Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Rochleigh Z. Wholfe, Visionary Artist Viewing the Future

I first met Rochleigh Wholfe at Freida L. Wheaton Salon 53 grand opening "Home is where the art is" in early September which you can still read about in the Riehlife archives.

Rochleigh's website features a gallery of her paintings which we can only hint at in our post today. Click here to go to her website.

Rochleigh Z. Whole

Riehlife: Rochleigh, what does the "Z" stand for in your name? Not too many of those around.

"Z" stands for motivation towards receiving true information. My name was given to me based on an ancient system of astrology and numerology from one of my first spiritual mentors in Los Angeles in 1975.


Riehlife: Rochleigh, you came to St. Louis from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area in May 2005. Can you say what this time---about two and a half years---has been like for you?

RZW: Janet, my move back to St. Louis was a return...a 360 degree turn from where I began...where I was born and raised. I needed to do some ancestoral work in St. Louis and take care of my father's estate.

There have been challenging lessons here coming back here, but of course all lessons are meant for your growth. I have certainly grown from being back in St. Louis these past two years. Even though St. Louis is not an art town, it has supported me as an artist and has been gracious towards me. My work has been honored and I have received awards and art purchases from top collectors here such as Freida L. Wheaton and Nancy Kranzberg. For that I am very grateful.

I knew when I came back here that I would not be making St. Louis a permanent living space. It has been a joyful experience for me to have re-united with my son Jeffrey and my two adorable grandsons Joshua and Jeffry, Jr.

However my assignment here in St. Louis is completed at this time. My creative spirit is calling me to expand and to move out to continue my exploration of the world. I'm ready to share the gifts that I have received here in St. Louis and well as my previous gifts that I received from my experiences in graduate school at New College of California in San Francisco.

I've closed the book on this part of my life, and going to Asheville is opening a brand new chapter in a brand new book.

Riehlife: You have strong ties and feelings about St. Louis and you've powerfully expressed some of these in your painting "Revisioning St. Louis." How did this painting come about and what response have you gotten from it?

RZW: This piece was in a show last year called "The Girls of Summer." It came out of a meditative experience focused on the healing of St. Louis. Through this healing arose this healing angel who helps bring unity throughout the metropolitan St. Louis community. I see it as embracing the diverse religious, ethnic, racial, cultural groups that call St. Louis home.

Quite often the paint brush takes on a life of its own. As I am creating images, it appears I am creating one thing and when I am finished something totally different appears on the canvas. This is what happened in "Revisioning St. Louis." I thought I was going to be painting the skyline of Downtown St. Louis with the arch in the background. That is part of the painting, but there is also Cahokia Mounds to the left and Forest Park to the right with the universal symbols arched over like a rainbow.That was not what I originally envisioned.

People asked if the angel was me or not. I said, "No, rather the angel is part of the Collective Consciousness here in St. Louis that represents our need for healing and unity." Quite often people say they can feel the spirit in my work.

Revisioning St. Louis by Rochleigh Z. Wholfe

"Revisioning St. Louis," 24 inches by 18 inches, acrylic on canvas, by Rochleigh Z. Wholfe

Riehlife: Rochleigh, I know St. Louis will soon have to release you to the beautiful mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, known as a "Mecca for Artists and spirituality". What prompts this move?

RZW: I have not yet been able to totally and freely express the importance of honoring and embracing the divine feminine since moving here. Moving to Asheville will allow me to connect with kindred spirits.

I have presented several workshops entitled "In search of the Sacred Feminine" that utilize art as a catalyst for self-discovery. These were celebrated and praised by those in attendence. The evaluations revealed women saw the workshop as a viable means to help them start paying attention and getting in touch with this part of themselves as women. This work was satisfying for me, especially because it allowed me to draw on my MFA in Creative Inquiry and Masters Degree in Womens Spirituality. Especially the research and study that I did on archeologist Marija Gimbutas.

In small ways I have been able to touch upon this critical and crucial work that is needed for women and men at this time. However, I personally feel for me it is important to be in a more supportive, creative community that readily embraces similiar beliefs. Asheville has long been known as a place that not only is beautiful but draws people who are interested in working collaboratively in raising global consciousness.

Niger Madonna by Rochleigh Z. Wholfe

"Niger Madonna," 18 inches by 24 inches, acrylic on canvas board, by Rochleigh Z. Wholfe (Published as the cover of "Off Hours Magazine" in St. Joseph, Missouri and part of the St. Joseph Museum's show "Ebony, Form, and Inspiration, February 2006. Contempory piece of the Black Madonna.)


Riehlife: Rochleigh, you've said on your website that you feel new work coming, and some of this work may be in the form of installations. Women artists often voice this feeling as being pregnant with a body of work. Could you tell us how this feels for you and how you'll pursue it once you get settled in your new home?

RZW: Recently I had a conversation with an artist friend in Washington D.C. Januwa Moja, a well-known textile artist who designed many of the costumes for Sweet Honey and the Rock. We spoke about what it means to be at this stage in our lives, which I refer to as "The Empress." Women in there 40s, 50s, and 60s begin to be aware of a new power within them and we talked about Legacy Mode and what that really means for us at this time. What kind of legacy as women are we going to leave to the world? It's a realization that not only have we have arrived at this place of power and knowing, and we take we're involved in more seriously. That's how I am feeling now.

I'm pregnant with three bodies of work: "Gullah Woman," "Seven Women," and "The Legacy of the Dress."

A friend in Rock Hill, South Carolina just recently opened a gallery; the focus of the work in this gallery will be about women and the power and beauty that women have brought and offered to the world. She too is an artist and we have talked about working collaboratively on a show called "Gullah Woman."

The second body of work "Seven Women" springs in part from thinking about a workshop I attended at St. Mary's College in Oakland, California in 2003 where Barbara Ann Holmes, author of Race and Cosmology. She read a poem at the end of her presentation about a lesser-known Biblical Woman named Rispa (Samuel II) who was a concubine of Saul.

Because of Rispa's humility, integrity and courage, she influenced the decision of a king. Rispa sat from April until October at the site where the bodies of her two sons had been left hanging and were denied proper burial by King David. Rispa sat there day and night graciously dealing with the elements, fighting the wild beasts from the air and the ground to protect the remains of her two dead sons. All she had was a sack cloth to sit on during the day to cover her at night. King David was so moved by Rispa's dedication that he ordered her sons to be removed and given proper burial. Rispa is is one of the women who I'll include in the installation I'm planning called "Seven Women."

The third body of work is "The Legacy of the Dress" which could be subtitled, "If this dress could talk." Can you imagine a dress worn by Princess Diana? Can you imagine what a dress might have felt and seen from being on the body of phenomenal women worldwide? I'm currently researching women who aren't well-known, but have made major influences all over the world.

Riehlife: And to be on the verge of creating this does that feel?

RZW: It's very humbling and exciting at the same time. Whenever new creative ideas come to me that invoke critical thinking, it's like becoming pregnant that you have to take care of this baby, this embryo, and bring it forth, bring it to life. It has to be well researched, meditated on. I have to concentrate on how I want to present these concepts to the world in a way that truly honors who these women were.

Riehlife: Your work is rich with African, especially Egyptian, images. Where does this come from?

RZW: I'm an initiated priestess in the Temple of Isis out of Geyserville, California and a priestess of the Temple of Het Nefer out of New York City. Since I can remember I've been interested in ancient cultures including India, Egypt, West Africa, and Asia.

Searching for Home by Rochleigh Z. Wholfe

"Searching for Home," 24 inches by 36 inches, mixed media, by Rochleigh Z. Wholfe


Riehlife: You are an all-around creative person having been trained in theater and having a strong career there before plunging into painting in 2001. I also know you're fascinated by music. How do the arts intertwine for you?

RZW: Janet, that is one of the main goals of the work that I am doing now: to incorporate and bring together all these disciplines within my work. After being in theater for 25 years and working with world-reknowned jazz musicians, I find that each genre its own special gifts to offer.

When they are intertwined, it is like receiving a gourmet dessert.

I've done this incorporation on a small scale with pieces I've performed. But the one I feel I've had the most success with to date is my "Chautaqua: My Name is Harriet." The three faces of courage, integrity, and grace. This piece is about Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Powers. It was presented at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. in 2004. It included 8 original paintings, and my performance portraying all three Harriets. I wrote, directed, and performed the show.

Rochleigh Z. Wholfe Signature Picture

Signature Picture for "My Name is Harriett," 16 inches by 20 inches, acrylic on canvas board, by Rochleigh Z. Wholfe


Riehlife: You're extremely active and effective at building your career. Some of this has been good timing and connections like the story you told me about a friend of yours who is a docent at the Smithsonian Museum who referred you to just the right person at just the right moment that led to your presentation of "My Name is Harriet." But I know there's also an enormous amount of effort and strategy involved. What advice do you have for emerging artists as they find a way to make their work more visible?

RZW: First of all they need to have a clear idea of where it is they want to go. And then get your name out there. Then, stragically, get you work into galleries where your work can be seen by those who can help make a difference in your career. I suggest that you do as many shows and exhibits as possible in major art cities.

Read as much as you can about the business of art. Art is a business.
You have to understand this. Some refer to it as "The Industrial Arts Complex." This came home to me last December in Miami, Florida, at Art Basel, the most prestigious art event in the USA. Four hundred million dollars worth of art was sold in three days. Artists were being represented from all over the world by top galleries who paid fifty thousand dollars per booth for the privilege of displaying the work of the artists they represented.

I believe that it's important to follow the careers of recently successful contemporary artists such as Julie Mehrtu, Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker. These three African-American artists have been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. This demonstrates that the art world has become more open and receptive of innovative contemporary African-American artists. A small work of Julie Mehrtu's recently was sold and appraised for $850,000. She has only been in the public eye for around 15 years or less.

Second, you must believe in yourself. And know what you have to offer is of great value. You must do whatever you need to expand and enhance your skills. That is a lifetime journey.

Note: All reproductions of Rochleigh Z. Wholfe's work made available through courtesy of the artist and remain in her copyright.

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8 Responses »

  1. To wake up to such beautiful image and to read the words of a woman who is so integrated, wise, and creative was a real gift this morning. I appreciated that Ms. Wholfe brings both the well spring of her art and the practical attitude of a business woman to this interview.

  2. Thank you Janet for introducing me to Rochleigh Z. I immediately felt the connection we all have with each other through her work and words. Unity is expression. Expression is the manifestation of spirit. Rochleigh Z. has opened a portal through which we can travel and be a grander version of who we are. I think that is the meaning of physical life and I appreciate her awareness.

  3. It is a very nice and enlightening article about Rochleigh, I wish her well in her continued search. As she discovers that which she is seeking her work will only become more powerful. I am glad to have met her.

  4. Ms. Wholfe's art is on her canvas and her words here. The colors and drama caught my attention and heart today. I wanted to climb into them, especially searching for home.Her words about Art as business and our need to believe in ourselves are wise and true. I wish I'd been in DC to see "My Name is Harriet." Thank you ,Janet, for bringing this wondrously talented artist to our consciousness.

  5. Having met and worked alongside of Rochleigh, I found this interview to be very true to her warm and caring nature.
    Her true spirituality shows though her paintings.
    I am looking forward to seeing the works mentioned in this interview.
    My best wishes and prayers go out to Rochleigh as she moves on to the next chapter of her life. It will be very interesting to see what new works come out in the future.

  6. I marvel at Ms. Wholfe's use of vibrant color and attention to detail in her works. She paints with defiant determination and strength. This strength and purpose comes through well in "My Name is Harriett" and the image lingers in my mind to the extent it entices me to view it again and again.

  7. "Quite often the paint brush takes on a life of its own. As I am creating images, it appears I am creating one thing and when I am finished something totally different appears on the canvas."

    Boy, do I know that one -- both as a writer and an artist.

    Meantime, I love what the brush and canvas has freed Rochleigh to create!

    -- Mark David


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