Today we’d like to introduce you to Leah Olbrich.
Leah, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
I am currently a puppet fabricator for stop motion animation but I also occasionally draw and perform as a puppeteer. I originally came to the world of puppetry via illustration when I was studying at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This led me to pursue a graduate degree in puppetry at California Institute of the Arts, where I dove into the wonderful world of stop motion.
As a creative child growing up in New Jersey who was always drawing and painting, I knew that I would end up in some pocket of the arts but was not sure what that meant exactly. Neither California or stop motion were ever on my mental map until nearly the end of my undergraduate experience. Yet here I am, working on the third season of the show “Supermansion” at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (the studio behind Robot Chicken) in sunny Burbank, California! My specialty on this show is putting together the main robot character, Robobot, who has over 30 individual pieces per puppet.
I have been lucky enough to follow my creative whimsy on an unexpected career path that has led me to right here, right now. I like to live my life this way as much as possible, exploring and dipping my toes into multiple communities until my next step is made clear to me. For example, separately from the visual arts, right now I am working on cultivating the power of my voice.
Art-making has been my rock but voice has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. I have always been a visibly confident person based on the way that I project my physical self into the world, what with my bold and colorful mismatched fashion sensibilities and my physically performative mannerisms (evidence of growing up as a shy kid raised on dress-up and ballet). Because of this, it is a surprise to many that vocal expression is the scariest thing for me. But it is. I have been trying to figure it out. I have a growing suspicion that facing and activating the things that scare us yields a secret superpower. I do not know what that is yet but I cannot wait to find out. The singing lessons and improv classes have helped (and, as it turns out, are super fun!) but the most comfortable place that I have found for my voice so far is in podcasting.
Last year a friend and I embarked on a podcasting journey where we talked about drag queens ala “Rupaul’s Drag Race” (our show was called “Drag Muggles”). We reviewed the TV show and included interviews with our friends. Along the way, I realized that I love interviewing people. And how surprising that an introvert could find an extroverted platform like podcasting such a liberating place to do this! No doubt, therein lies some magic. I have always had massive respect for the drag world and all performers under that umbrella, so talking about that in any capacity was a blast. However, I think the reason I enjoyed the interviews so much was in sharing in a moment of profound human connection with another person. So often, we do not allow ourselves to slow down long enough to process the world around us and thoughtfully articulate our feelings about it. These moments on our podcast felt like such a respite from that glorious chaos. Every individual perceives the world in a completely unique way and getting a glimpse into their vision and understanding is so interesting – and was made even more colorful with drag as the jumping-off point for these discussions. In this day and age, I feel like many are awakening their voices (#staywoke) and it is important to cultivate conversation when at all possible. It is also baffling to me that in 2018 humanity is still struggling with accepting people’s differences. To me, these differences are what make us awesome. The more we share them, the more we grow, the more we can communicate and connect and understand. In some small way, I feel like we were achieving this with the interviews on our podcast. So, like I said before, I am not sure how all of this fits into the big picture jigsaw puzzle of my life yet but it certainly feels like an important piece.
(Side note: everyone we interviewed was asked what their drag persona would be if they could create one and this is mine: Rococo Puff – an art nerd with a sweet tooth, who will give you a visual cavity from a highly-saturated, foppish sense of style. I challenge you, Reader, to come up with one for yourself!)
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
My visual work is constantly changing from project-to-project so it can take on many forms.
My most current sculpture project consists of a series of mushroom men. These are forms built up in foam and structured around a wire armature so that I can then pose the characters. Once I find a gesture that I like, I papier mache on top of everything, then paint it. One of the best descriptions I have been given of my work is that I make “characters that are quirky without being scary,” as they often are very colorful but have a sense of mischief about them. I have always enjoyed textures and materials that are a little gritty so the papier mache technique that I use lends itself to that feeling. The next character I hope to sculpt will be some sort of cryptid (like Bigfoot), as I am fascinated by urban legends that involve creatures and the speculation they evoke.
For the past few years I have been working on a collection called the “Ghost Art History Series.” It is a culmination of my undergraduate illustration and art history degrees. The premise is that I am drawing sheet ghosts over famous pieces of art in the style of the original piece. There is no profound statement in this other than I have always loved looking at art and I also enjoy finding humor in the mundane as a way of uplifting spirits (pun intended). Plus, putting sheet ghosts over otherwise not scary content makes me laugh. And I love awkwardness in humor. Since the characters in focus inherently seem so out of place in their setting, it feels like you are observing a moment that you were not meant to see. My ultimate goal with this project is to create a coffee table book that is an annotated chronology of art history. It will feature these ghost pieces accompanied by a one-sentence historically-relevant but, ultimately, fictional story to caption it.
Performance-wise, I puppeteer from time-to-time, mainly in puppet slams. I often puppeteer on other people’s pieces but I hope to create a few of my own. So far, I only have one – “Octopus Ballet.” Essentially, two octopi (made from cut up rain ponchos with stuffed eyeballs pinned on) attempt to dance the “Four Swans” routine from the ballet Swan Lake. Inevitably, chaos ensues (i.e. my performance partner and I battle it out interpretive dance-style to Tchaikovsky in said ponchos). Audiences have found this hilarious. There will be more comedic performance pieces like this in the future. The next one might be a shark love story.
My goal in creating visual art is to hold onto a sense of childhood wonder as I travel through my adult life. This is revealed in the subtle mischief and comedy of the characters that I create. Of course, this is in addition to the whole Voice journey. So here I am, manifesting the connect-the-dots scenario for all of these things. Much is yet unknown to me. All I can do is keep moving forward. In the meantime, ghosts, cryptids and drag queens forever. And maybe interpretive dance.
What do you think it takes to be successful as an artist?
The truth is, there is only so much we can do at one time. Managing time between work you get paid for, work you make for yourself, your relationships and self-care is a challenging thing. Learning to pace yourself while also keeping your hustle strong is a very important part of career success and stress management. Meet people in different creative communities as often as you can. It can open up all sorts of opportunities for you. Sometimes, people you know from various communities meet in unexpected settings and that can feel magical. I call this phenomenon “spider webbing.” Share your work on Instagram. Go to cool and weird art events. And when you feel yourself creeping into existential “crisis mode” (as many of us do more frequently that we’d like) use that energy to light your determination fire and translate it into action. Success is relative to what you personally find to be fulfilling. It can be easy to play the “comparison game” with your peers but, to be honest, many times it is an exercise in futility. Everyone’s journey is completely different and we can only see what’s on the surface of other people’s experiences based on what they choose to show us. Rather than judging yourself for not being at a certain level or in a specific place, try to appreciate what you HAVE accomplished so far. Chances are, it’s far more than you give yourself credit for. When you have confidence in yourself surrounding this feeling, good things come to you.
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
The best place to see what I am currently working on is on Instagram.
In most recent news, I will be puppeteering in my friend Kate Katz’s piece “Til It Happens to You” as part of “L.A Views X: Sanctuary” with Company of Angels from June 16-25. More information can be found at www.companyofangels.org. T
Prints from my Ghost Art History Series can be found on Society6.
Episodes of the Drag Muggles podcast are available on Soundcloud. Click on the “Sissy That Talk” episodes to listen to the full interviews. The podcast episodes may be moving to a different site in the near future so any changes will be posted on Soundcloud as that information becomes available.
“Supermansion” Season 3 just premiered on May 7 and is now streaming for free on Crackle.com.
I have a website but I do not update it very often. However, it does showcase many of the interesting past projects that I have worked on.
If anyone has suggestions on creative opportunities relative to voice or has advice on book publishing I’d love to hear from them!
- Website: LeahNO.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: http://instagram.com/leahnolbrich
- Facebook: https://soundcloud.com/dragmuggles
- Twitter: https://www.crackle.com/supermansion
- Other: http://society6.com/retrosneaker3
Damian Borja (photo of me)