Lessa Bouchard is an interdisciplinary artist exploring varied expressions of memory, identity and community. For 20 years, she has addressed a wide range of social and environmental issues in her work through theatre, installation and performance art. She has been a teaching artist and program manager for a variety of arts organizations in Detroit, Chicago, and Palo Alto. She currently maintains a studio as member of the City of Palo Alto Cubberley Artists Studio Program and teaches a variety of media classes for the Children’s Fine Arts program at the Palo Alto Art Center. Lessa is a new instructor with Pepperwood Education Director Sandi Funke was able to get together with her recently to learn a little more about her and approach to teaching. Responses below are by Lessa.
Much of your fine arts instruction as well as your installation and even performance work has focused on books and paper. Why have paper books been such an important topic for your work?
As a child, I used to play at a used bookstore. And, I had it on good authority, that there was a book monster in the cellar. That’s what I heard, when my mother would take me to visit her friend Jim Monig, our local bookmonger.
Books are such an important part of who we are—they have always been a particular touchstone for me. Books were a refuge for me as a child. Also, I write, and have worked in bookstores on and off throughout my life, so it actually isn’t surprising that books would surface in my work. In addition, I love all things woodsy and wicker—the subtle palette of charcoal, whites, yellows, browns, and greens, with the occasional shock of red. Handmade paper is very suited to that aesthetic.
How did you get interested papermaking in particular?
A book. Faith Shannon’s book Paper Pleasures and the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago. The first time I visited, there were these bundles of fragrant greenery hanging all around, waiting to be beaten into pulp to create all kinds of paper… that was incredibly inspiring.
Before long, an education director at the Palo Alto Art Center encouraged me to try out an idea I had for junk mail paper and journal making. I reached out and invited a representative from Canopy, a local tree planting organization, to do a tree walk with us. We gathered leaves and flowers for our paper and learned about native trees and plants—reinforcing the connection between the art material and the importance of conservation. While developing the class, I called Robert Possehl, a master paper artist, and he coached me a little, as I described to him what I was doing. He said don’t give up, to keep at it, there is a feel to it. Sure enough, with practice and experimentation, I figured it out. Having his reassurance, and having a sense memory of the consistency of the pulp slurry that the paper artists in Chicago were using, made a difference. If I hadn’t been exposed to the instruction which was more traditional, I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to push through.
Your have taught in one form or another for over 20 years. What do you like about teaching?
Students of all ages love to figure stuff out, to grapple with new materials, and everyone has unique perspectives and ideas. A blast of individual creativity lights up the room. The things students make are truly inspiring—I love that each piece is different.
What about teaching fine arts? How is an outstanding educator different than just a great artist?
There is something very gentle about my favorite artists and instructors—an infinite softness, an understanding, and acceptance of how varied human expression can be, while at the same time, they offer generous insight, structure, tools and materials, as well as the benefit of their own experience – not necessarily imposing it, rather offering it up as a guide.