Rosa Leff and her papel picado art
The artist will close her exhibit at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on Tuesday, May 14. Don't miss it!
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When the pandemic was just beginning, Rosa Leff quit her job as a kindergarten teacher to become a full-time artist. After eight years of teaching, she decided to give her love of papel picado (cut paper) a chance, a technique that led her to study in Puebla and San Salvador Huixcolotla, Mexico, after receiving an artist travel award from Baltimore City.
“It was kind of a crazy time to start a new career when many people were out of work… I was very lucky that I just had a loyal collector, great curators and got a few grants to kind of help me build up,” Leff explained in an interview with AL DÍA.
Now, her working days consist of taking the streets to capture urban landscapes and everyday scenes. She has done so in places like Japan, China, Mexico, Aruba, South Africa, Israel, Ecuador, Baltimore and Philadelphia, where she lived a short time ago.
Upon returning from her walks around the city, Leff carefully evaluates each photography and selects the one that most catches her eye. Then, with a x-acto knife and a single sheet of paper, she applies the traditional papel picado technique to transform the photo into a piece of art by giving it another shape and texture.
In her most recent exhibition All the right places, the artist turns Philadelphia's Magic Gardens into a space for reflection and analysis on the most common assumptions, stereotypes and mistakes that American and Mexican culture make about each other, achieving a parallel dialogue between the works.
Each of the pieces is hand-cut using photos that Rosa herself took in Philadelphia. What is most striking is the detail and meticulousness with which she cuts the paper and the creativity to presents everyday life in a city saturated with electrical wires, bricks, graffiti and signs. But also, each image represents the artist's nostalgia for a Philadelphia where Latin American culture flourishes.
Restaurants such as South Philly Barbacoa, Iztaccihuatl Restaurant and El Rincón Mexicano stand out among the more than 15 papel picado pieces that headline the exhibition. As Leff explained, these businesses hold a special place in her life.
"One of the things I love most about this exhibit is that I have a picture of South Philly Barbacoa next to a picture of Taco Bell. And that's what this exhibit is all about. There's a time and a place for both," said the artist as she reminisced about her college days and nights out. "Yes, I love authentic Mexican tacos, but I also went through the Taco Bell line back in those college days."
The exhibit opened March 3 and will be on view to the public through May 14 in Philadelphia's Magic Garden gallery.
Art, a family affair
Rosa spent her childhood surrounded by art. Her grandmother was a painter, while her father built reproductions of antique furniture. Hence her interest in fine arts and crafts, techniques that she was able to embrace by incorporating her unique style and venturing out to offer her critical eye as a Latina and Caribbean in the United States.
Although Leff began her full-time art career just three years ago, she never took off from the arts. When she worked as a teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school, she would leave her shift as quickly as possible to change clothes — as she had to dress demurely to cover her tattoos — and exhibit her art or meet with curators and gallery owners in Philly.
Thanks to her determination and passion, Rosa has distinguished herself as an artist locally and internationally by exhibiting her work throughout the United States and China. In addition, her work has been acquired by The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia and The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She also received the Independent Artist Award from the Maryland State Council on the Arts and, this year, was awarded with the 360 Xochi Quetzal Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) residency.
Leff holds a master's degree in elementary education from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College.
She currently lives in Puerto Rico with her husband and her chihuahuas, Chalupa and Refrito.
What is papel picado?
Papel picado is a folk art technique of paper cutting that is practiced throughout Mexico as well as in other countries. Artists make decorative patterns on vibrant pieces of paper by stacking several sheets of paper and cutting them with chisels to create unique designs. These works are used as decorations for celebratory events and altars.
In Leff's case, the artist combines the paper-cutting techniques she studied with her own techniques to highlight the intricate details found in the cityscapes of her photographs.