Every time I see Lea Rizzo, the artist and single mom is buzzing with slightly frazzled energy but still somehow has a dose of sunshine for everyone. She has a sensitive and loving nature, and stays busy with her own projects between her practice as a tattoo artist, collaborating with artist friends, helping run The Yards collaborative art space, and caring for her 10-year-old son, Collin.
Rizzo's illustrations and collages typically feature pin-ups and burlesque babes or fantastical characters, usually involving mermaids, nymphs, or naughty children with woodland creature features. A member of the Sweat Meat Co. artist collective and an essential part of the support for the annual WALL\THERAPY street art festival (and 2013 muralist), Rizzo has carved out a steady space for herself within the Rochester arts community.
Rizzo was born and raised in Rochester except for a few early years spent in California after her parents divorced. She moved to Pennsylvania to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but took an indirect path toward fine art. "I thought advertising would be practical," she says.
After graduation, Rizzo immediately sank her teeth into the commercial art world, working for a t-shirt company that involved Marvel-licensed characters, before moving to Atlanta and working directly with a designer for Carter's, an upscale children's clothing company. "That was great," she says. "I was 26 and traveled a ton, to buy things and gather inspiration from different cities," and visit textile mills.
But it was a corporate setting, which didn't suit her in the long run. "I made a lot of money there, and it was a great city to live in," she says. She's grateful for the opportunities she's had: "every quarter there's the same student, with the same portfolio, wanting the same job. To find something in the commercial field right away was good. But in the end, the money didn't even matter, and the stuff that I got to do lost its luster."
Rizzo dropped out of the design world and moved to New Orleans, and traveled for a while after that, before returning to Rochester to learn the art of tattooing from her brother and some friends who worked in the field. Rizzo has worked at Lady Luck Tattoo in Canandaigua for the past decade, before recently starting a solo practice in her studio at The Yards.
But before that, she participated in "Horses on Parade," collaborating with her mother in painting three of the blank equine sculptures. At the art show held for the artists involved in the project, Rizzo was approached by someone who was organizing visual art shows at Bug Jar, which led to Rizzo's involvement in monthly exhibitions.
Just around 10 years ago, Collin entered Rizzo's life, who is the frequent subject of her sweet and spirited child-animal hybrid portraits, drawing inspiration from the behavior of real animals like mischievous raccoons, and stories like Peter Pan. She says she thinks of Max in "Where the Wild Things Are" as an endearment of difficult behavior as kids grow up.
She also draws inspiration from "The Little Rascals" nostalgia. "It's so funny to me," she says. "They do a lot of things that are like adults. Spanky had a nightclub!"
Rizzo works mainly with oil pastels or colored pencils and mixed media on paper, and collaged pieces in shadowboxes, incorporating all manner of scavenged materials and surfaces for her art.
Tattooing is really intimate and personal (though arguably public, if the owner shows off their inked art), while public art is created in a fishbowl environment and by definition belongs to the masses. But Rizzo takes it all in stride. "It's nice to share. It's nice for people to see processes, especially if they like your work. But it's still kind of vulnerable, because your back is to people."
Viewers sometimes watch for a long time without announcing their presence, and some photograph working artists without their knowledge or permission, all of which can be disconcerting. Every artist who works outdoors feel differently about this; some prefer to stay focused and not socialize, while others welcome conversation. It's important to remember that street artists are professionals at work, and though accessible, viewers should act with respect.
Rizzo plans to create more murals, and challenge herself to work on a larger scale than she ever has. She was inspired by visiting artist Handidan's tactile-application of paper and glue to wall at South Clinton Avenue and Meigs Street, and loves the idea of getting her hands dirty. "I've been scheming with a friend to make our own oil bars," she says.
As she looks forward, Rizzo reflects upon and draws inspiration from what she and her friends have accomplished, with regards to founding and running The Yards, supporting WALL\THERAPY, and collaborating on intricate installations and mural projects. "It just feels so good, because you sort of approach it with such a naïve sense, not realizing what you're doing."
Currently, Rizzo and The Yards group are busy planning the annual Spectral Carnival, which will take place October 9 and 10 at St. Joseph's Park.
To see more of Rizzo's art, visit the online version of this story.