Preview: Virginia Greaves, Leisa Rich partner for “Wash and Wax,” at Abernathy Arts Center

Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: Bubble Bath, quilt.
Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: Bubble Bath, quilt.
Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: A panel from "Industrial Car Wash," a wall-hung assemblage 20 by 7 feet.
Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: A panel from Industrial Car Wash, a wall-hung assemblage 20 by 7 feet.

At first glance, fiber artists Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich could not be more different.

Virginia Greaves
Virginia Greaves

Greaves, a self-taught quilter from Birmingham, Alabama, is diminutive, introverted and known for quilted portraits of people and animals that are so detail-oriented they’ve been mistaken for paintings.

Rich, a self-described “modern day creative archaeologist/experimentalist” who hails from rural Canada, is tall and extroverted. Bewitched by 3D printing technology, she aims to “build texture with sewing thread” for conceptual 2D sculptures and installations.

Even their speaking voices — Greaves’ dulcet tones, Rich’s contralto — are a study in contrasts. But when it comes to work ethic, they could not be more compatible.

Leisa Rich
Leisa Rich

“We’re both Type A and we both get shit done,” states Rich. “We do what we say, and we say what we’ll do. I knew I could count on Ginny at all times, and vice versa.”

The results of their combined efforts will be on display in Wash & Wax: A Collaboration at Abernathy Arts Center in Sandy Springs September 18 – October 16.

Guest curator Lauren Bernazza came up with the idea of putting Rich and Greaves together after seeing their pieces exhibited side by side in 2014.

“I wondered what might happen if I asked two professional artists with very distinct points of view and languages to work together,” she says. “I thought it would be fun for Ginny to loosen up and bit and interesting for Leisa to get back to her technical textile roots.”

The collaboration, which Bernazza had thought would be a short-lived experiment, became a partnership when the artists discovered that their approaches were complementary. As Rich says, “I could blow things apart and Ginny would pull things together.”

Leisa Rich: title, photograph.
Leisa Rich: untitled photograph.

Wash & Wax is based on a series of abstract photographs Rich took from the driver’s seat while her car rolled through industrial car washes. “I feel transported when I’m in a car wash. They’re cathartic…cleansing for the car and me,” she explains. “While others are looking for that perfect, beautiful sunset or vista, I pay attention to the inconsequential.”

It includes quilted pieces in frames, the car wash photos and a simulated car wash through which gallery-goers can pass.

The pièce de résistance of this show of mostly small works is Industrial Car Wash, a 27-by-7-foot assemblage of some 200 individual quilts spanning an entire wall. When asked to estimate exactly how long it took to finish the monumental work, Rich dips her chin, peers over the electric turquoise-blue frames of her eye glasses and emphasizes each word as she says ,“thousands… and… thousands of hours.”

They used color, shape and materials to suggest the car wash experience. Shades of red, blue and orange mimic hanging strips of fabric. Overlays of reflective, clear vinyl — quilted and stitched into irregularly shaped circles — represent soap bubbles. Swirls of sequins, puffy thread, netting and velvet all conjure the rapid-fire, swishing motions that occur during wash and wax cycles.

In the 15 months it took to complete Wash & Wax, sending the quilts back and forth.

Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: Entry Point, quilt.
Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: Entry Point, quilt.

Greaves would render the car wash image in cloth and adhere it to a cotton base to form a “canvas.” Rich would then secure the fabric to its backing with free-motion stitching, after which Greaves would add quilting embroidery. Next, Rich would decorate the piece with nontraditional materials such as plastic, paper and a vintage Mary McFadden ball gown from a thrift store before putting in more hours of decorative stitching. Finally, it was Greaves’ turn to add batting and any finishing touches required to complete the quilt.

Sometimes, Rich’s expression was a bit too exuberant for her decidedly more cautious and deliberate partner. “I’m pretty easygoing,” says Greaves, “but I did have some swear words once or twice early on in the process.”

But as the two mastered the art of give and take, their creative differences gave way to magic.

Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: Bubble Bath, quilt.
Virginia Greaves and Leisa Rich: Bubble Bath, quilt.

“I discovered Leisa has strengths where my weaknesses are,” acknowledges Greaves. “I would never think to incorporate vinyl or nail polish or pops of red where she does, but her use of disparate materials really bring life to a piece. I’ve learned to take chances, add tension and get comfortable with creative dissonance thanks to her example.”

The admiration is mutual. “I learned to sit back, compromise and try to shut up to let Ginny’s creative vision come through,” Rich says. “This project stretched us in so many different ways, and I’ve come away with such a healthy respect for her phenomenal skills.”  

Opening reception: September 18, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Artist Talk: September 26, 12:30-2:30 p.m.

Workshop: October 3, 9 a.m.-2:00 p.m.

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