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Textile artist Alma Lesch remembered as a pioneer
Former teacher had a strong influence on craft

By DIANE HEILENMAN The Courier-Journal
From May 23, 1999

Alma Lesch
Alma Lesch of Shepherdsville, who died May 15 at age 82, showed one of her works 2-1/2 years ago.
Photo by PAM SPAULDING

Alma Wallace Lesch came to making art late, after retiring as a third-grade teacher. She was not late for long. The Kentucky artist, who died of cancer May 15 at age 82, dove into the art mainstream with characteristic quiet intensity.

By 1961, when Lesch was 44, she had a new job teaching textile arts at the former Louisville School of Art. By 1965 she had sold a work to the Johnson Wax Co.

In the next decades, Lesch became the undisputed grande dame of Kentucky textiles and a pioneer of the national crafts movement, working from her basement studio and living room "sewing chair" in Shepherdsville.

A native of McCracken County, she had a lifelong love of fabric, completing her first quilt at age 12.

In 1970 two of her art works were part of the acclaimed national touring exhibition "Objects U.S.A.," which helped make contemporary crafts part of the fine-arts world. Lesch, whose interests were always broad, published a book on vegetable dyes that same year. It is still a textile artists' classic.

Her innovative art, especially those pieces that pioneered the use of clothing as portraits, were frequently used to illustrate the new wave of contemporary crafts.

Anne Brewer Ogden, administrative director of Louisville's Speed Art Museum, described Lesch's portraits in a 1997 essay for American Craft magazine: "Lesch is an unwilling philosopher who avoids direct comment. But one (finds in her work) the uncommon spirit of the common image, the complexity of the simple experience, the questions about who, indeed, we are, stripped down, under the sequins, feathers, buttons, chiffon and denim."

Lesch's works were featured on the covers of American Craft and Craft Horizons magazines. Her stitchery collage, "Like Father Like Son," illustrated the 1975 Reader's Digest "Story of America" and eight of her works were used to illustrate the 1974 Viking Press book "Stitchery, Needlepoint, Applique and Patchwork" by Shirley Marein.

In 1974 she was named a Master Craftsman by the World Crafts Council and was one of five U.S. artists to have fiber work in the First World Crafts Exhibition. In 1986 she was named an Honorable Fellow of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. In 1987, Lesch received the Kentucky Governor's Award for Lifetime Contribution to Visual Arts and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

Lesch was the first recipient of the Rude Osolnik Award from the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation in 1996. The next year she was among the subjects of Eugenia K. Potter's edited essays on "Kentucky Women: Two Centuries of Indomitable Spirit and Vision."

Her presence in Louisville was a beacon for emerging fiber artists over all those years, said University of Louisville fine arts professor Lida Gordon, who came to Louisville because Lesch lived here. Gordon said Lesch's influence has been "profound" on an entire generation of textile artists with her major contributions including the concept of the fabric collage and the acceptance of needlework as art rather than "women's work."

Ceramicist Julia Duncan, a retired associate professor of fine arts at U of L who now lives in Providence, R.I., recalled Lesch as a student and teacher:

"She was so quiet and modest, but she was like an iron bar. She was very firm in what she believed. . . . She was an excellent teacher."

"She was so unassuming," said former student Martin Rollins. "She had this incredible reputation and yet you never knew it. She was so down to earth. . . . As a teacher, she was able to reach so many people. She was so genuine, so direct." He credits Lesch's influence on his paintings of silent urban and suburban streets as her ability to "find the art in the everyday."

Lesch taught from 1961 to 1982 at the Louisville School of Art and at the University of Louisville, finally retiring from teaching a second time in order to concentrate on making art.

She taught art workshops all over the country, including at the Arrowmont School of Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine; the Chicago Institute of Art; the Indian School, Santa Fe, N.M.; and the Philadelphia College of Art and Science.

Lesch wrote in 1996: "My lifelong experience with textiles has been full because I have done what I wanted to do."

She and her late husband, pharmacist Ted Lesch, had no children. She once said her many students were her full inspiration: "Students motivated and challenged me until it was difficult to keep up. It is abundantly true in my life that one is the product of those we encounter."

Her works are part of many private collections and are in the permanent collections of the Speed Art Museum; the Evansville (Ind.) Museum of Arts and Science; the American Crafts Museum in New York; Arrowmont School; and the Flint (Mich.) Institute of Art.

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