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Artist: Leanne Shea Rhem, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Interview 42: Leanne exhibited in the 2012 World of Threads Festival exhibition De rerum natura (On The Nature of Things)at Joshua Creek Heritage Arts Centre in Oakville, Ontario.

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Leanne Shea Rhem is a fibre artist, clothing designer, and feminist working in Toronto, Canada. Rhem recently earned her Bachelor of Design from Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U), where she studied Material Art & Design with a specialization in fibre. Her work currently involves the use of a wide range of media and fibre based techniques to create wearable forms, which create a narrative concerning her experience of being female. Rhem is a member of Woman King, an all female art and design collective based in Toronto. She has exhibited across Toronto in various group shows and will continue to do so while she develops her business that will include a line of body conscious one of a kind garments for women, fibre-based technical workshops as well as arts informed educational courses that will explore community building, human rights, body image, gender, sexuality, and societal interactions with the body. Leanne's Website


Artist Leanne Shea Rhem.


Tell us about your work?

My work explores what it means to be a woman and to be hindered and motivated by societal expectations in addition to our own. Unconventional and conventional fibre based materials and processes are used throughout my work in order to best represent the various layers of narrative. My work also confronts accumulated perceptions that are generally believed to be true of myself or of women. The pieces I make are always representative of my own feelings concerning my body and actions; personality and thoughts; and my desire to initiate conversations concerning the experience of being female.


Armour Front, Media: Handmade Kozo paper, Kozo, Metal Grommets, Lamb Skin Leather, Polyester Thread, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim


From where do you get your inspiration?

I get my inspiration everyday from my interactions with people, by observing the ways in which I treat my own body or how others look and speak to me. As a woman I have become increasingly driven to respond to the ways in which the female population is treated, portrayed, and perceived. Asking myself questions like: what is expected of us? How can we both excel and become outcasts throughout our lives based on our appearance and behaviour? What stereotypes do we combat on a daily basis? But most of all, I am driven by the incredible women I am fortunate enough to have in my family and as friends.


Armour Arm, Media: Handmade Kozo paper, Kozo, Metal Grommets, Lamb Skin Leather, Polyester Thread, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim


Why did you choose to go into fibre art?

My mom would make all of my sister's and my Halloween costumes every year. She would sit down and hear us both explain in great detail the intricate outfits we had envisioned…and she would make them perfectly! That was always a great source of confidence to know that one day I would have someone to help me make the images in my head a reality. From then on, whether it was playing dress-up or finding hundreds of uses for a few yards of purple lace I had been given as a gift, I knew that if I wanted something to be constructed the way I wanted I needed to do it myself.


Armour Detail, Media: Handmade Kozo paper, Kozo, Metal Grommets, Lamb Skin Leather, Polyester Thread, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim

Armour Side, Media: Handmade Kozo paper, Kozo, Metal Grommets, Lamb Skin Leather, Polyester Thread, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim


Which is your favourite fibre medium?

There are so many to choose from! I readily use a number of different materials and processes in each piece, however if I had to choose, I would say silk, without a doubt. Silk has been a subject of indepth research for me over the past several years, whether I am looking at the mulberry trees that the worms feed on, to the cocoons, or using the roving, reeling or spinning, weaving, dyeing, painting, printing, or sewing in my work, I am obsessed.


Negative Thought Face, Media: Free Motion Embroidered Polyester Thread, 2010, Photography: Christine Lim

Negative Thought Detail, Media: Free Motion Embroidered Polyester Thread, 2010, Photography: Christine Lim


What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your fibre work?

I enjoy drawing, designing patterns and creating fashion illustrations using pen and ink, watercolour and gouache. I like practicing my photography skills and planning photo shoots for my pieces where I am able to further develop the personae behind each wearable form and then capture it on the body. I have found that the more ways I can visualize, plan and interact with the fibre work I make, through different media and processes, the stronger the work becomes.



Negative Thought, Media: Free Motion Embroidered Polyester Thread, 2010, Photo: Christine Lim


What specific historic artists have influenced your work? 

The artists that I return to are generally drawers and painters who have a strong sense of romance, exoticism, sexuality, or honesty embedded within their work. I am also influenced by images with captivating narratives associated with the female form and artists whose body of work encompasses a large number of self-portraits.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is a Mexican painter whose body of work consists of mostly self-portraits, which so honestly depict her experience as a woman. From her life story to the political, cultural, and feminist subject matter she preserved and presented in her work, she is and always will be, an influence for me as an artist, maker, designer, and feminist.

The almost thread-like line of Austrian painter Egon Shiele's (1890-1918) drawings, are a great source of inspiration. The raw sexuality of his drawings is unapologetic, a quality that I hope I will achieve in my work one day.

French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard's (1732-1806) paintings have influenced me for the longest time. His body of work reads almost as a story or Rococo soap opera that has continued from painting to painting, where the characters may have changed and the plot has evolved, but they are still linked together. I hope that as I evolve throughout my career my pieces will still feel connected in this way.



Target Front, Media: Suit Weight Silk with Permantent Marker Hand Writing, Pleated Silk Organza, Cotton Thread Embroidery, Thread, Zipper, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim

Target Back, Media: Suit Weight Silk with Permantent Marker Hand Writing, Pleated Silk Organza, Cotton Thread Embroidery, Thread, Zipper, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim


What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work? 

I would have to list my friends/colleagues and teachers/mentors, without whom I would not be making the work I am making now. I graduated from OCAD U with a strong sense of community, which led three of my classmates and I to form an art and design collective, Woman King (website will be coming soon and will be posted on my site in the next few months). Woman King consists of:

Megan Skyvington who graduated from the Drawing and Painting Program but whose work has become increasingly more sculptural. Working with colour, form and texture to create wearable objects cited to various parts of the female body has allowed her to confront notions of public stigma.

Ange-line Tetrault who graduated from Industrial Design but whose work in product design has involved a sensitivity and thoughtfulness for the user experience and a target market that is often exclusively women.

Tara Lee Towers who graduated from the Material Art & Design-Fibre Program and whose work often illustrates themes of nostalgia, mourning, women's work, and exhibits heirloom-like qualities with a modern re-contextualization. Her exceptional skill in a breadth of fibre techniques and concept driven work is inspirational.

Other artists/designers that I have had the privilege to work with and find a constant influence are:

Monica Bodirsky is a Toronto based artist, educator, and activist whose current work consists of mixed media fibre pieces that memorialize and mediate history through narrative. Bodirsky has been a great mentor and friend, she has helped to teach me how to tell stories through my work and to stay honest with myself.

(Editors Note: Two pieces by Monica Bordirsky were accepted into the Common Thread International in 2009 and displayed at the Towne Square Gallery)

Spencer J. Harrison is a Toronto based artist, activist, and educator who I have had the incredible opportunity to have been taught by. Harrison has become the first in Canada to paint his PhD dissertation, the subject of which, among many things, is growing up gay in rural Ontario. Whether it is through his writing, research, talks or visual work, he has a way of making you see the world in a different way, I would say he has been one of the most influential people in my life.

Jen Kneulman is the Toronto based designer behind Freshly Printed, which produces household textiles using environmentally conscious materials and printing methods. Kneulman's sensitivity to the sustainability of all aspects of her life is what has influenced me most, which is never more obvious than through her products and the degree to which she researches.

Jon Riosa is a Toronto based interdisciplinary artist who also graduated from Material Art & Design- Fibre from OCAD U. Riosa's work explores physical restraint through wearable sculpture often using metal in conjunction with fibre based techniques. This use of unconventional material, the involvement of the body within the work, and the confrontational subject matter is what I find most influential in Riosa's work.


Target Side, Media: Suit Weight Silk with Permantent Marker Hand Writing, Pleated Silk Organza, Cotton Thread Embroidery, Thread, Zipper, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim

Target Leg, Media: Suit Weight Silk with Permantent Marker Hand Writing, Pleated Silk Organza, Cotton Thread Embroidery, Thread, Zipper, 2011, Photography: Christine Lim


What other fibre artists are you interested in?

The fibre artists I find myself most interested in are those that have remained nameless throughout history, the women and men whose names we will never easily discover because they live or lived in a time when not nearly enough importance was placed on the medium and skills they possessed.



Embroidery Sketch, Media:Pen and Ink, Craft Paper, Gouache, Gold Pen, 2011


Tell us about your studio and how you work:

Currently my studio is in the basement of my parent's home. I will be in transition over the next year or so where I will be finding a more permanent studio option.

If I am being perfectly honest…when I work, I am messy! I spread my work across tables, chairs, and floors and I generally have multiple projects on the go so that I don't get bored. I have bins upon bins of fabric, paper, tools, and thread etc. I find when things are in perfect order you will only ever come across the item you were looking for, but when my materials are in a functioning state of disarray I always come across notes and materials I have forgotten about. My advice, keep at least one area of your studio messy, you never know what ideas you will come up with!


Embroidery, Media: Silk and Cotton Thread Embroidery, Silk Organza, Vintage Embroidered Cotton, Suit Weight Silk, Weak Acid Dyed Silk Pongee, Glass Beads, Couched Peacock Feathers, 2011, Photography: Judith Rhem


What role do you think fibre art plays in contemporary art?

I think fibre art needs to play a more prominent role in contemporary art, however the role it currently plays is important. The insertion of fibre art into contemporary art keeps the definition of art more ambiguous and allows for a broader range of perspectives, materials, and techniques to communicate with, which is exciting!


Bottle Cap Dress, Media: Cotton Canvas, Thread, Hammered Beer Bottle Caps, Glass Bead, 2010, Photography: Adelle Taylor



Where do you imagine your work in five years? 

I have no way of knowing where my work will be, which is the most exciting part! I know that I am looking forward to the next several years where I will grow and evolve as a person, one can only hope that my work will come along for the ride.


Swarming, 2009, Materials and Techniques: Free motion embroidery on tule, black cotton thread, glass beads, hair clip


How did you find out about the World of Threads Festival?

I found out about the World of Threads Festival through Festival Curator Gareth Bate, who I met at the most recent Graduate Exhibition at OCAD U where I was showing my thesis work from my final year. We had a lovely talk and I decided to sign up and receive the weekly interviews and updates about the festival.


What interests you about the World of Threads festival?

The fact that the World of Threads Festival is a Canadian initiative is inspiring, and that an international community has been formed is wonderful!


Mother Nature, 2008, Materials and Techniques: Braided raffia and dried plant material  


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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.