Artist challenges you to see beauty in all bodies

Riva Lehrer's large-scale paintings of so-called "disabled bodies" and the queer community violate convention and encourage people to see possibilities instead of limitations in differently-shaped bodies.

"A lot of what I do in my work is - almost of all of what I do - is deal with what it means to be looked at. What it means to be in a stigmatized body. And most of my work is with people who have physical variations, but I also work a lot in the queer community. [There are] lots of different ways that the world tells us that we're unacceptable. Or ugly. Or disgusting." - Riva Lehrer 

Riva Lehrer is an award-winning artist, activist and art instructor in Chicago, best known for her artwork of people with physical impairments and the LGBT community - people who know the discomfort of being stared at.

Lehrer can relate. She was born with spina bifida in 1958, just when medical advancements meant that she could be offered life-saving surgery right after birth.

Instead of seeing impairments, Lehrer sees bodies that are - in her words - unexpected, charming, exciting.

Lehrer, Riva. Rebecca Maskos. 2001, acrylic on panel.

Lehrer is concerned with the ethics of the artist-subject relationship and she has experimented with ways to provide a more balanced power dynamic for the people that pose for her.

In her series The Risk Pictures, Lehrer works in three hour sessions: her subjects pose for the first two hours, then Lehrer leaves for the last hour, giving her subjects full reign of her home to do whatever they like -- as long as they contribute to the artwork she is creating.

"I leave the house. I know that people have slept in my bed, and eaten my food, and gone on my computer and stuff. I don't know if they've taken things, I don't know if they've looked through my personal belongings. You know, as I joke - if anyone finds my underwear on eBay, call me! But the first thing is I want to be vulnerable in terms of my very private space." - Riva Lehrer 

Fillmmaker and writer Chase Joynt

Filmmaker and writer Chase Joynt shares what it was like from the other side of Lehrer's easel.


Lehrer also teaches an art class to medical school students at Northwestern University called 'Drawing Inside a Jar.' Students draw "deformed" fetuses and then research a person alive today with the same condition so they can, as future doctors, understand what it really means to live in those bodies.

Riva Lehrer (Dawoud Bey)

"What they're taught is that these fetuses represent tragedies. That 'Oh my God, it's the worst thing in the world that this woman has had a baby like this and we may be telling her to abort it' or we may be telling her that this is going to catastrophic. And I know people - these people are friends of mine in a lot of cases - who have these same conditions. So what I'm trying to get my students to do is to think about real lived lives,' says Lehrer. "What they tell me [afterwards] is that their attitudes have radically changed. And they would be talking to parents very differently, much more about possibilities and hope and creativity and all the different ways you can have a good life." 

In an article for the New York Times called "Where all Bodies are Exquisite," Lehrer explains her teaching methods and what it was like to encounter herself  'as a specimen' at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.