materials—thread, beads, and a needle—shouldn’t break the bank.” And I was off!
As an antidepressant, beading was the perfect solution for several reasons. If I make a mistake, I could simply pull out the thread and begin again. No people, animals, landscapes, nor history, is/are damaged by my expressing my imagination. (If folks think I’m weird, who cares?)
As you bead artists and enthusiasts are familiar with beading techniques, I won’t go into great detail regarding how each stitch is done. Suffice it to say that I have settled on Peyote (or Gourd) Stitch as a favorite. The stitch is named for ornament on some accoutrements used in Native American Church ceremonies. However, the same stitch has been used around the world since deep antiquity. A variation even appears on the sandals of Tutankhamun (r. 1332-1323 BCE)! I find the stitch has several advantages: it somewhat resembles laid bricks; it is speedier than certain other stitches; it allows for easy increasing and decreasing; and it is good for covering 3D surfaces. I find that doughnut-shaped and slightly irregular Czech beads are best when working over undulating shapes. Delicas, in contrast, are great for crisp, smooth textures and formally geometric designs.
My sculptures usually each take from around three months to a year and a half to complete. In terms of subject matter, my earliest works were inspired by Outer Space and Science Fiction. Yes, admittedly I am addicted to Star Trek (you Star Wars fans got it wrong!). Ray guns particularly caught my fancy. My own have infinite settings…I could send “banish unhappiness” rays at sad friends and could turn the setting up to “Zap ‘em Good!” if the gun were aimed at someone of whom I was less fond. (Perhaps it’s good that some of this stuff stays in my imagination, huh?)
During Covid, perhaps as another means of escape, my artistic direction returned to Outer Space. This resulted in the creation of the above pair of wall pieces (9” diameters) forming a diptych title Over the Moon and Under the Sun. Inspired by photography from NASA and elsewhere, these works clearly display my love of the “pixelated” painting style known as Pointillism, which famously was used in late nineteenth-century France by George Seurat.
More prominently than Outer Space themes, my artwork over the years seems to have concentrated itself around The Four Elements (Earth Air, Fire and Water). Since ancient times these were thought to be the materials from which all things were made. My first deep exploration of the theme was the above-shown life-size helmets, featuring wooden cores that were turned by my husband Lindsay after I provided him with scale drawings. Here, Earth was represented by a fossil-covered Macedonian helmet; Water was a Viking helmet; Fire a Samurai helmet; and Air a Persian helmet. These sculptures took about two years to complete. Sadly, they no longer exist, as they perished in a house-fire at the collectors East Hampton, NY, home. (My Elements have returned to the elements. I feel that’s poetic, somehow.)
Also associated with the Four Elements is A Piece of Pennsylvania, which took about four months to complete and attempted to capture my love of southeastern PA. We lived in that lovely part of the world before moving to Wilmington, Delaware. In terms of The Elements, for this work Earth obviously is represented by the land, Water is the small pond and raincloud, Fire is the lightning bolt, and invisible Air is the space in between earth and sky.
Several works that also are associated with Earth are in the forms of animals. For these, I often employ cores of the types taxidermists use when mounting animal skins. (NOTE: No animals are sacrificed for my artwork! None of them feature fur.) The titles of such works reflect ambiguous meanings. For example, Hide (Fawn) simultaneously refers to the fact that animal hides have been used since prehistory by human kind for clothing and as a source of a strong glue for furniture-making and other uses. Also, simply put, sometimes you just gotta hide to stay safe!
In terms of ”acreage,” the largest single sculpture I have created (H: 19”) is Tigger/Tiger, or Who She Thinks She Is, which took about 18 months to complete. Based on our now-lost and beloved house cat Tigger, the outer extremities of this figure mimic the fur and appearance of a domestic cat. In contrast, at the center (or core) the creature is an untamed animal. Though it may not be obvious to others, I have always felt that our Tigger and I had a lot in common… This work spent three years (2016-19) in Africa as part of the US Department of State’s Art in Embassies Program. It was displayed in the US Embassy in Malabo in Equatorial Guinea.
Although a number of my other works also reflect Four Elements themes, I will end with a just a couple more sculptures. The work shown above, Jeannie’s Koi, was a Water-themed commission for a longtime friend. The figure was inspired by a creature I think of as “my samurai koi,” whom I met as he swam in a Winterthur fishpond on my first day of work 22 years ago. He and I are still hanging on!
The final work that I share with you is Life on the Edge (Gull), representing a creature born on land (Earth) and spending much of its life in the Air, between the Water and the sky, warmed by the Fire and light of the sun. Having taken about four months to complete, this bird is another “child of Covid,” having been finished earlier in 2021. Its ambiguous title reflects the fears and frustrations we all have lived with for the past many months, with no clear, true end in sight. I was deeply honored when this work recently was acquired from Gravers Lane Gallery in Philadelphia by a board member of New York’s Museum of Art and Design (MAD). Long ago, this same collector acquired two of my very first artistic efforts, a pair of early ray guns.
And with that, I will leave you, with the hope that you will continue to find that beadwork—whether you make it, collect it, or simply love to look at it—is an eternal source of joy in both happy and more difficult times.
- Heather Kahn