Johanna Leech builds a mini-museum of collectables that tell a local story

Everyone will find something to love in Johanna Leech’s exhibition “Virginia is for…,” the first in a new series of Public Artist residencies at The Bridge PAI. Everyone will find something to love in Johanna Leech’s exhibition “Virginia is for…,” the first in a new series of Public Artist residencies at The Bridge PAI.

“I’m an artist…but I’d also identify myself as a collector,” said Johanna Leech.

It is precisely this vocation that brings Leech to Charlottesville to participate in The Bridge PAI’s new artist-in-residence program. The 28-year-old native of Belfast, Northern Ireland has spent October scouring the area for kitsch objects, unusual stories, and local hearsay, myths and legends. An exhibition of her findings, drawings, and photographs —a mini-museum coined “Virginia is For…”—opens on  November 1 at The Bridge’s gallery.

Leech’s practice is something akin to that of a Victorian-era specimen collector, and she has set out from Europe with funding (her residency is supported by a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland) and arrived on foreign shores to “discover” and catalogue new specimens. Add a dash of flea market virtuoso and a pre-disposition for good stories and you’ve pretty much got the picture.

“As a child, I’d have local pubs save their bottle caps and every week I’d go by and gather them up for my collection,” said Leech. “I’d store them in a big chest in the garage, and spend hours getting them out and organizing them. Postcards, dinosaur cards—proper collections. I would lay them out on my bed and actually feel quite proud.”

Her Charlottesville project is a big undertaking. For one thing, there is a lot of ground to cover when you’re discovering fox collections, Dessert Delight bubble gum, Foamhenge, Gusburgers, stolen hot dog statues, collections of travel coffee mugs, and stories, lots of stories. In the three hours I spent with her, Leech gathered about 300 photographs, one rusty jar top, a moon pie, a can of Mug root beer, a Tootsie Roll, a Wyant’s store T-shirt, and a note to research the amount of calories in a Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken Kickers meal from Chili’s (it’s 2,110 with the fries).

The fact that Leech has an outsider’s perspective is crucial. She seems to have a knack for finding the bizarre and unique, sometimes under your very nose, in locations you pass by every day. There are moments when her work can make one feel, as Walker Percy would say, “sunk into our own everydayness.” This exchange is perhaps what is most compelling about Leech’s practice; it challenges the unexamined inheritances of our day-to day affairs, and in doing so provides the platform to wonder, “What am I doing this with?”

“I hope that my [collection and images] have captured a unique perspective of Charlottesville and beyond,” said Leech. “And I hope there will be a few surprises in there. I really want people to come see it.”

In so many ways, Leech’s work exemplifies the tectonic shifts occurring in the contemporary art environment. She’s working internationally, her work is site-specific, there is virtually no commercial incentive to match her efforts, and she doesn’t rely heavily on traditional methods and materials—in fact, she hesitates to even identify herself as an artist in the traditional sense of the word.

But an artist she is. Across the globe, contemporary art practices are realigning the public’s expectation for what constitutes an artist or an art exhibition. Like their counterparts in other fields, the new breed of artist is tech savvy, socially conscious, compelled by community participation, and takes on new approaches for a new generation.

It is in this spirit that Bridge director Matthew Slaats initiated the artist-in-residence program, christened “Public Artists.” During the spring and fall of each year, local, national, and international artists will be hand selected by the local community to collaborate on projects that energize areas throughout the city and county. A Bridge press release stated that, “The primary objective of the project is to provide a platform which uses arts to think about the economic, social, cultural, historical, and environmental character of Virginia.”

Leech seems to be onboard with these objectives. Starting with a talk at The Bridge in early October, the artist has, in accord with the program’s central tenets, treated the opportunity not just as a chance for exhibition, but also as a chance for interaction. In addition to being a fixture at art events, Leech has connected and collaborated with many different folks in her research of central Virginia. For example, she initiated a project with a local woman who has amassed a unique collection of travel coffee mugs from Charlottesville over many years. The two of them will go through each vessel’s history and find the stores, or previous locations of the stores, where the mug was purchased. It’s a hybridized investigation of urban development, kitschy objects, and local history.

Hand in hand with Slaats, Leech has also been developing “Dinner in Belfast/Lunch in Charlottesville,” a trans-Atlantic, round table event that unites artists in Charlottesville with artists in Belfast for a “shared” meal on Skype set for Saturday, November 2. What’s on the agenda? Troubleshooting, comparing notes, talking shop, but primarily, and most simply, Dinner/Lunch is a platform for putting minds together and seeing what comes of it. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. But you don’t know until you’ve tried it, and that’s a notion that The Bridge and Slaats, to their credit, seem perfectly comfortable with.

“Virginia is For…” opens Friday, November 1 at 6pm at The Bridge PAI. More information on the exhibition can be found at johanna

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