Lesia Sochor has lived in Maine for 36 years. She came here to build a life during the time of the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, and so she worked her own land, gardened, and raised her family. While she did all of this, she painted too.
The back-to-the-lander experience, even combined with the experience of being a working artist, is (wonderfully) not uncommon in this community, and yet each artist’s interpretation of the world around them is unique; Lesia’s work, which she shows me in her studio on a gray March morning, stands out to me as totally different from anything else I’ve seen anywhere.
My first impression is of color. There is color everywhere. It’s not loud or aggressive but it is present in every corner of her workspace. I’ve been here before – I was one of the many students Lesia instructed over years of teaching art – but it’s been a while and her current series of work is new to me. The works that fill her studio are called the Thread Series, a concept based around sewing and clothes and our relationship to those things in today’s culture. “From the ordinary to the flamboyant,” Lesia states in a written piece she shares with me, “the clothes we wear and how we wear them can define or reinvent us.”
Lesia was a founding member of the first art gallery in Belfast, something I didn’t know until now. She was one of the artists responsible for starting Artfellows Gallery in 1980, before Belfast was thought of as a place to find art. She has also taught art classes privately and in schools for twenty-five years. “I’m a seasoned painter,” she says with a smile. “I’ve stretched and gessoed many canvases!”
The Threads Series began in 2007, when Lesia was inspired by a drawer full of wooden spools. She writes, “Spools, thread, needles are icons of tactile process, meaningful purpose and ardent labor which literally and metaphorically connected me to my female ancestors and to the global community at large.” Her first paintings in the Threads Series depicted only spools of thread, magnified, deceptively simple at first glance. “I wanted to challenge the viewer,” she tells me, drawing my eye to each spool, their individual threads each showing shifting color and sheen. Some of them even hold messages.
From the original spool paintings came images of spools and needles, needles with threads intertwining, needles shining and pointing ‘like swords’; needles by themselves. Many of her personal and political beliefs are quietly communicated through these pieces. The phrase that came to her mind, she tells me, when she painted the image of the several sharp needles and their tangling, curving threads was ‘I’m not fighting, I’m sewing!’
Lesia tells me that she remembers her mother sewing clothes for her and her sister when they were growing up, spreading out pattern pieces and cutting fabric. It was in part the memory of this that inspired her to branch out from spools and needles and begin incorporating clothing patterns directly into her work. For the bodice series that became the next part of the Threads Series, Lesia laid actual clothing patterns over her canvases and painted directly on them. Her inspiration for the first of these paintings, which shows the torso of a headless and armless mannequin, came from seeing a naked mannequin in a shop window. She found it arresting because “It’s the female form, but it’s alien, creepy.”
She has since painted quite a few mannequin torsos, all framed and sized the same but in different colors and bearing different messages and ideas. One of the mannequins is printed with the names of countries from which many of our clothes today originate; one has the names of high-end designer brands. One has a quote from Oscar Wilde written across the mannequin’s chest: “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”
After the mannequins came images of clothing, also painted on the pattern sheets. The Threads Series makes use of the lines of the patterns that instruct where to stitch and cut, and uses them to highlight elements of the depicted garments. In a painting of a dress that pays homage to the great artist Frida Kahlo, lines in the pattern behind the paint point sharply to the places on the torso where Kahlo was famously wounded in a bus crash.
Some of the pieces offer a kind of juxtaposition of the patterns, from which something can be handmade, against images of the kinds of evening attire that celebrities wear to various glamorous events. Lesia points to an image of a gold gown that she painted, with its back facing us, over a collage of patterns. The gown has a zipper running from the back of the neckline to the bottom hem. “Who puts in that zipper?” she asks rhetorically, pointing out that while clothes like this are beautiful, we rarely think about who did the actual work to make them.
Lesia talks with me for a while about how few people in our country make their own clothes anymore. Most of the clothes we buy are cheap, produced at low cost by people being paid very little in other parts of the world. She notes that our clothes today, being cheap and cheaply made, often get thrown away. “Landfills,” she tells me, “are full of clothes.”
Zippers are becoming a major part of the Threads Series as it evolves. Lesia is currently exploring ways to replicate the shape of zippers in three dimensions, by embossing them into papers and fabrics. She has also produced some more personal works, featuring clothing that her daughter modeled for her. One is a wedding dress; one shows the silhouette, dressed in a bright floral bodysuit, of her daughter while she was pregnant. There is an overarching theme of personal history in the Threads Series, side-by-side with its political commentary. But the Threads Series is really meant to apply to everybody. “We share a ‘common thread’,” Lesia writes, “sewing us into a fabric called the world.”
The Threads Series will soon be shown at the Kaufman Arcade in the Garment District of New York City.
BCC Member Profiles are written by Julia Clapp.