Lesia Sochor Explores Fashion as Feminism

Words by Edgar Allen Beem

Following the thread of one artist's fascination with clothing as identity

Down the end of a dirt road in Brooks, deep in the hills back of Belfast, Lesia Sochor works in a second-floor studio filled with thin Maine light and a remarkable collection of paintings of spools of thread, dress patterns, bodice work, mannequins, and zippers.

Over the past dozen years, Sochor has produced the best work of her career, all of it focused on sewing and fashion, garments as textile surrogates for the lives of women.

“I don’t think of fashion being superficial,” Sochor says. “Creating a persona is not superficial. Reinventing yourself, presenting an image to the world, can be incredibly powerful.”

It is not so much high fashion and glamour, however, that interests Sochor as it is the art of sewing, a handmade aesthetic that appeals to a woman who grew up in Philadelphia’s Ukrainian community and whose mother made most of her clothes.

After graduating from Philadelphia College of Art in 1974, Sochor moved to Woodstock, New York.

“I wanted to be involved in an artists community, so I moved to Woodstock with my cousin Marika Kuzma,” the artist explains.

Sochor lived and worked in Woodstock until 1979, when she followed her cousin to Belfast, Maine, where Kuzma and Michael Hurley opened the Belfast Cafe, a gathering place for the artists, artisans, homesteaders, and hippies who colonized the midcoast in the 1970s.

Sochor did her part to create a sense of community by cofounding Artfellows, an artists cooperative that flourished in Belfast in the 1980s, showing local artists such as Sochor, Kuzma, Richard Norton and Denise Remy, Alan and Lorna Crichton, and Dennis and Megan Pinette. “It was just pulsating with energy and spirit,” says Sochor of Belfast in the eighties. “I just loved it.”

Settling into Maine country life, Lesia Sochor married and raised two children, divorced, remarried, taught art, was a caterer, illustrated children’s books, and kept right on painting through it all.

Sochor’s art took a great leap forward, however, in 2007. She was helping clean out her mother-in-law’s home after her death when she came across a collection of spools of thread.

“It just flooded me with memories of my mother, who was an amazing seamstress,” recalls Sochor. “All this imagery has come out of a spool of thread.”

As she surveys her art of the past decade, she says, “I find at 66 that I am a conceptual artist. I like to have a concept, to dig into it, let it pull me along, let it evolve.”

That concept is sewing as self, fashion as feminism. The progress from one series to another—thread, bodices, mannequins, dress patterns—follows an internal logic pinned to dressmaking.

Sochor’s paintings of thread are like portraits of spools. She also paints totem stacks of spools, one an homage to her mother, another, all pink, a tribute to the women peace activists known as CODEPINK.

She began painting bodices because “I really like the concept of a woman’s torso and breasts, how fabric can lay on the body, accentuating it or not.”

Dress patterns fixed to the canvas provide the ground upon which she paints.

Sochor began painting mannequins after she saw a naked one in a window in New York’s Garment District. “I kind of fell in love with it in an odd way, intrigued but creeped out,” she says. “These fiberglass structures are so sterile and robotic but sexual at the same time.”

Political and ethical elements often find their way into Sochor’s imagery via text. One mannequin painting, for instance, is printed with the names of the fashion centers Paris, London, Milan, and New York, while a sister painting bears the names of the places where the designer garments are produced—China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Vietnam.

In her Body Language series, Sochor has been painting dresses inspired by specific women artists and life events—Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, wedding dresses, maternity dresses, Cinderella’s blue ball gown.

“Who puts your zipper in?” she painted down the spine of a pattern for a revealing Academy Awards dress.

Zippers in Sochor’s art are instruments of mechanical magic, devices that both hide and reveal the human body.

The thread running through all of Lesia Sochor’s work in recent years has been how women create their own lives as they create their own clothes. Having grown up in a Ukrainian community, she is also adept at the folk art of pysanka, painting on eggs, an image of fertility featured in an earlier series, but it is the art of sewing that fires her ancestral imagination.

“Memories of my female ancestors, who all sewed,” says Sochor of what she inherited from her experience of the immigrant community. “They had the ability to carry on a life that was hard but meaningful. They persevered and they did it happily. The activity of making something gives delight and satisfaction in seeing a product you have made with your own hands.”