I didn’t telephone my mother often while she was still living. One reason being that I don’t like to have phone conversations with anyone–even my own family–but the other is that a phone call to my mom usually resulted in her asking for some outrageous favor. A $1700 loan, never repaid. A precarious trip to Pet Smart to buy one hundred pounds of kitty litter and puppy pads (she was a bit of an animal hoarder.) And it got worse from there. But I broke my rule every so often to share a book recommendation with her that I knew she’d love, or to fill her in on a new friend that she totally would have gotten along with — I almost did it the other night, as a matter of fact. “You will love Leia,” I would have told her, “she’s so amazingly cool, she makes the most incredible things, we have similarly weird childhoods, and her mom sounds a little bit wild and mystical and fabulous, just like you!”
Of course, I never had that conversation. My mother’s ashes have been tucked into an urn in a corner of my perfume shelf since 2013 (and to be honest, she didn’t answer the phone half the time I called, anyway.) I’d like to believe though, that she is peeking over my shoulder today as I write today about my fascination with Leia Churchel of Lunation Leathers. Leia is a fiercely creative artisan and leather worker who is also, sadly, a member of the Dead Mom’s Club, and whose works explore the evolution of her own grief and loss, while also exhibiting the concepts of death and rebirth through the very medium with which she works.
Leia opened up to me about these profound notions and more in our recent interview: her formative years in a bizarre community of boisterous badasses, the tempest of an addictive personality channeled into positive chaos and healthier obsessions, her love of adventure and freedom and interdimensional beings– and how all of these reflections and attitudes inform and inspire this lady leather fiend’s beautiful creations.
You’ve described yourself as “a lady leather fiend!” and I just love the energy of that enthusiastic imagery. Tell me about your fiendish love for leatherwork, and how that came about.
Leather saved my life, plain and simple. About 7 years ago, I was in a gnarly spot- I was addicted to partying, I had no money and no outlet to creatively express myself. I raged every night and woke up empty every day. I was engulfed in a negative headspace that caused me to make very poor life decisions. With an addictive personality that followed me from a young age, I lived every day in negative chaos. One day, I looked around to realize the life I had been living just wasn’t working for me anymore. I decided I needed direction, and leather was the turning point.
Luckily, I grew up in a community full of bizarre weirdos led by their insatiable creativity. From hedge witches, pain-proof men, painters, bikers, musicians, trade workers and more, I was surrounded by artistic, inspiring, badass people. One of those people was my friend, Stacey, who was a bartender at a local spot where my mom used to take me and she had been a leather smith for nearly 20 years. One day, around seven years ago, she and I got to talking about her leatherwork and the discussion led down an opportunistic path- she offered to show me a thing or two about working with leather. Since I was drowning in Goldschläger and going nowhere fast, I took her up on the offer and she taught me everything she knew.
From the moment Stacey rolled out that first hide of leather, I was undeniably hooked. It was all I thought about, day and night. I hunted for tools, read as much as I could, and listened diligently to everything Stacey taught me. I became obsessed and enamored with the idea of taking the remnants of something dead, transforming it, and birthing something new into the world. It was this concept of rebirth that mirrored the evolution I wished to see in myself. Through an active choice to change for the better, I became addicted to leather and I realized it fulfilled the creative outlet that was missing from my life. I stopped the chaotic cycle of partying that had become so familiar to me. I channeled my energy of self-harm and deprecation into a new craft and never looked back. So that is how leather truly saved my life and allowed me to pursue a positive lifestyle with a healthy, creative outlet for expressing myself.
One day, not long ago, I walked into my studio, looked around, and just sobbed with gratitude for the destructive life path I chose to give up and the rewarding new path that followed. I still have an addictive personality, but now, I direct my energy to a much more positive type of chaos and label myself a “Leather Fiend”.
“Brutally eclectic” is a turn of phrase you have used to describe the community of artisans and creators in which you grew up. I am burning with curiosity to learn more about this creative fellowship and how it shaped you as a young artist.
I grew up in the 1990s on the South Side Pittsburgh which was a pretty rad place. My mother owned a holistic herbal shop and, at the age of 8, I was already playing with crystals and accidentally eating valerian root. On our walks home from the shop we would stop on a train trestle to do rituals, although, I never knew they were called such until much later in life. I’d join her and her girlfriends as they frolicked in the forest and I sat in the back seat while adventuring on winding mountain roads. This was a normal way of life for me and I grew up believing such magical moments were commonplace.
My mom was was one of the fuels that pumped the engine in the Pittsburgh art scene of the 90’s. Art Without Walls was one of her many endeavors. Linked here is an interview and a tour of one of the events. I’m the small blonde headed child running amuck! The events took place in abandoned industrial buildings and turned them into a place for live performances and for artists to showcase their work. Art Without Walls gave punks a place to play as loud and fast as they wanted and offered performance artists a stage and safe place to thrive in a sea of creativity. Being the daughter of such a pivotal woman in a community of wonder was nothing short of awesome. She was a single mother, estranged from her family, but part of a new one made up of the artistic community and that is the family that she raised me within. I watched them fight through the mundane necessities of existence in order to be able to generate master works of art that nourished their existence. They exhibited creative perseverance while dishing out the brutal reality of life and I learned so many things from them.
Apart from my mom, I think my biggest influence in that community was my “Uncle,” Dave Apocalypse (not blood, but always family). He is a sideshow and oddities wing nut. He was a barker for the World of Wonders, then had his own gig shoving large objects into weird orifices of his body and even suspended himself high in the air to escape flaming straight jackets. Eventually, he broke his back by trying to escape a straight jacket and simultaneously crowd surfing at a Pigface show. Later on, he helped operate and pirate an astounding Victorian steam-powered house called The Neverwas Haul. And those snippets are not even a fraction of the beautiful insanity that makes up my Uncle Dave. He would often babysit me and tell me about all of his creatures in jars on the shelf. Once when I was 8, he made me believe that his gaff alien was real and it sent me into a life-long obsession with inter-dimensional beings. He instilled in me a love of forgotten decay and showed me the beauty in a dead possum that had been run over. Watching him stay true to his inner weirdo without wavering gave me the strength to be comfortable in my oddness.
The South Side of Pittsburgh housed a motley array of artistic people. For instance, Darby Lahger worked at the goth store I went to daily as a teenage misfit. I’d watch from a distance as her and my mother sat and discussed life over coffee, and I would beg my mom for face tattoos like Darby’s. Now, she is one of the most breathtaking artists on Instagram (@0ld_hag) and has accomplished so much. There was also a man my mother dated for many years that painted gnarled naked bodies on canvas in our basement, exposing me to the beauty of tormented human forms in oil paintings. He took me to every garage sale and flea market he could, collecting pieces of ghostly memories to make sculptural mechanical mobiles.
I could go on forever talking about how and where I grew up. These brutally eclectic people who raised me made sure to show me, truthfully, every angle of life and art, whether joyful or harsh. I am now an eclectic person, myself, thanks to that diverse melting pot of weirdos and it is this non-conventional foundation that helped me create such an expressive life. Through the years, my art has never been just one thing, nor have I.
The concept of death and rebirth is one you have mentioned with regard to your craft, specifically in working with leather; I’d love to hear more about this profound notion and how you interpret it through your work.
The evolution of human life completely enthralls me. I’m progressively changing with new versions of myself that carry imprints of my past experiences and feelings. I believe that we, as human begins, have the ability to evolve into whatever we choose. Everything we go through in life molds us into the beings we allow ourselves to be. With that, comes death —death of what we once knew, death of who we once were, and death of tangible moments, leaving our souls scarred and bruised in the wake of progression. From that stems rebirth — rebirth into a new evolution of ourselves that informs our present life. My mother’s unexpected death last year has allowed me to shape myself into the current version of myself while still carrying past evolutions with me.
My leather work is a reflection of this change. Leather already allows me to physically take something that has died and carve it into a new piece of work, giving it a rebirth of life through art. Metaphorically, I love taking the flora and fauna from personal experiences and putting them into leather. The majority of my pieces run parallel to this concept. I tend to make two versions of each creation, one representing the bruised, scarred beauty from life experiences and the other, a vibrant rebirth of color. I see my work as taking the melancholy train of life on a textural path that culminates in the creation of wearable art.
Your creations speak to me of both elegance and an unruly sort of rebellion and adventure. Of victorian lace and withered flowers, and the sun’s fading light glinting off the chrome of a 71 Bonneville Triumph, hair whipping in the wind, winding round the curvy back roads of the Appalachian Mountains. No doubt I’m picking up influences that coincide with your various interests and passions! What can you share about the things that inspire you and how they inform your craft?
When I view the world, everything appears ideally somber and perfectly imperfect in the vast decay of time. I’ve always been the kind of girl who wandered aimlessly down a set of train tracks, hunting for rusty, abandoned pleasures, getting lost on backcountry roads. Pittsburgh is full of rust and dust with the rolling Appalachia mountains just 30 minutes outside of the city! Geographically, this provides me with a daily platform from which to draw inspiration. The beauty within society’s withering ruins, forgotten by-gone industrial eras, and carved out mountain roads are ways of life for me and this was taught to me by my mother. The 71’ Triumph was actually my mother’s motorcycle that she rode in her 20s until she saw her best friend get killed by a semi trailer. My mom showed me how to get dramatic fulfillment in a widespread array of subject matter and life experiences. Ritualistically teaching me her spiritual roots and actively practicing to see earthly beauty throughout her life no doubt contributed to the woman I am today.
My life and my work are a hodgepodge of freeing, adventurous, broken moments, filled with natural magic and overwhelming melancholy- and I’m cool with that! The rad thing has been discovering how to transfer those experiences into leather. Whether it be a memory gleaned from the reflection of a shattered window pane draped in ivy, the ominous rolling storm clouds approaching a field of monarch butterflies, or the shadows of hundreds of ravens cloaking the dusk skies above backcountry gravel roads, I truly enjoy the undertones of saddening tranquility. Being able to transform those moments into a piece of leather work has been one of the greatest gifts in my life.
Much of your work is adorned with winged creatures: moths, butterflies, ravens, scarabs, bats, owls, etc. Their freedom of flight whispers a wonderful wildness, a theme which seems to be at the heart of your creations. Winged or otherwise, what are some of your favorite designs that you’ve worked on? And in which of them do you feel your heart beat strongest?
Every form of flora and fauna captivates me. I thrive in nature, as I’m sure many of us do. It’s where I become whole, invoking the beauty that dwells behind each earthly shadow. I truly enjoy winged creatures. To me, they represent the ability of flight out of grave circumstances and the rewards of rebirth. I specifically remember the Forrest Gump scene where Jenny is a small child, crying and pleading with the universe to make her a bird so she can fly far, far away. That’s been the gist of my darkest moments.
From the past, I think my favorite designs are my back patches, dripping with art nouveau tones and fleeting moments of magic. They are fueled by images from commissioned clients as well as the most dramatically enchanting times of my life. Currently, I really enjoy the series of bruised flowers I’m making for wearable hair art. They represent the transition I’m making in my own life that was spurred by my mother’s death and they showcase that evolution from the darkest moments in my life. As mentioned above, I also make a counterpart piece with the same shape and texture, but instead of being bruised, the parallel flowers are vivid and represent the strong aspirations I’ve gathered from my personal evolution.
Are you working on anything right now that you’d like to share? Is there anything else that you’d like Haute Macabre readers to know about you or your work? And in addition to your web shop, is there anywhere else that we can find your work?
Each piece I make takes a surprisingly long amount of time to complete. I do not typically sell my pieces anywhere except for my online shop because they are so labor-intensive. Once every two months, I conduct a shop update that encompasses all of the creations I am able to produce in the span of those few months. Although, if you live in Pittsburgh, The Weeping Glass has a few of my pieces. This year, I intend to expand my knowledge of wax carving for jewelry designs. I feel as though it is a natural progression for me, considering my absurd collection of silver adornments and my repetitious appreciation for tiny details. My friend, Adrienne Rozzi of Poison Apple Printshop, and I are planning to collaborate on these jeweled creations. I am also incredibly excited about the future prospects of collaborating with another friend, Kerin Scales of Soliloquy Jewelry, on fringed leather, precious stones and metal! Currently, I’m working on raw leather fashion and elegantly framed wall hangings for the fall that I hope will expand my range into mournful home decor and clothing exhibiting the process of grief. No matter what I create in the future, I know for certain that it will parallel the evolution I’m experiencing through the loss of my mother.