This past Friday afternoon I found myself hanging with local artist Leta Gray at The Woodlands cemetery in West Philthy. Although perhaps best known as a tattoo artist and musician, this June (1st-30th) PhilaMOCA will be hosting SYSTEMIC: A Retrospect of Americana Artwork by Leta Gray. This Thursday, June 1st, the performance and gallery space will be having an Opening Reception, with a candlelit acoustic show featuring Joe Jack Talcum (The Dead Milkmen), Katie Jo Knaub, a solo set from Broken Family, and Shitty Summer, which is Leta Gray herself. And June 30th will be a notably louder and rowdier Closing Show, featuring The HIRS Collective, Witching, Roadkiller, and a reunion of Pushin’ It 2 The Limit, one of Leta’s former bands. During our hang in The Woodlands, Leta showed me a number of her pieces that will be included in the retrospect, which she kindly pulled from her charmingly punk van and displayed on the cemetery grounds, and told me how these works came about, what she’s hoping people will get out of the pieces, and what can be expected of the Opening Reception and Closing Show.
Izzy Cihak: You have this show, SYSTEMIC: A Retrospect of Americana Artwork, coming up at PhilaMOCA. How did this collection come about? When did you begin making these pieces?
Leta Gray: I started making pieces like this back when I was in college, around 2008, during Bush-era bullshit. It felt very oppressive at the time, and over the years it’s just continued. The same issues exist that existed in Bush era, and going through with Obama they continued, even though we did have a different face and a different hopeful direction… maybe. We still had corporate politics ruling everything and driving everything in this direction of separating people through class, through race, gender, all of those… And so, I’ve just had to make this artwork, because it’s so disturbing how intertwined everything is together, and how we got to this place. All the attacks on reproductive justice and rights, attacks on women, attacks on people of color, attacks on people of different gender-basis… There’s so much that needs help and to be changed.
Izzy: And what can people expect of the show? What kind of stuff can they expect to see?
Leta: There’s going to be a lot of graphic images and systematic, almost machine-like, looking images that will show different backgrounds, different historical events that have happened, influences, media that direct people’s perspective in certain ways. I’m trying really hard to reveal what’s behind the curtain of our society, and how we live and exist today, and why things are the way they are, and continue to be the way they are, and the horrible machine that people are pushed into being, when we are organic, natural beings.
Izzy: You’re having both an Opening Reception and a Closing Show with music, including yourself. What can people expect from each of those events? I’m assuming everyone’s a friend of yours?
Leta: I’m really excited for these events! I’m really excited to show this artwork! It feels very important and it’s amazing to have a combination of visual arts and music. There are so many talented people in this city and in this community, and we have such a powerful voice to be able to express all our disenchantment and frustrations with everything happening.
This is meant to be a place for connecting and getting people to come together and maybe open your eyes a little bit wider to the big picture, because we get so narrowly focused on things. But this is meant to help bring people together to celebrate our work in dismantling these systems, to be able to share in different positive ways. I’m hoping that this will be an event that will be able to generate funds towards things that need help and will help connect people with resources, and maybe get involved a little bit more. Donations will be going to Philly bailout to help free incarcerated mothers; the Beyond the Bars program, which works through music empowerment and dismantling the school to prison pipeline; Morris Home, which specifically provides transgender people services; the PA abortion fund which is pretty straightforward; and Women In Transition, which provides support to victims of abuse.
Opening night will be a candlelit reception. So, I’m looking to do a fancy dress up. We’re gonna be pinky up here. That’s gonna be headlined by Joe Jack Talcum from The Dead Milkmen. I’m gonna have two of my friends play; Katie Jo Knaub, who has a dark and broody country stormy sound and hasn’t played since the beginning of the pandemic; my friend Chris of Broken Family, who moved here from Asheville and plays weepy beautiful tunes, so bring a hanky; and then myself, Shitty Summer, which is kind of shitbird acoustic, with maybe slapticky and maybe deep lyrics… Who knows which way it’ll go [laughs]? So, that’s gonna be opening night. I’m also gonna try and raffle off some artwork for different causes.
And then the closing show is gonna be a loud punk/metal show. I want people to get real gritty with this one. I’m super lucky to have The HIRS Collective playing a Philly date, pulling a surprise kinda set, which will be really awesome, along with Witching, my very brutal and talented musician friends from the doom world. My old band, Pushin’ It 2 The Limit, is going to play a reunion show. And we play really fast, and have a lot of fun, and don’t give any fucks, so people are gonna have to stand it. And then there’s Roadkiller, who’s amazing. That’s my friend, Phillipa, an incredible shredder from Australia. Her band rips. She just finished up an amazing album that has a bunch of big-name drummers. And she’s just a fantastic performer to see live.
Izzy: Not to detract from your own work, but PhilaMOCA has hosted like a shit ton of really amazing events over the past like 10+ years. Have you had any favorite events that you’ve attended there?
Leta: Oh my gosh! Well, I am so honored to be there. It is just a great space that harbors so many amazing events and shows. And it’s the most perfect place to show, because it has art and visual performance things going on… I’ve seen some insanely awesome things in the past. There was a really awesome thing they did with Female Trouble; they had a screening there with Mink Stole, which was really awesome! I have played so, so many amazing shows there it’s hard to choose, but I have a real soft, sentimental spot for playing with World Inferno Friendship Society years ago. It holds a special place in my heart! Eric, who runs the space, rules and is just one of the best humans around and encourages all the artistic mayhem!
Izzy: You work in a lot of different mediums. I mean, even a lot of different mediums within visual art, but then you’re also a musician. Do you feel like certain mediums are more conducive to exploring or talking about certain things, or is it more like whatever’s inspiring you at the time is just what you explore across all of your different outlets?
Leta: Illustration is the strongest point of communication that I can use. I’m terrible with words. I think words and language are very constraining. And so being able to visually represent things and show these things with little or no words in them, but to be able to relay ideas, feelings, and emotions, is just so important in the language that I’m going for. And it’s exactly the same with music. You are able to create all these different audioscapes and be able to push these messages forward, especially things that you hate or make you mad. You can just liberate yourself from those through music and art. And being able to find an outlet for expression like that is one of the few freedoms that exist [laughs].
Izzy: Since you are Philly based, I have to ask what are some of your favorite things about Philly, whether related to being an artist, or just daily life?
Leta: It’s Honest! Philly is just such an amazing city. I love it so much. I’ve been here for 13 years. It’s affordable, and I hope it can remain affordable for some people. Some of these issues that are going on — that’re huge — are housing issues, and housing instability and insecurity, and people being pushed out of their neighborhoods, gentrification… All of that is just a really big issue that Philadelphia is facing right now. And it really breaks my heart because I love this city so much. This past election, too, it was very heartbreaking that we got a very pro-cop person, and that’s the last thing we need!
Philadelphia is such an amazing city because there is such community and comradery, like people really care about musicians here. Musicians care about each other and want to go to shows, and artists care about each other and want to see what’s going on. And there are so many different programs that are going on, like community-based social justice programs, and people doing things. And with all its aggressiveness, it truly is like the City of Brotherly Love. We’re honest here! Philly is just an honest city. It lacks the pretentiousness and the just-me attitude of New York, and it really harbors a place to be able to create and embrace other creators, and live a little bit more honestly, and live a little bit more freely, and work a little less [laughs].
Izzy: Finally, what do you have planned for the second half of 2023? I know you seem to always have like a million things in the works. What are you hoping and planning to do for the remainder of the year?
Leta: I’m gonna get out of the city and spend some time in the woods. And then this year has just been about finishing up a bunch of big projects. I’m gonna finish this tarot deck I’ve been working on for like 10 years. I’m just finishing up the writing for that and getting that together as an actual product. And then, hopefully, movin’ around in my little van across the states for a bit!
*Get your tickets for the Closing Show here.