Auto Biography by Leah Kiser
I was born in Melrose, Minnesota in 1982 and grew up in St. Charles, MN. I was not always a painter and did not always make humorous work, but I have always loved to draw and make things.
I began drawing long before I started showing my work with the public. I am often quiet and uncomfortable with people; I generally feel more comfortable with small groups, or simply just need to be alone, drawing, thinking, and writing.
I think I'm naturally introverted, but there is also a deeper emotional reason for my aversion to people. I don't mean to overshare here, but what I'm going to tell you has a lot to do with who I am and my journey through life and art - and if I don't tell you, it feels a bit like a betrayal to myself, so here goes - When I was three years old, I was sexually abused. If you don't have experience with such things, it is hard to understand what something like that does to a person -particularly a little girl who doesn't have the language to explain what happened, a little girl that adults don't fully believe, and a little girl whose friends aren't old enough to understand. I learned to keep my thoughts hidden. I've gotten better now, at letting them out. The abuse is part of who I am - I can not ever change that, and as I mentioned before, to ignore it is a betrayal of who I am. I am what I am, and I am not worthless. I like to tell myself that anyway, and sometimes I believe it. Thank you for letting me share that with you - now I can tell you more about my journey.
Because of my aversion to others as a child, I spent a lot of time by myself, even when other people were around. As a result, I developed an entertaining and detailed inner world. It was safe and fun inside my mind - Hills were like the bodies of brontosauruses that I could climb to the top of and sit on their back for a ride through the park, and I could find faces in the leafless branches of the trees outside my window, and they would laugh and move when the wind blew. These thoughts brought me true happiness.
I also had a desire to draw realistically, cats in particular. I challenged myself to see things in a careful way. I found metaphors for understanding reality or finding truth throughout the drawing process. These things contributed to my commitment to the practice of drawing well. It might sound funny, but I felt "virtuous" I was doing justice to my subjects by telling their truth, or telling as close to the truth as I could observe and render. It was a way of accepting the complexity of reality, a complexity that I wished more people would tap into so that little quiet things could tell their stories too.
It was in High School in St. Charles, Minnesota that I received more formal training from a teacher, Mr. Reuben Torres. He used lessons from the book "Drawing with the Right Side of Your Brain" to help students "draw what they see." I worked hard to improve, and eventually Mr. Torres encouraged me to go to school where he had gone, Coe College, in Cedar Rapids Iowa.
Even though drawing and painting realistically were my first loves, while at Coe I mostly explored ceramics and sculpture with professor John Beckelman, who specialized in non representational art. It was a great adventure into three dimensional forms and compositional elements and principles. I also took a life drawing classes with Priscilla Steele and a watercolor class with Peter Thompson where I learned about mixing colors. I also spent a semester in New York City and apprenticed to two sculptors, Romolo Del Deo and Lee Tribe . I spent a lot of time at the Art Student's League and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and watched orchestra, dance, and theater performances. It was in New York that I began to understand what art meant to me.
In college, I also became interested in Philosophy. It helped me question my ideas and form a more open understanding of reality and art. I engaged in debate with people and learned to poke holes in arguments respectfully. I began to realize that no one has it figured out, and we're just doing the best we can with what we have. I found reason to take myself and others less seriously and feel more comfortable in my own skin. I also met my future husband, Random Kiser in logic class.
After graduation, I stayed in Cedar Rapids, IA for a few months. In January of 2006, I moved into a humble apartment in Hamilton, WA with my fiancé, Random. Throughout my time in Washington, I volunteered at the Museum of Northwest Art and attended figure drawing group in Anacortes each week. The art community there was full of wonderfully colorful characters.
We converted a bedroom into a studio, and I worked on art in my spare time. The pieces below were completed during my Senior year in college, and in the year after. Some images below were shown in my senior show "Truth and Artifact," and others at my first solo show "Quiet Thoughts and Dreams" at Creative Cafe in Laconnar, WA. The show included drawings, sculptures, and poems. Like now, I didn't try to push my work in a specific direction. I was exploring the world around me and sharing what I saw and thought. I like making art that way, it feels like an authentic process of expression. I thought about this in New York, my favorite artists - Rodin, Robert Henri, Van Gogh, Klimt, Lautrec - they didn't seem to drive toward cohesive concepts. They just seemed to love visual phenomena and their medium and developed a style from playing with it over time.
Here is one of the poems from the show in LaConner, Washington:
Oak Tree Ode
For my Father
You wrap yourself in a thick rippled crust
weathered by your time
rough and abrasive to the touch
protecting you from harm...and love
You don't fool me
My strong rippling giant
You're sensitive, I know
Deliberate and slow to act
but not afraid to grow
Unfortunately, rural Washington was a difficult place for me to live. I was far away from my family for the first time. We did not have much money, and steady work was hard to find. I worked 3 part time jobs in addition to creating artwork and volunteering at the museum. I had always anticipated that I would work a side job and create art, but being a quiet, awkward, college educated newcomer working a minimum wage job made me a target for ridicule. I started to doubt my intelligence and self worth, even more than normal. I was fired from one of my jobs, and verbally chastised at another.
I started going to counseling. It was the best thing I could have done. I learned strategies to stop negative self talk, and most importantly I learned to find worthiness in myself and not depend on others to measure me.
In 2007, Random and I moved to Arizona. We were married soon after our arrival. I worked at Ahwatukee Commons Veterinary Hospital in Phoenix, AZ as the Kennel Technician (After my experience in Washington, I wanted to do something that I knew well - I had been taking care of animals at my father's vet clinic since I was ten years old, so I felt pretty confident about that. The team was great, and the owner of the practice, Dr. Linda Elliott allowed me to paint a mural in the bathroom. There, I started to get a grasp on the use of color with an opaque medium, and using photographs as a starting place to paint animals doing silly things (what I still do today).
Shortly after my daughter was born in 2008, I began working at the University of Phoenix and making a long commute to work, leaving less time to work on art. Life picked up speed, and my relationships with my husband, daughter, and colorful coworkers brought a whole new happy energy to life. I gained confidence, and because I was on the phone helping students realize their life goals, I got better at determining what I wanted to do. Shortly after my son was born in 2011, I decided it was time to get back to my artwork. Scroll down a bit further to read an article about the children's book that helped me get back into drawing.