Q&A with Riva Lehrer
This pandemic has been difficult and frustrating for everyone and one bright spot of my year was sitting for a portrait by Riva Lehrer, a disabled artist I followed for many years who has become a friend of mine. In this Q&A with Riva, I talk with her about her new memoir that is now available, Golem Girl: A Memoir (One World, 2020), pandemic portraiture, what she is working on next, and her hopes for the future.
Please note this interview has been condensed for clarity. Audio transcription by Cheryl Green.
For More About Riva Lehrer
“The Virus Has Stolen Your Face From Me,” Riva Lehrer, The New York Times, December 10, 2020.
“Riva Lehrer: GOLEM GIRL and Pandemic Portraiture,” Courtney Graham, Sixty Inches From Center, November 21, 2020.
ALICE: Hey Riva, please introduce yourself and share a little bit about your background.
RIVA: OK. So, I’m 62, I’m white, I’m Jewish, I’m short, I’m under five feet tall. I have spina bifida so that I have a curved spine and very large orthopedic shoes, which are a continuous theme in my life. And I have white hair that I streak with red. So, it’s a little bit of what I look like. And I talk in the book a lot about what I would look like and how it gets me treated. So, I’m describing myself for multiple reasons. I’m from Cincinnati, but I’ve lived in Chicago for over 40 years. I’m a portraitist, so I go out and paint people, almost entirely people who deal with stigma. So, whether that’s because of an impairment or gender presentation or sexuality or anything that gets somebody, has gotten someone the kind of message that their body or their way of being in the world is unacceptable. This is the route to beauty for me.
And so, for almost more than 25 years, I’ve been doing portraits of people, a lot of people in the disability community. Because at the time, I was one of the only people doing this, and there still are not very many. I’ve seen at times that it’s had an effect that the [inaudible] have been used as ways to discuss the disabled experience from a different standpoint than the one that we’re usually sort of medical or sometimes political. As with all disability culture, it’s a road into our lives that gets to a different place.
On Riva’s New Book
ALICE: On October 6th of this year your first book came out, Golem Girl: A Memoir. And first, congratulations. What has it been like since the launch of your book, if you could share with me?
RIVA: Strange. The press had thought that, apparently had thought it was gonna be a bestseller. They came out with a pretty big printing. But the combination of Trump and the coronavirus and right before the book came out, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and right as the book was coming out was the Amy Coney Barrett thing, and then the pandemic was shooting up. And anyway, there’s been a lot of complicated stuff. But basically, it’s been incredibly impossible to get attention from national media. I’ve been getting more attention from the Jewish press, surprisingly, than anything else. And besides the disappointment and frustration there— this book is probably just gonna have a long, slow life and hopefully I’ll stick around for chunks of it.
But what’s really enraged me is that we are in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and as you know, disability is still somehow not in the conversation! You know? I just can’t…I can’t wrap my mind around it. But my editor had thought, your book is gonna be so important right now because everyone’s dealing with illness and embodiment and rights and the right to healthcare and all this stuff, and your book is really gonna help people talk. And instead, it’s been fairly roundly ignored…I’ve just been gob struck how hard it’s been to be in the conversation.
ALICE: And what has been the—in addition to all the ups and downs of promotion and the book launch—what has been the response from disabled people? Because clearly, this is also something for us by us.
RIVA: It’s for us by us, yes.
ALICE: So, what have you heard from disabled people who’ve read it?
RIVA: By and large, very positive. So far, I haven’t heard much. I’m sure the critiques will come, and there are certainly things that can be critiqued. But the support has been great. The conversations have been great. I imagine that when it’s out in paperback and it starts to hit the schools, that I’ll be able to have a lot of really interesting conversations with people who are reading it across the country. I mean, I’m getting a lot of really nice phone calls and emails and responses from people who read it and blurbed it. And I couldn’t be happier about that. That’s been incredibly sustaining. I mean, I think it’s always the question about. It’d been hard to write because if I had written a book that was only for us, it would be a different book. I wouldn’t have to do any Disability 101. And there are chunks of 101 in there that were, yes, I have to write, but I knew that no one would understand what I was talking about if I didn’t fill it in for a general audience. But also, I felt like the general audience are, by and large, the people who are so behind the curve. And so, I was walking this very thin line between talking to us and talking to them and talking to us and talking to them. And, you know, I guess time will tell where it landed.
But I did find myself so happy that the book was such a celebration of who we are. All over the country, outside of the country, I have got to keep talking more and more and more about us as a community, as a movement, as a culture. There were people who wanted me to kind of skip over that stuff and just keep talking about my personal life. I’m like, no, the point is you understand the culture because of my personal life. I don’t really care that much that it was my personal life, but my personal life explains how I ended up doing what I’m doing. And that was what was important to me, was to get to the part of bringing us to people’s attention and talking about originality and beauty and flexibility that I see all the time in who we are.
On Writing, Editing, and Publishing
ALICE: What was the most challenging aspect of telling your story and the stories of others? Because what kind of responsibility do you feel when, let’s say, recounting certain conversations or events? Just how do you do that in a memoir that’s your perspective but also accurate to some degree with the basic background and other details?
RIVA: So…I sent my book to other readers after I would write something. I would send it, first off, the chapter about whoever I had written about, they got their chapter before we went to the final stage. So, it was important to me—in the same way that I do a lot of stuff in my portraits to give people autonomy—I wrote the book the same way. So that, if I talked about you, I sent you what I’d said. And I made a lot of changes based on how people felt, sometimes very radical changes. But it’s really scary. Like just a few minutes ago when I was describing your portrait, I thought it’s really hard to describe somebody else’s body and keep it totally out of the language of clinical or detachment or I mean, I don’t think in terms of—I hope I don’t think in terms of—ableist language, but, my god, it’s just it’s like we’re swimming in it. And art history, when you talk about paintings and art history, the language is really problematic. And so, getting that language out of my head when I was talking about people’s bodies, people’s portraits, what it was like to work with people, and trying to make sure that I didn’t have those old paradigms creeping up on me, that was scary. Because the basic ethos of the book is don’t hurt people. Do not, unless somebody deserves to be hurt, do not hurt people with this. It took a long time.
ALICE: And what was the relationship like with your editor in terms of the push and pull, kind of the relationship in creating this book together? Because I’m sure your editor gave suggestions, how did you kind of stay true to your own expression?
RIVA: So, the imprint I’m with is called One World, a press that’s all about literary social justice. It’s an imprint of Penguin Random House. I had two different editors there: Victory Matsui and then Christopher Jackson, just really lovely people. And these are people who are extremely sophisticated in terms of otherness and dialogue and language and race and pitfalls. However, they didn’t know that much about disability discourse. So, it wasn’t exactly that we fought, but sometimes I would find myself having to do more education about the issues than I had expected. And really, the biggest struggle was just that they kept wanting me to stay with my story. And as I said, my story is the story of other people. I don’t exist without us, which is there is no me without us. And so, I had to keep pressing to walk away from the specifics of my life, or at least to use the specifics of my life to talk about embodiment. That, sometimes, would take a while, but they were very supportive.
ALICE: That’s great. So, for people who are unfamiliar with golems, what are they, and why are they significant for you as an artist who focuses on the body? So, talk a little bit more about the significance and symbolism of golems.
RIVA: So, a golem is a monster from Jewish folklore, and it goes all the way back. The first golem is in the Old Testament. Adam’s described not as, the original meaning of golem or grimorum is just a shapeless mass. But later on, there were these legends in Jewish folklore of rabbis who would…. So, the most famous version, the one that most people know, if they know it, is from 16th-century Prague. And the story is that the Jews of Prague were under a terrible threat by something called a pogrom. And a pogrom is when the gentile members of a village or a city would rise up against the Jews and slaughter them, burn their buildings, destroy their businesses, and you can imagine. And this happened for 2000 years. It goes that far back.
And so, anyway, there was going to be a particularly vicious one. They often would happen around either Christmas or Easter. And so, in the story, there’s a real rabbi. A rabbi Judah Lowe ben Bezalel. He has this vision and prays how to protect the Jews, and he gets this vision: go down to the river and build a man out of, a being, out of river clay. And here is a mystical prayer that if you write it down and roll it up and put it in the creature’s mouth, it will come to life. And then the rabbi was also supposed to write the word “emet” on the creature’s forehead. And emet means truth in Hebrew. So, he does this, and the monster rises up. And its task—and I talk, well, I’ll explain why in a minute. I’ll just finish the story—so, the creature rises up, and in the night, it will go into the city and listen at windows and go around in alleys and find the conspirators who are planning the pogrom. And he snatches them up and puts them in the town jail. And when the jailers come in every morning, there are these men locked up in the jail. But every time they’re out, the monster comes back, it’s bigger.
And the point, one of the points is that as it’s out in the world, it’s becoming its own self, and becoming its own self makes it bigger. It’s no longer just a tool of the rabbi. So eventually, it becomes so big that it goes out of control, and the rabbi tricks it into bending down. And when the monster bends down, the rabbi takes his fingers and wipes the first letter of the word “emet” off its forehead. And then you get the word ‘dead, death, met.’ And so, when that happens, the golem falls into a little heap of mud. And the Jews of Prague are so grateful that they’ve been saved that they take the mud, and they put it in this part of the synagogue called genizah, which I can spell later. A genizah is where like if a prayer book is torn or a tallis gets dirtied or something, like a sacred object is damaged, you can’t destroy it. So, it gets put in this special place for damaged sacred objects. And that’s the resting place of the golem.
So, the reason I chose it was multiple things. The story of the golem is behind almost every Western story of created beings, beings that are mystically brought to life, built by human hands and then brought to life. And I feel like I am a construction. I’ve had 47 surgeries, been in the hospital well over 300 times now, and my body is covered in scars. And I’ve always thought of the scars of signatures of my creators and that my body has been reconstructed and reconstructed and changed and changed and reconstructed and shifted. And when I’ve been asleep, all of these things have happened when I was elsewhere. And so, I’ve always felt like a thing that was put together, but when I thought more about—
I’ve always related to Frankenstein and this kind of stories. And Mary Shelley did know the story of the golem, apparently, and used it as inspiration in part. But if you look at stories of golems, what happens is that a golem is only allowed to exist when it serves the purposes of its master. As soon as it develops purposes of its own, it’s almost always destroyed. And I thought about when I was a kid and how for people in my generation, we were medically saved, you know, very often. I’m the first generation of people who were regularly saved who had spina bifida, but there was nowhere for us in the world. We had no futures. Most of us or a lot of us ended up institutions or living at home and not having jobs or families of our own, or, you know. At least I was raised to believe that I was really there to be a companion to my mother and that would be my life. And the school I went to didn’t prepare us in any way for an adult future at all.
I thought a lot about the fact that for some disabled people, like, OK, we get, quote “saved.” We’re medically continuing. But the doors that we go through to determine our own lives, have our own purposes, our own vision either have been utterly shut or so hard to open historically. So, I’ve been thinking of us as these kinds of beings who are preserved but then historically blocked from going any further. And no one ever talks about that. But it always has sort of been like, wow, medicine let you survive. But the weird silence between that and the idea of an adult life, it wasn’t even that like…. It wasn’t even like I was told I was forbidden to it. It just somehow, it was as if I had said I was gonna go to Mars. What do you say to that? Sure. You know, change the subject. And that’s what it felt like.
On Disabled Bodies and Portraiture
ALICE: Speaking of golems and bodies and disabled bodies, what do you love about painting other people, especially disabled people?
RIVA: Oh, god, everything! People’s faces and bodies are so poetic, especially as we go through time and we really occupy our bodies, where the person that you are shows more and more on the outside. I like looking at pictures of people when they’re young and then looking at who they are when I meet them and just thinking about that proto-person and now the one that I see. But the thing about disabled bodies—I finally figured this out, and I’ve been telling people this in interviews—what I find beautiful is that because we are so often looked at and we have to be so conscious of what our bodyminds need, there’s a way that there’s a presence that I find in disabled people, a way of like not just kind of, sometimes to me, so-called normal people operate their bodies like they’re driving in the dark or something. Like they just, they don’t know where they are in space. They don’t know like, they’re just kind of going *galumph galumph* through the world. And there’s a kind of blankness there for me that I mean, not everybody, obviously.
And in disability, it’s got such a…hmm, hard won. You know, it’s like something that’s been, has a patina. Like something you’ve touched and touched and touched and rubbed and worked, and there’s just these things that are not really verbal. But it’s just something I see of like this lustrous presence, and that’s what I love.
ALICE: Thank you for that. For the sake of this interview could you describe, this portrait you did for me, what the piece is made out of and also what the portrait looks like?
RIVA: Well, it’s on something called mylar vellum, which is like a plastic that you can draw on. And it’s about, I think it’s something like 17 by 22 inches, something like that. And we did it by having multiple conversations over Google Meet. So, I was drawing you while we were talking, and you’re looking straight out at me, very intense, very communicative expression. People have remarked multiple times on how just sort of riveting your eyes are and how they are stopped cold by your presence, which made me really happy ‘cause I felt like that’s what you’re like. So, people have gotten what I had hoped. So, you are wearing a kind of a black and white track jacket that has zippers, and you’re wearing your BiPAP ventilator which has sort these lovely milky whites and blue tones in it, and then there’s sort of a purple ring around where one of the hose attachment goes. So, it’s got some very lovely, sort of almost atmospheric colors. And then that’s set against the sort of gold and pink tones of your skin color, your deep sort of almost reddish-brown eyes. And then behind you, you can see a little bit of your headrest and then a doorway to more of the apartment and some of the art that you have hung on the wall. And I then took the framing of a Google Meets that I could see on my laptop, and I drew the actual framing device that you would see on the screen with the time. And the dock to my laptop is off to the right. So, I tried to capture what we were doing, so it wouldn’t just be a sort of random picture to make the point that we were communicating remotely and to explore what that was like.
ALICE: Yeah, I mean, I think what’s really interesting is on Facebook several months ago, you posted a photo of that portrait and I remember distinctly one of your Facebook friends said, “Oh, she looks so tired!” And that was her first impression of me, and I was like, wow, “That’s all they got out of it?!?” And I thought that was really instructive too, because everyone’s gonna have different attitudes toward bodies and the way bodies age and are a reflection of what we’ve been through. But I thought that was a really fascinating response. And I didn’t bother saying anything because I think she made a comment about the dark circles under my eyes. And I was really tempted to say, “You know, lady, if only you knew half the story!” But I didn’t say anything because life is too damn short to comment on Facebook.
RIVA: Well, it’s part of what I call pain reading, which I have experienced with my portraits over and over. Which is as soon as somebody, a viewer, sees like a wheelchair or a crutch or an adaptive device or whatever, it’s like the idea is, I think, that in ableist society, that disabled lives are by definition full of suffering and misery. And that if you even try to show a disabled person being happy or sexual or joyous or just complex, that that ableist thought and perception will think that that thing is covering over the authentic suffering of the disabled person! And that I feel like because someone could see your adaptive devices, like for her, it kidnapped her ability to see you. And instead of actually seeing your face and the attitude of peace, which I thought was very strong, she went to this place that I’ve just experienced so many times with people looking at my work like, “Oh, there’s a crutch!” [huge gasp] and that provides everything for them. And I’m still working to get people to see something else.
ALICE: I think that’s what is so important to have these different kinds of portraits out there. Because they don’t have to always be explained, but, there are always gonna be people who pick up on what you’re trying to express. And then there’ll be other people who just see the dark circles under my eyes! Which I think is fine. To each their own. Could you talk a little bit more about your thoughts about the evolution of your process? Because this summer, you did do a portrait virtually with me, which I believe is your first time.
ALICE: But how did that change your thinking about portraiture and also the relationship you have with the person who’s usually the subject of your portraits? Like how has that kind of expanded or enhanced the way you relate to your subject?
RIVA: Well, starting from the beginning of when I started working with disability, bodies that weren’t just mine, it was really important to me to give people autonomy. Because I knew that being looked at, for a lot of us, is really, at the very least complex and often pretty painful and demeaning in the way that we’re treated when we’re looked at. And it was super important to me not to replicate that. But it’s not like I walked in knowing how to do that. That took a long time of trying to be a better listener. You can always be a better listener. There are times I just blow it, but I really try. And to give people the choice of, you know, I’m not ever gonna force an image on anybody. It has to feel OK with them. And so, I’ve tried various ethical structures to give people as much power as possible.
But the thing about working with you over Google Meet, and I wanna write a lot more about this, is that first off, it made me think more about accessibility: that I’ve been limiting my portraiture to people who could actually be here with me and who could like, either they could manage my home, which is not accessible enough for a lot of the people I know. Like my bathroom isn’t accessible, and my elevator is tiny and won’t accommodate a power chair. So, it’s really been limiting who I could work with, but I wasn’t thinking my way around it. So, this was one way, first off, I’m like, oh, my god! Not every portrait has to be the same kind of thing. You can change your methods based on, even when this is over, I want this to continue.
But also longing and separation and loneliness. And everybody complains about Zoom and other video conferencing platforms like Google Meet, and yeah, if I’ve been on it all day, I get pretty burned out. But I am sitting here looking at you, and I’m really happy to see you. I’m so happy to see you, and I’m happy to be seen. And I just feel like god, all these whiny people! You know, I live alone, and video calls are the only time now where I get to look at someone and they get to look at me without any masks or any distance. I’m grateful for this.
And so, working with you was really, really fruitful. The next person I’m working with is an academic who writes about faces. We’re going to explore, through her writing, the history of the representation of the face. It’s gonna be a triptych. So, one drawing, I’ll be looking at her straight up. The next time, she’ll be wearing a mask. And she’ll be sending me pictures of all of her masks, and then I will make cutouts of them, send them to her, and then she’ll write on them her thoughts about working with me and about going through this period. Send them back to me, and then I’ll drop them from my picture frame. But the third part is I told her I want her to take screenshots of me without telling me. And when she got one that she felt really strongly about, send it to me, and I would be forced to draw it. So, whether or not I like the way I looked, whether or not it was a picture that made me happy, I would have to confront myself as through her eyes by reproducing it.
ALICE: Oh, that sounds really exciting to see you build upon our first experience. I feel like this was something really new for you and challenging in a lot of ways. But also really exciting in terms of exploring these new ways of looking at people. Because as you and I used Google Meet, we had to figure out where to place me in terms of position so it stays consistent every time. And also the fact that the lighting and the technology we’re using changes the colors you see. Like the color of my eyes, the color of my skin tone, this is all through the Internet and our webcams, which I think is part of the story. It’s part of the portrait.
RIVA: What’s stuck out for you, or what stayed with you about our work together?
ALICE: Well, I’ve never really had this experience, and I really had a very narrow idea of what’s involved. I thought I had to be still, I didn’t realize my role would be that active, which I think is great, because it really was a collaboration. And I didn’t realize that we could talk throughout the process. I thought I had to give you an absolute kind of quiet, silent concentration. And I think the conversations we’ve had probably added to your work. So, I was kinda surprised by that.
RIVA: Conversations, for me, are at least as important, and sometimes in certain ways more important than the actual object. I’ve been writing about this a lot, that when you go into a museum or a gallery and you see a portrait, you see a subject, and you see the decisions the artist made. But the artist’s body doesn’t seem to be there, and the relationship between the artist and the subject doesn’t seem to be there. And that’s what’s interesting to me, is the relationship between the artist’s body, the subject’s body and what was going on for them during these sittings. And so, that’s what’s really changed me. It hasn’t been making the pictures. It’s been the time I spend with people. I mean, otherwise, I could just take a photo, go off and copy it, and whatever. But it’s the conversations that are important.
ALICE: Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely, I believe we had four to five sessions, and it was really fun to see this thing come to life. And it’s just a pleasure to see you create this, especially since this is something that I think so many artists are struggling with, is how to keep creating in the midst of the pandemic.
On the Future
ALICE: What are your thoughts, as we wrap up, what are your hopes and concerns that you have going forward into 2021, both personally and professionally? What are you looking forward to, and what are some things that just are on your mind as we approach the new year?
RIVA: I’m starting to write a new book. I don’t know if I’ll get anywhere with this, but I’m starting. And it’s not a memoir. It’s a fiction, which I’ve never done. But it’s taking some of the themes from Golem Girl and trying to do something. It’s not actually even about disability, but it is very much about embodiment. I wanted to see what the themes would do if I wasn’t talking about disability, but I was approaching some of my feelings about time and death from a completely different angle. I’m hoping besides continuing my portrait project process that I’ll get somewhere with that. I’m hoping to see my family. I haven’t seen them in a year now, over a year. They’re in Ohio. I’m in Chicago. This is unbearable. And I would like to date before I die. You know, it’s not going very well either.
This virus does some nasty stuff to people’s bodies and bizarre stuff, utterly bizarre stuff. And we don’t know if it’s gonna continue for the rest of someone’s life or not. And what makes me upset is that we could be using this time, or society could be using this time, to turn to us as a resource…that we are a community that by and large have been careful for a long time, and we know how to be careful, those of us who are able to be careful. And I wish that…I wish that it was being valued.
ALICE: Yeah, and it’s not. But that’s where we are. Well, Riva, thanks a lot for talking with me.
RIVA: This has been great, Alice. Thank you for sitting for me. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for being a force in the world. You’re wonderful.
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