Lihua Lei was born in 1966 in Taiwan. Her parents were rice farmers. She contracted polio when she was only 5 months old. As a small child, she was unable to stand and her job was to sit on the edge of her family’s rice field and scare the scavenging birds away.
She describes this childhood as a time when she would make up stories about the mama birds helping their babies who might have their torn wings or were having other physical problems.
As an adult, she realized that creating these stories was the way she experienced and recognized her own disability. As an artist, she designs installation art that explores, defines, and honors the personal experiences of her own life.
She came to the United States in her early 20’s to study art therapy with the idea of becoming a counselor. But she became interested in ceramics and began taking classes in sculpture. Her aptitude at sculpture was soon recognized by her teachers and colleagues. Her sculpture art has allowed her to do the installation pieces she conceives, since Installation Art does not generate much revenue.
Lei’s installations are not only derived from her own personal experiences and memories, but also from inspiration drawn from other artistic sources. Her installation invites the viewer to consider the vulnerabilities and transformations of the body. Lei’s work encourages the viewer to consider how our bodies sense the world. What does it mean to gain something, and if we lose it, do we remember the state in which our body once was? How does the body feel, process, and remember the world?
To symbolize the sense of inherent bounty and loss to our bodily condition, she uses glass, colored thread, cloth winds, and the knotty bark of trees. She refuses to avoid painful issues. In recent years, she has created installations about breast cancer, her own affliction with polio, and her reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
She is one of the few artists with disability who have gone beyond the picture plane, breaking through to innovative installation and multimedia that is reflective of her life experiences. Lei is leading a movement that embraces disability as reflected through the work. She is certainly redefining the possibilities for others with disabilities in breaking new ground.
Lihua Lei lives in Solon, Maine, whose wooded and industrial landscapes inspire much of her work.