Michael Lease Shows The Extraordinary in the Mundane, Receives VMFA Fellowship

by | Jun 27, 2014 | ART

Over the years, Richmond Artist and VCU teacher Michael K. Lease has been in a number of exhibitions throughout RVA and the country.

Over the years, Richmond Artist and VCU teacher Michael K. Lease has been in a number of exhibitions throughout RVA and the country. But a series of images he submitted for a VMFA fellowship were of particular impact.

The project, Driving Richmond: Stories and Portraits of GRTC Operators, draw on real people in real positions – but Lease’s talents portraits show much more than that.

With origins in the RVA Street are Festival, this project (created with Laura Browder and Benjamin Thorp) was about looking at the role city bus drivers have played in the civil rights history of Richmond.

“This mode of working comes out of my want to have the art that I make to “do” something other than exist as art,” said Lease. “Often these projects are politically and/or historically motivated. Often they happen for the sake of getting large groups of people together to think collectively about something they may not have considered.”

Lease talked about having two modes of working, a private mode and a public mode. The private he described as, “consisting primarily of diaristic photographs of friends, family, lovers, immediate environs, etc.” The public work is more of a collaborative effort that, “makes the work appear to be more of a community project than a single artist’s project.”

His inspirations come from an old nemesis we all face, though Lease examines the topic in a unique way. “I would say that it’s time that inspires me. I am interested in horizons, in long views. I am enchanted by the way a photograph ages,” said Lease.
It’s not the physical aging of the photo which entices him, but the way the person or thing in the picture always stays the same age.

“It is us that get old and distant from the picture.”

Lease, as a VCU Alumni and now employed by the institution, has a great view of the up-and-coming members of RVA’s artist community. He described the local scene as being scrappy.

“It has a great under current of anti-establishment sentiment that I attribute to the ongoing rebellion (long fueled by Richmond’s punk and anarchist community) against the city’s entrenched conservatism,” said Lease. “I suspect that there has always been a lot to rebel against here and that that makes for good creative output.”

When describing artists and their work you always want to know if there’s one particular piece that’s closest to their heart. Lease’s personal favorite work was a collaborative project called Frostburg: Document, a book of collected images from the town of Frostburg, Maryland.

So far there have been two books, one in 2002, and recently in 2012 to coincide with Frostburg’s bicentennial.

“It’s a lifelong commitment to make a book or some kind of image-based project about the small Appalachian town where I met my wife, Kimberly Wolfe, and our collaborator Greg Auldridge,” Lease said.

“Each time we make the book, we donate copies to the local and university libraries. We hope that what we leave behind will be like a series of community photo albums documenting the changes in the town.”

Lease spoke about the challenges an artist can face – between getting out of your own head and dealing with the professional world of art, it’s no easy feat to be successful artist.

“Making work that deals mostly with the little world, that is your own life, is tough because you have the challenge of getting people to care,” said Lease. “Collaborative projects are tough too because you need to have a clear idea of how to deal with issues of ownership, copyright, and use. Most people don’t like their art mixed up with legal contracts but that’s often a reality.”

When asked if Lease has any advice for aspiring artists, his answer was simple. “Fan the flames of your idiosyncrasies and don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Lease is keeping busy, he’s about to teach a new class next semester called ‘Social Practice in the Museum.’ It will be Art History professor, Traci Garland and will bring together art history and photography and film students with high schoolers from Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT), and other community partners.

The idea is to share our knowledge of image making, writing, storytelling, and oral history to create a project and exhibition which will be shown in the Valentine Richmond History Center’s Community Galleries in the early part of 2015. “I’m super excited about how this project will bring together students from different corners of Richmond.”

Back in February the VMFA awarded fellowships to some very hardworking artists. Overall they’ve awarded nearly $5 million in fellowships to Virginians. Lease was one recipient of the fellowship program. (http://esterknows.com/archives/michael-k-lease)

This was not Lease’s first time applying for the fellowship, so when he received the call he was more than ecstatic. “It was amazing. I have called quite a few friends to tell them they won and have had the pleasure of delivering the sweet news. This year someone got to do that for me. It was a wonderful, unexpected surprise. Being granted the award by Tina Kukielski (who recently co-curated the Carnegie International) was a great honor. I applied 9 times before being awarded the fellowship. Each year the rejection is painful, the only thing that makes it OK is that you often know the people who did win them.”

If you want to look up any other work by Michael Lease visit his website here and here for pictures of DrivingRichmond.

pictures are from

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at BradKutnerNPR@gmail.com

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