21c Durham first shared Leah Sobsey’s work in 2016 with her solo show, Collections, in the Vault Gallery and on the second floor. The exhibition was inspired by the artist’s fascination with museum collections after a childhood visit to the storage vault at Chicago’s Field Museum. 21c Museum checked-in with Sobsey to see how she is feeling during this spring season change, what she is looking forward to working on this year, and what she has in her fridge at the moment.
This Friday, April 23, Leah Sobsey will be taking over 21c Durham’s Instagram account. Follow along with Leah on @21cdurham and on her personal Instagram @leahsobsey.
How are you feeling today? This week? This new year?
Leah Sobsey (LS): As I look outside my studio window and see the trees begin to leaf out and green replaces brown, I feel a sense of light and hope. Both as it relates to the pandemic and also as it relates to my work. Like most people, I have spent a good portion of this year tucked away at home, which has opened up a new way of working. Traditionally I make work during artist residencies, but out of necessity this year, I began working at home a bit with plant-based materials to create photographic imagery. I’m very excited about where the work is headed, and I’m anxious to get back to residencies this summer to dive in!
What are you looking forward to doing this year in your art practice?
LS: I have a few major projects in the works that I’m excited to move forward with. I started a new business LEA with Dr. Emily Meineke, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Davis Dept. of Entomology and Nematology and Anne Schroth, owner of Red Canary fabric print studio in Greensboro, NC. LEA uses historical plant specimens to create wearable art as well as home goods. Our first line utilizes Henry David Thoreau’s herbarium collection (pressed plant specimens) addresses issues related to species loss.
I also have a large-scale exhibition, In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers that opens at The Harvard Museum of Natural History in May 2022 with collaborators Dr. Emily Meineke, Dr. Marsha Gordon, and designer Robin Vuchnich. As a multidisciplinary team, we have come together to work with Henry David Thoreau’s herbarium collection from the 1800s to address issues of climate change.
I am simultaneously collaborating with my artist friend and former grad school classmate, Amanda Marchand, to create a new installation and artist book utilizing Emily Dickinson’s pressed plant collection from the mid-1800s. We will be experimenting with photography’s ephemeral lumen printing and anthotype processes: the two historical alternative photographic processes will be in direct conversation with Dickinson’s poetry, climate change, and threatened animal and plant species. Look for Emily Dickinson’s specimens in LEA too.
Lumen Love, grid, 2020
How can people continue to support artists in their communities?
LS: Buy art!
What is your go-to food of choice these days? Any new recipes that you have tried that you are excited to make again?
LS: I’m culturally Jewish, but when you have seven-year-old twins, you tend to celebrate every holiday that exists! My boys and I look forward to dying Easter eggs every year. I treat them like I would experimental prints on paper and use natural dyes and plant-based materials to create the designs. It has become quite the obsession in our house—I think I bought 84 eggs this year. Needless to say, we’ve been eating a lot of egg salad and deviled eggs, one of my favorites. I keep it pretty simple with egg yolks, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, dried mustard, and paprika.
What project has been keeping you busy during the pandemic?
LS: I made Lumen Love during the pandemic. Through the daily ritual of long walks/runs in the woods, I sought solace and escape in the natural world where poetry and light resided in the forest near my house. These antholumen photograms were created with expired silver gelatin paper, exposed to the sun, and coated with a mix of natural plant materials as a way to alter the color and explore alchemy. I was interested in pushing the medium and materials as a way to see the future.
My photo-based work usually explores the natural world through archives and taxonomies with an experimental and materials-based approach to the medium of photography. Using historical, scientific, and artistic lenses, I aim to understand the connection to plant and animal loss as one indication of the larger climatological perils we face as a species. The pandemic allowed me to slightly switch gears and create my own taxonomy based on my daily walks by collecting insect-damaged leaves to create a new Lumen series.
Lumen Love, detail, 2020
About the artist:
Leah Sobsey is an artist and Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Sobsey’s photo-based work explores the natural world through archives and taxonomies with an experimental and materials-based approach to the medium of photography. Using historical, scientific, and artistic lenses, she aims to understand the connection to plant and animal loss as one indication of the larger climatological perils we face as a species.
She is interested in creating dialog between art and science and has spent the last decade-plus photographing specimens from National Park and University museum collections across the country to understand climate change and species loss.
Sobsey works in 19th-century photographic processes combined with digital technology. She exhibits internationally in galleries, public spaces, and museums; she currently has work in the exhibition, Branching Out at the Umstead Hotel, as well as a forthcoming exhibition, Art on Paper, at the Weatherspoon Art Museumand an exhibition at The Harvard Museum of Natural History, documenting species loss through Henry David Thoreau’s herbarium. Her recent installations were exhibited at The Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, California, The Weatherspoon Art Museum, The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, The Moss Center at Virginia Tech, The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado, The Fence Durham, the world’s largest photography public art exhibition in the world, and Rayko Photo Gallery in San Francisco, California, which also featured her first monograph, Collections, released in July 2016 by Daylight Books. Her work is held in private and public collections across the country, including the North Carolina Museum of Art, Bill Gates-Microsoft, Fidelity Investments, Cassihaus, Duke University, Maine Media College, Rose Community Foundation Denver and many more. Her images have appeared in New Yorker, Paris Review Daily, Slate, Hyperallergic, The Telegraph, and many more. Sobsey is a founding member of LEA, a mission-based company that transforms nature’s fragile specimens into cloth-based modern wearable art for everyday living. They are committed to using materials that are natural, locally-produced, and carbon-neutral, and to support other women-owned businesses. Sobsey is also co-founder of the Visual History Collaborative and part of the documentary team that produced the best-selling Daylight Book, Bull City Summer, published in 2013. She received her BA from Guilford College and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute.
To see more of Leah’s work, you can visit https://www.leahsobsey.com/
Swarm, 2018, Moss Arts Center, Virginia Tech, VA
Install of Winter Blues: Contemporary Cyanotypes, Center for Photographic Art, Monterey, CA, 2020
Selections and detail of installation at the Center for Photographic Art