The Art of Survival

A local artist allows disease to define his work, not his attitude.

One of Todd Leech's most provocative works is an arrangement he crafted in 2008 featuring small male figures on a modified hospital gurney. As water from an IV bag meticulously drips onto the table, the unfired clay creations gradually begin to disintegrate in the resulting pool of fluid.

"At the end, there are these ghost images of the figures," says the 39-year-old Berea resident.

The work also serves to illustrate Leech's personal struggles. As a toddler, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a systemic genetic disease in which bodily secretions, predominantly in the lungs and sinuses, are extremely thickened and not easily cleared. The effects often result in chronic infection, inflammation and scarring.

Ironically enough, the illness that robbed Leech of his health also provided the inspiration he needed to create a niche for his ceramic sculptures and artistic aspirations.

He was making the standard vases, pots and bowls when he began studying for a master of fine arts degree at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania nine years ago. Professors encouraged Leech to harness the influence of his illness by depicting his disease in his art, a challenge he immediately accepted.

An early series included increasingly misshapen bottles that represented his decreasing lung function, one for each year of his life. He also experimented with a porous, crumbling glaze and geometric shapes, some of which appear woven or drilled.

Yet, Leech's life changed dramatically six years ago when he received a double-lung transplant. While the procedure didn't cure his disease, he's struggling to incorporate a new topic into his work: good health. "Coming out of my transplant, having it be successful, was a new beginning of sorts," he explains. "I've only had six years of experience of what health is for normal people."

As his health improves post-transplant, Leech's art is attempting to convey the change. Though he admits an aversion to "happy colors" such as yellow, his latest pieces are vases with smooth surfaces and shiny glazes of cool blues and greens. Still, the inspiration for his art never comes easy.

"I haven't figured out what •healthy' work looks like," says Leech. "But that, I think, will be an exploration for the rest of my life."

Share this story: