Wyoming Women To Watch: Artist Leah Hardy

Leah Hardy, an amazing artist, is 1 of 5 Wyoming artists selected for Women To Watch. The 2024 exhibit is the National Museum of Women in the Art's biennial exhibition series that features underrepresented and emerging women artists who create in any medium including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture, print, drawing, photography, film, digital, installation, and sound.

Wyoming will participate for the first time in NMWA’s Women to Watch exhibition, held in Washington, DC in 2024. Hardy is 1 of 5 artists chosen from across Wyoming to be invited to submit their work. But only one will be chosen to be on exhibit in a collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C.

Hardy completed a BFA at the University of Kansas, USA (1987), studied abroad at Howard Gardens Art School in Cardiff, Wales, UK (1986-87) and earned an MFA from the University of Indiana, Bloomington, USA (1990).

Exhibited nationally and internationally, Hardy’s intimately scaled mixed media sculptural works have garnered numerous awards and inclusions in books and periodicals.  Hardy is a Professor of Art at the University of Wyoming and heads the Metalsmithing Program.  International teaching,  curated projects and residencies have been conducted in India, China, New Zealand and Australia. Hardy lives in Laramie, Wyoming with printmaker Mark Ritchie.

As always, thank you so much for your time Leah and good luck!!!


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Emy Romero (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emmy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is what's your why.


Today we're talking to Leah Hardy. She is a 3D artist and she's also called a mixed media artist, and she is part of Women to Watch, which is an exhibition program that features unrepresented and emerging women artists. And each exhibition focuses on a specific medium or theme chosen by museum curators. And this program is designed to increase the visibility of and critical response to promising women artists. Welcome Leah.

Leah Hardy (01:11):

Thank you.

Emy Romero (01:12):

Leah, where did you grow up?

Leah Hardy (01:14):

I grew up in eastern Kansas. While I absolutely love the open plains, I grew up in a more hilly part of Kansas with lots of woods and good morel mushrooms.

Emy Romero (01:28):

Oh, good morel mushrooms. I love that. Did you go out and pick those?

Leah Hardy (01:32):

Oh my gosh, yeah. My dad started having dreams about morel mushrooms come late March, early April when it started warming up, and we would have those rains that would make just the right conditions. So I inherited his kind of nose and eye for finding them.

Emy Romero (01:52):

Oh, that's so cool. I still can't do that. I'm always afraid I'm going to pick the poisonous one or you have to have the right eye for that. I wanted to ask you, what was your journey to become an artist now that you're part of this exhibition, and thinking about who inspired you and how did you get on this road to become a metal artist?

Leah Hardy (02:20):

Well, it's been a long scenic journey with lots of side shoots and eddies and things like that, which I would never trade for anything. The simple answer early on, my parents tell me, apparently when I was about five years old, I put my hands on my hips and said, I'm going to be an artist. I do not remember this, fortunately or unfortunately. And I think as a kid growing up in eastern Kansas and even rurally, I collected insects in whole or in parts, and I would make these little dioramas with sticks and collage elements out of magazines into these little boxes. And it's funny, 58 years later on this planet, in a lot of ways I'm doing the same thing, kind of processing the world around me as an adult. I think I'm processing a whole lot more now, events and situations that we have got ourselves into.

Emy Romero (03:26):

So did you go to an art school? How did you develop your art?

Leah Hardy (03:32):

Yeah, I think as a kid I just made stuff. I had that kind of in intuitive use of just finding materials. And of course beautiful thing as a kid is you have very little inhibition unless somebody just decides to tell you what you're doing is wrong. Luckily didn't have that, but I did have formal training. I certainly took high school art. I took art classes even in junior high. And then I went on to the University of Kansas and was an art major there. And I finished up my fifth year in Wales at an art school there in Cardiff, and then went on to Bloomington, Indiana and did an MFA at Indiana University after that.

Emy Romero (04:19):

Well, that's quite a journey. What are the artists that you look to or that you've been inspired by in your work?

Leah Hardy (04:27):

I do have some very specific artists that I really like, and sometimes, and oddly people don't understand. And I would like to just say that sometimes you may not completely someone's work, but you love their attitude, their essence or their approach as an artist. And I think I have people who have done both. I remember probably earlier I really loved Louise Nevilsson's work, 20th century work, contemporary sculpture. I loved her work. It was very formal, very geometric, very much about enclosed and open spaces, intimate spaces, even in the midst of her making really large, often series, of work that were all painted black. But she would really pull from refuse piles, pieces of lumber, scrap wood, sometimes alter them a little bit. But really it was like three dimensional collage. And I think that there was a kind of spun and spirit and appreciation for those raw materials that transforming them through assemblage that I really loved.


But I also loved her philosophy of life, of just living and working. And she dressed very dramatically, long eyelashes. I don't think they were always her own, but applied long eyelashes and dark eyeshadow and eyeliner and turbans and long kind of dresses and gowns. And one of the favorite things that she ever said wasn't so much about her art, but she said, "Everything I wear is something that I can live in, sleep in, make art in." And I think there was that sort of just embracing life and not worrying about what other people thought.


That really stuck with me. And I think what that was when I was in, probably that was a late, late '80s when I was in undergrad and going into graduate school time, certainly there are a lot of artists that use lenses to really amplify very small things in life that we often overlook. And so I think even when I'm hiking with my husband or with friends, I'm looking out to the big landscape, but then my eyes go right back down. I'm the one picking up finding a cricket leg or an insect wing or a bee that's crawled under a leaf or a small rock. So it's kind of an interesting lens to have on that I've had on my whole life.

Emy Romero (07:17):

That is incredible. And what a great way to be able to see the world in that very, looking for something that no one else can see. And that's just been your eye. You've trained your eye since you were very young to look for those unseen objects. And what was it that brought you to Wyoming?

Leah Hardy (07:40):

Well, husband's job, to be quite honest, my degrees were actually specifically in the media of clay. And I was working in clay for, oh gosh, at least a couple of decades or nearly a couple of decades. And I was teaching in Huntsville, Texas before we moved here. And we both were on the job market again, looking for teaching careers. And we both were having interviews. And my husband actually got a teaching job here at the University of Wyoming, and he's a printmaker. So I came along with him. We love each other very much, and we have done some long distance relationship stints, I will say. But we decided not to do it then. And it came up. So I had a few years where I was working in my studio. We adopted our son from South Korea during that time, and it was a good time for me. I wasn't working and I could really focus in the studio.


But yes, it was that job that brought us to Wyoming. And I think the first year we weren't sure if we were just happy to be in a slightly cooler place or we really loved Wyoming. And over the years we've been here for, I think about 27 years or so now, maybe 28, yeah, 28 this summer. We love Wyoming. We love the open spaces. We love getting out in the middle and driving and realizing an hour will go by and we haven't seen anyone else on the road. There's a breathability here in that, and I've known a lot of people to move to Wyoming and being in an academic community, there is a lot of turnover. People come here for a job. And I've had people, I've heard people say they need to leave because they feel so vulnerable here with the big open skies.


And I have also lived in places where it's very treed and I always felt very claustrophobic. So I think just that sense of breathing is amazing here. The color, the air, just the palpability to the sky a lot of the time. Being able to see the sun come up and go down and the moon come up, and not having that light pollution near a city to watch meteor showers or just appreciate the stars. I think there's a lot of wonder here and a lot of wide open spaces that I know that's of course trite to say, but it's just true. We're very lucky to be living in a place like this.

Emy Romero (10:28):

That is absolutely true. And I hear that from a lot of people around Wyoming. That is the biggest love they have is the landscape and wide open spaces and not very many people. And you can still see the night sky and you can go for miles, like you said, and not see another person on a road. And of course, the other side of that is that if you had car trouble, that you want to see another person on the road. But it is fantastical that way. And it reminds me of thinking about your work, how it evolved from doing lots of different mediums to what you entered into the exhibition as metal art or bronze art or bronze sculpture. What did you decide that was going to be part of your entry into this exhibit?

Leah Hardy (11:22):

Well, I think to go back just a little bit, while I did work in clay for a very long time, I was beginning to, for anyone who's worked with clay, and if you haven't worked with clay out there, you may have made a pie and at least rolled out dough, so you can have that in your thoughts. But rolling out clay really, really thin and constructing with it, ceramics are very fragile anyway. And I was just really pushing the envelope. Not only was I making extremely thin slabs of clay, then of course I fired in a kiln, but I was making moving parts. I was making a lot of wall sculptures 20 plus years ago that had hinged doors, but it was all ceramic, maybe little drawers that pulled out delicate, tiny little appendages that mimicked objects from nature antennae or stems of leaves. And it wasn't about if it would break, it was about when is it going to break?


And my work just kept breaking. I would pack it carefully and it would still break in shipping to and from shows. And so I think I, and I love clay, but I had that moment where, or a series of moments where I had to say this material is not serving my forms and my intention and my work, and I do want moving parts. And I have been using oxides on my clay. And because the walls were so thin, a lot of people were already mistaking some of my work or parts of my work for being metal. So it just was a no brainer, at least on paper, to start doing my forms out of metal. And I usually tell people it was one of the most terrifying things to do was to switch media. It was also one of the most joyous and exhilarating choices I ever made because I was able to support my work.


I could make the forms I wanted functionally and not worry about them breaking. And I think it's safe to say, as an artist or any human being, we get comfortable in a little nest or a community or a village. And I had a lot of colleagues across the US and abroad working in clay. And all of a sudden I was taking a step out of that. And so I was stepping into the metalsmithing world where I hadn't exhibited. I had some friends that had done their degrees in that or were metal artists. So it was a really big kind of leap, step or fall of faith to do that. And it all worked out. And I just am very, I think, blessed to have had a very smooth transition from one media to another. And I think what it opened up for me was making me realize that I didn't have to be married to one specific media.


I needed to open up and say, this is my intent as an artist. I'm working with this concept, this certain aesthetic, what material works best. So while I primarily work in metal, you sometimes I'll say, "Oh, I need to stitch a little cushion to go with this, or I need a little felt." I learned how to slump glass because I've incorporated some glass lenses into some pieces. So I think it really opened me up. It has also really informed me as an educator and how I share those experiences with students of how to choose media or just to be open and not to put yourself in a box that's so sealed tight that you don't have wiggle room and you can't make some new decisions and start down some new paths to honor your work and to support your intent as an artist.

Emy Romero (15:32):

So given the extraordinary events of our global health pandemic and our intense calls for social reform and what's happened with our unprecedented political division, how has your work answered or seen a vision into the future using your art to convey a message to the world?

Leah Hardy (15:55):

That is so pertinent to my work over the last several years? I would say that a lot of my work early on was in a bubble. It was embellished work, it was aesthetically beautiful. I was trying to imbue it with this sense of surrealism, and I was pulling a lot from my dreams. I'm a very active dreamer. And so they were these personal narratives. And I think a number of years ago, for everything you just said, Emy, we have become polarized as human beings on this planet. I mean, these are gut wrenching, heart wrenching times with everything going on and watching climate change affect us almost on a daily basis now. I think I got to a point where I felt, and it was really heartfelt, it wasn't that on paper I said, "Oh, I need to address these topics in my work." It's almost like I had to, as an individual, I needed to process feelings and maybe stances on certain things.


Although I would have to say that with polarization, I think I've been really mindful to say that I don't want through my work to come out and take a solid stance on one side because all that does is add to the polarities or polarization. I started making work that simply was a question that I did make a piece a few years ago about immigration. I'm working on a piece right now about climate change. I made a piece recently that if you really look at it carefully, you probably know where I stand within the political realm. But I think of the work now as a springboard for conversation, and that I don't see my work as being an answer so much as a catalyst for discussion in different topics. Because I think that we all know, even deep in our hearts, we know that there's no perfect answer.


We may stand on one side of this growing chasm, but ultimately what we need to do is build a bridge, not edify the side that we're on, if you want to phrase it that way, if that makes sense. I just want people to talk. And I think I am finding that the more we talk about these issues and they're hard and it's messy, there is no clear answer, and there's a lot of passion involved and there's anger involved, and there are personal feelings involved. But I'm really worried with the sensitivity right now that some people have chosen just to back out and not have that conversation.


Just had a lovely dinner with someone just a couple of nights ago, and we got onto these conversations like conversation about conversation, conversation about how do you build bridges? How do you still have the beliefs you have, still have the opinions you have, but have open communication with people who might be on a very different page from you. So I think that's what my work, that's the intention of the more current work over the last, I don't know, five, eight years, is just to promote conversation.

Emy Romero (19:33):

Well, that's really insightful because that is the key because no matter what side of the aisle you sit on, people have beliefs that maybe you don't understand. And they are focused on that one issue, let's say. But without having the hard conversations, how do we move forward? How do we compromise? How do we say, Oh, I get it, or I understand you. It's just almost impossible.

Leah Hardy (20:06):

And I feel like I'm a realist. I try to be most of the time, but I'm actually more of an optimist. I'm reminded of that every time I think I'm taking a realist stance and I realize, "Oh, I guess that's more optimistic." But I would really rather have that, to believe that these small things they add up, they make a difference. We may not meet with people across the world every day, but we certainly meet friends and strangers and acquaintances in our local co-op in the park on a hiking trail in the mountains. This is where we run into people, and this is where these small acts and small conversations can work together. They meld together. There's this kind of synergy that I really believe can make a difference.

Emy Romero (21:01):

When you were invited to be part of this exhibition and be one of these five individuals chosen, what pieces of work did you submit that would express what you're saying right now about who you are, your work, and the message it portrays?

Leah Hardy (21:20):

I think we all submitted something like, I wish I could remember, 10 or 20 pieces. It was somewhere in there. So for me, my work, I am not super prolific. My work takes a while. It's all handmade as most artists' work, mine's pretty meticulous. And sometimes I can have 50 to 200 little rivets in a single piece. And it's still a very small scale piece. So as you might imagine, to submit 10, 15, 20 pieces, you're submitting work that represents an arc of time, maybe within the last decade. So my work certainly has changed. However, a lot of common themes are there. So some of the work that I represented or some of the work that I entered with my proposal represented themes of communication. I've made a number of pieces about just our inner personal relationships with other people, and that can be family, it can be friends, or it can be more symbolic of global kind of political relationships, if you will.


And I think probably an important thing to bring up the thread through all of this work, the last number of years, is that I've been using insects as sort of a stand in or sort of this metaphor for our human condition. And I couldn't have told you why I was doing that early on, but when you're asked about it, you think about it. And I realize that I don't usually represent human beings. And I think so often if we look at a representational human being, it's so familiar to us, we make these assumptions really quickly. We got it. We walk away. So I have these insects that are in situations that human beings would be in. They're coming up to one another. There is a sense of some kind of communication or interpersonal relationship. But I think because they're insects in these little stances, and in certain narratives, maybe some people will look at them a little bit longer, they kind of pique people's interests and hold them a little bit longer.


So certainly I've been looking at things like communication. A number of years ago I was using, and I still am using micro hardware, so sometimes these insect legs and arms are articulated a little bit, but they have, they're put together with hardware. So there's this implication of something that's living, but yet it's got mechanical elements, things that are riveted and pivot around, or these insects are literally on little wheels. So I was really thinking about, I think just maybe a personal inquiry into ethics in medicine, how we have altered our bodies, how the medical world is solving issues, but at the same time is propelling human beings into longer lifespans potentially. And these are those questions I mentioned. My work might be just asking that question, Do we want to live forever? Should all of us even live to be 100? What kind of implications does that have for our planet? So those starts or springboards for conversation.


And then the last few pieces I mentioned earlier, I've done a piece about immigration, a moth that is on wheels. So it implies the sense of movement, but the wings are actually made from maps of the border. And again, just a starting point for conversation. I don't have an answer, but I think we have a lot of things that we need to talk about. And I feel like in my work, it's helping me to process and think about it with myself and talk to others close to me. And the ideal would be as other people view it, they have these conversations, or at least think about it.

Emy Romero (25:40):

What are the opportunities that you have with your students in the classroom to open up discussion as they are creating art, as you're working with them and helping them do something? Maybe they're coming to you with a project idea. How do you help them think through their artistic process?

Leah Hardy (26:03):

Oh, this is my favorite part of my job. I think that everyone thinks, "Oh, you teach. It's kind of a one way you're giving to students." This is true, but I get so much back. There is so much reciprocity. There is so much passion, but sometimes a lack of confidence or students, a lot of students are under a lot of pressure. They feel overwhelmed. We have a lot of mental health issues to be quite frank. And so that really does color teaching. And so being mindful of that, I think just with, my classes are metalsmithing classes. So everyone comes in like, "Oh, I'm going to learn these techniques. I'm going to learn soldering or enameling or casting or hammer forming." And this is all true, but something that I would say all of my colleagues, we all is that these students are learning technical skills, but these technical skills are in turn supporting their conceptual intent.


And that's what you were mentioning, Emy. What happens when a student wants help with, they come to me with an idea or any of their professors, we talk about," Well, what kind of aesthetic would that be?" I mean, I really feel like I don't give them answers. I am a sounding board. I love brainstorming, but it's usually in the form of questions as opposed to answers. It's like, what color would that be? What texture would that be? What kind of scale do you see that on? What is this idea? Is there an emotion that you would attach to it? Is what do you want your viewer to get from it? What are you trying to communicate? And so sometimes it's like, "Oh, I need to make a really small piece that has really pokey spines on it that is going to attract the viewer visually, but it's going to repel them because they really aren't going to want to touch it."


It's really fun to do this. But I think through projects too, because we do have projects and we have timelines. That's not everyone's favorite, but it is, how do you solve a design problem or a conceptual problem in say, four weeks? And so they really are going through all of that. They're learning new skills in a material, and they're figuring out what kind of form do I want, texture, color, size, Do I need to add some other materials? They ask other people. We always have in progress kind of critiques or discussions so that people get feedback early on. And so it's a real thinking process. And the goal isn't to have the perfect piece at the end, but to really be offering a certain solution or resolution of an idea. And knowing that there are usually many more than one possibilities when you're resolving work.


But I try to have my projects open enough. They usually, in the beginning classes in metalsmithing, they usually have some kind of conceptual springboard. One of my favorite projects, sometimes they do one that's like a portrait, a self portrait, but it's an unportrait as I call it. It can't look like them, but it is essentially illustrating something about themselves. I also have another project that's been really good to tap into lots of different interests. One project I've been doing is one where they have to create an homage or a personal statement or a commemorative piece. So that becomes really big. I mean, they can make an homage to cheeseburgers, but some of them go, "Ooh, I want to make an homage to Ruth Bader Ginsburg or my grandma," or with personal comment, People take up voting. They take up, I'll have students who take on maybe LGBTQ issues or non-binary issues, DEI issues, political issues. And so we have some really, really diverse critiques because each student is saying something maybe quite different from the next.

Emy Romero (30:34):

That is an excellent answer, and it's great to hear you really interact with your students and see yourself as a collaborator with them in their projects. And my last question to you is, what is the importance of art in this world? Why have artists and how do you feel about the privilege of being a professional artist?

Leah Hardy (30:58):

I am a maker. I almost feel like I didn't choose it. It chose me. It is a way to communicate. We all communicate through different means, and I think it's a particular form of communication that really reaches people aesthetically. My work is pretty small scale, so again, it may not reach all audiences. Some audiences are just looking at, it's the big work they immediately gravitate to. But I do think ultimately it's a form of communication. I think we can embellish it and say, and I think it's true, I do, that art does color our lives. It adds a kind of aesthetic and visual platform and resource to our entire world. It makes us smile. I think so often people are like, "Oh, art, it's warehoused in museums and galleries," and that's a great place to go. But I'm often really happy to see it in very unexpected places.


It could be wheat pasted prints and posters that you will see in an alley or in maybe down a neighborhood. They're walking down an alley. It's like, "Wow, there's a little painting on a stone there." So I think it's our way of communicating to each other through a visual language. And I think even within visual language, there are so many, many different media and vehicles. I think we are all in a sense inundated. I mean, we see a lot of digital forms of art, whether it's on YouTube or social media like Facebook or Instagram. Of course, we've got the physical ones that we expect in galleries and museums. Ones that we don't expect on cars, painted cars or down alleys. So I think as I get older, I think I am more and more open and open, open to this is there's no one path for people that use visual communication.


I have students that are always surprised when they ask about graduate school and Do I need to go to graduate school? It's like, "Well, you didn't need to come to undergrad. I'm glad you did. I wouldn't have got to know you otherwise. But there are lots of ways to learn and grow and experience." And I think that, again, I can say that I'm a professional artist, but I think it's really fair to acknowledge anybody and everybody out there who does communicate through visual means, whether it's two dimensional or three dimensional or digitally. And it's exciting when you open up and you start to break down some of those barriers or some of those constructed boxes that we put people in. It's a good way to stay grounded, and I like that. So I guess I'm a proponent of it's wide open.

Emy Romero (34:14):

Well, I think what you were saying is reminds me that art is everywhere, it's not in a box. It's all kinds of places, whether it's someone designing a cake or a card or a sand sculpture. It's just how we always do create. And we are beings of creation. That's what we do, whether we realize it or not. Right.

Leah Hardy (34:40):

Absolutely. Yeah. I think everyone makes in their own way as human beings, we're also very good at categorizing and labeling, or you're an artist, or I'm not an artist. So I think, yeah, ultimately I think that my making is about communication and connection. I don't mean for it to sound like I make this piece, I walk away. I am really interested in those personal connections that happen. And I've had such delightful and sometimes really quirky interactions with people that I've never met before. When I'm at an exhibition of my work or a group exhibition in which I have work, and just some of the questions, and then you just go off onto tangents that you would never think you'd go onto. And I walk away just thinking life, and people are funny, quirky, wonderful, frustrating, and I wouldn't have that cocktail mixed any other way. There might be some changes I'd make in the world, but as long as we can connect, that's a start.

Emy Romero (35:58):

Oh, wow. Well, it's been wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much.

Leah Hardy (35:58):

Thank you, Emy.

Emy Romero (36:18):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support for Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org, subscribe, and never miss a show.