In queer artist, writer and curator Riva Lehrer's recently released memoir Golem Girl, she takes readers on a journey through her life via the lens of her being born with spina bifida and the way that has impacted and informed everything she has done.
"This is the entire through-line of my book," said Lehrer. "I have been working on this book for the past six and a half years. It started as a record of my work for my family so that after I died they would have a document that explained my work that they could give to curators or collectors.
"Then for various reasons I started to look into my own childhood and questions came up about some of my images and where they came from. I started doing research into my family and that really changed the whole direction of the book. The book is now a hybrid of those two things."
Lehrer was born in 1958 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and lived there until she moved to Chicago in her early 20s. She studied at the University of Cincinnati and School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). In addition to her artistic endeavors, Lehrer is also a faculty member at SAIC and a Northwestern University Medical Humanities Department's instructor.
As for the title of the book, Lehrer said each word refers to the two parts of her life. She added that this delineation between the two was not one moment in time, that is was a gradual process.
The prologue includes references to Frankenstein and his creature and Rabbi Judah Loew be Bezalel and his Golem which is a folk story in her Jewish culture. Lehrer told Windy City Times she learned about Golem in her early teens when she saw the 1915 silent German Yiddish film called The Golem. She added that the creature and Golem spoke to her in her youth, hence the first word in her book title.
"Part one, Golem, is about perceiving myself and being more or less told when I was a monster while I was growing up," said Lehrer. "I always identified with not being human, being a construct like Golem is and because of this I was going to be, according to other people, not qualified for any of what is perceived as a 'normal' life.
"Part two, Girl, is about trying to figure out how to have a life that I recognized as something I want. Not a life where I would get brownie points for overcoming my disability, a life that held meaning and power to affect the world in some way. It is all a long slow evolution. It has been 60 years of nudging at doors."
One of these evolution moments Lehrer speaks about in her book was when she went to Boston as an older teenager for one of her many surgeries. There were moments in the hospital when her mother was not in her presence where she felt like a young adult with autonomy.
Another way Lehrer asserted her autonomy was when she moved into the dorms at the University of Cincinnati and later into an apartment with some friends. College is where Lehrer met the two people who would change the course of her personal lifeher boyfriend William and, later, her girlfriend Adele.
Lehrer told Windy City Times that until she met William she did not think she would ever have a romantic relationship with anyone due to her disability. William giving her the nickname Chen from Liebchen which means the beloved one in German further solidified her belief that she was a desirable person.
"When you give each other nicknames it is a way to give you a little private circle around the two of you," said Lehrer. "We were making in literal and figurative ways spaces that were just for the two of us. Given that he is an architect space both conceptually and symbolically was important to the both of us."
As for Adele, Lehrer met her in a drawing class and she said that falling in love with her awakened her queer identity. She added that at the time people only used the word bisexual to describe who she was but that word never spoke to her.
"Both relationships completely refuted what I expected from the world," said Lehrer. "I can never be grateful enough for the fact that everything I expected adulthood would be which was isolated and lonely. I have always been surprised when anyone is interested in me. I have never quite gotten over that.
"It is a little hard to trust people but having two extremely beautiful, smart, creative, incredible people who I could clearly see that other people in our community thought were hot stuff would choose me, on the one hand I kept waiting to see if it was a joke of some kind or a trick but on the other hand when it became more real I could not completely believe anymore in the messages I had grown up with."
Today, Lehrer is still really good friends with William and Adele and last year she did a portrait of William over a long weekend where he sat for her in her Chicago studio. This took many months to finish.
"William was supposed to come back again this past February to stay for another long weekend so I could work on the portrait but of course by then it was looking like that was not going to be a good idea due to the emerging pandemic," said Lehrer. "I had to finish it through Zoom sessions and mailing some stuff back and forth. It took a very long time. We were extremely sad about not being able to see each other in person."
When asked if Lehrer thinks things would have been different had she been born a decade or more later, she said "yes, however, individuals are extremely variant because it is not like everyone who is younger than me does not have impairments. It was more than ten years later but they did in utero surgery to correct some things for fetuses with spina bifida. What they can do even now depends on the placement and size of the lesion on the spine, and also the kind of medical team involved."
Lehrer pursued an artistic career because at the time various other careers were blocked to her due to her disability.
"Everybody said for some bizarre reason that I should be a kindergarten teacher which was the last thing on Earth I wanted to be," said Lehrer. "I ended up choosing art school because it seemed like it was never going to make me a lot of money but it was something I was allowed to do. I also really enjoy doing art."
Of the many artistic endeavors Lehrer talks about in her book were her Circle Stories portraits beginning with "Circle Stories: Jeff Carpenter."
"His painting became the first of a series: 'Circle Stories,' named for the wheel of a wheelchair, for the universal symbol of impairment, and for the Collective, my circle of safety. And whether or not I was a bad painter, I could give people control over how they were portrayed. These works weren't commissions. Technically I needn't obey anyone's wishes but my own, but this work actively demanded a collaborative ethics of representation."
A number of years ago, Lehrer's practice opened up to other ways of expressing her art in addition to her work focusing on disability and gender presentation.
"In terms of the future, I am really hoping to work more deeply with people who have not had access to representation for reasons of some kind of embodiment," said Lehrer. "My work is always going to be around embodiment in one way or another and that includes non-visible disabilities; for example people with psychiatric diagnoses."
One of Lehrer's 2020 projects that took place over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a portrait of Alice Wong. She is also finishing other works that were already in progress before the pandemic over Zoom or via mailing things back and forth.
In terms of how Lehrer has navigated this pandemic "my message is that disabled people are extremely accustomed to having to drop whatever the way that they used to do something and have to find a new route or seeing someone who had to invent a new route from the beginning. That they were never going to have access to the standard way of doing something.
"The level of creative invention in the community is intense. Even though this is on a scale that I do not normally have to encounter, having to scrap an entire practice, but on the other hand I am used to it as are so many of my compatriots. To say, that was then and this is now. Right now, I am trying to figure out how to continue to be a portraitist when I cannot have anyone in my studio at all."
As for what Lehrer wants the readers to take away from reading her book, she said she "hopes it makes more space for the life that you have. The book is about how people perceive and manipulate each other's embodiment, about the pressure we bring to bear on each other depending on whether we think each other's embodiment is desirable, appropriate or problematic.
"I use my life to talk about that. It still is not important to me at all that people know the specifics of my life. I was writing about my life to talk about how we turn each other into monsters and then try to change each other to be more accessible."
See rivalehrerart.com/ .