Leah Ball is a Chicago-based jewelry maker, ceramicist, printmaker, feminist and advocate. Leah is many things, but above all, she is an artist dedicated to empowering others, promoting sex positivity, and creating ways and spaces to talk about difficult yet important topics.
“I didn’t necessarily mean to delve so deep into feminism,” Ball says as she sips on a champagne flute. “I mean, I thought I knew what it was, but I had no idea. I knew things were bad, but I had no idea how bad.” We’re at Lula Café, a cozy restaurant in Chicago’s Logan Square. Ball has smiled, waved, or chatted to at least three different people in the five minutes we’ve been there. “Are you still doing yoga?” she asks as she rubs a pregnant friend’s belly. People gravitate towards her. Hell, they practically light up when they see her! As we get deeper into our conversation, we laugh a lot. This babe has a contagious smile and an even more contagious laugh. Her hands, clay residue from earlier ceramic work still present on her fingers, wave through the air as she speaks. No matter what topic we discuss, a humbled wisdom shines from behind the lenses of her large-framed glasses.
Months ago, I volunteered to pose for Ball’s Project FAF, a photo campaign inspired by her Feminist as Fuck jewelry line. For this project, she teamed up with friend and Chicago photographer Chelsea Ross. The campaign pairs a bare portrait of each participant with a brief interview, giving everyone who participates–both men and women–an outlet to tell their story and talk about what feminism means to them. Up until that point, I considered the feminist movement a bit intimidating. I always felt I needed to be angrier or louder to be heard. But with Project FAF, Ball emphasizes that everyone has a tale worth sharing. These stories and ideas band us together, creating a support system that breeds strength.
As compassionate as she is passionate, Ball’s babe-ly take on feminism and sexual positivity is not that it’s a violent war that needs to be fought. Instead, it’s about breaking down barriers, injustices, and exploitation through education and empowerment. Whether it’s through her art or her words, the amount of things this woman accomplishes on a day-to-day basis is astonishing. It really makes a person wonder: what kind of magical, energy-filled genius juice is this lady drinking? Also, can we get some?
You’re from Austin. What first brought you to Chicago?
I grew up in southern California, then I moved to Austin, so I’m kind of half and half. I moved to Chicago with my ex-husband, who was going to graduate school. We were high school sweethearts, and as my parents say, we moved here to break up. There was so much connection between us in Austin, but when we moved here it wasn’t very long until we separated. By that time, I had already fallen in love with the city. I really got to invent myself and become who I wanted to be here.
How did you get over splitting with your ex so soon after moving? What helped you become comfortable being on your own in a new place?
The hardest part for me was falling out of love with someone and seeing my (unrealistic) expectations erode in front of my face. That took years. By the time we decided to split the hardest part was over. I actually remember that time as really positive and exciting. My sister moved to the city not long after and we got really close, I started working at a metal foundry and loved how challenging that work was. I became more deliberate with how I spent my time but also so much more spontaneous and energized. I think I was craving that independence so when I finally had it I was so appreciative. I also met my current partner during those times and he is incredibly supportive and loving.
Were you very active in the Austin art world as well? Have you always considered yourself a maker or artist?
The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is an artist. I’ve been drawing women and figurative stuff since I was a tiny kid. I would draw my friends in princess dresses in their favorite colors, with their favorite animals.
What made you love art so much?
My dad’s an artist, and I really looked up to him. He’s a graphic designer. He went to art school. My parents had me not long after that, when they were still super young. I grew up doing art projects around the house, and when I got older, I went to design school out of the University of Texas.
You’ve been drawing the female form for awhile, from princesses when you were little to women masturbating for your current Pleasure is Power project. Have you always viewed sex positively, or was it a revelation that came later on?
I believe we all have unique motifs or themes in our lives that sort of circle around us. For me, the things I constantly revisit are open bodies of water, aliens, being the oldest sister, trying to connect with my Mexican roots, true-cost economics, and feminism. They are things in my life that I’ve been very drawn to. I also think you don’t choose many of those themes – we revisit them as a way to heal and understand our unique life experiences. I think rape is another topic that I always come back to because, unfortunately, when I was 14, I was raped. That experience is a part of who I am. It’s interesting, because I remember when I moved here I was going to pretend like it never happened. It was sort of a conscious decision of “okay, now that I’ve moved away from Austin, I get to move away from that.” I got raped when I was drunk and I would talk about it in Texas when I was drunk because I was hurting. Here in Chicago, I was able to move past that, but then I started this project and realized I was still addressing some of the residual shame. It never really went away.
That must have been a such a huge weight on your shoulders.
Yeah, exactly, and such a huge source of shame for my entire life. Now we have the language to talk about consent and how “yes means yes.” When I was younger it was a lot of: “Well, just don’t make stupid decisions and these things won’t happen to you.” That’s something I felt at one point, but have since realized how truly impossible that sentiment is–putting the burden of not getting raped squarely on the girl and how participatory “yes means yes” is.
Has working on the Pleasure is Power project helped heal you after that horrible experience?
Even though sex is a motif that I always revisit, I didn’t realize it was going to get so personal when I started the Pleasure is Power drawings…but it’s brought me there. It’s been hugely healing in a cool way. I mean, I’ve had lots of positive sex experiences too, obviously. I think this has been a really great project to see why sex positivity is so important, not just for me, but for young people in general. If you get to know yourself and your body and find a positive sexual outlet, you’re much more likely to only have experiences that you want.
Something that your projects have opened many eyes to is that so many women have had sexual assault experiences, and many are left feeling as though it was their fault.
Yeah, like “you shouldn’t have been so sloppy.” I know one of the feelings that I had was that I wasn’t a good person because I let myself get too drunk. We internalize these feelings because they’re everywhere, culturally. To be able to step aside from that is huge. The reality is that it is never the victim’s fault, but it is larger than just the perpetrator’s fault. We are part of a culture that has bases to describe sex and how you move forward. If you think about that, it makes sex a competitive game, so you’re scoring against somebody. It’s a competition so many people, especially men and young boys, try to score against women to get to those bases. That is fucked up. So, now I’m at the point where I see how systemic assaults like mine are.
Let’s back up a little bit and talk about the Feminist as Fuck jewelry line and the Project FAF photo campaign. How did these ideas come to you?
I think I was honestly thumbing through Instagram and saw somebody wearing a shirt that said Feminist as Fuck. I laughed out loud and thought it was really great. I liked how fun it was; fun and playful but really firm and brazen. Some of my favorite people in the world are women that don’t give any fucks. This attitude like, “I’m not here to please you.” The Feminist as Fuck statement really encapsulated that for me. I hand lettered it and made it into a wall hanging ceramic piece, and then decided to make them into jewelry– feminist amulets! I wanted it to be more than just making money off of jewelry that had an important message, so I got more people involved. Obviously capitalism necessitates making money but, I didn’t want it to just be a monetary thing. Chelsea Ross had the idea of an “open call” photo campaign where people get to share this communal experience.
What was the most rewarding part of the FAF Campaign for you?
I feel like I’ve gotten 10 really good new friends out of it. Rebecca Traister talks about this in her book All the Single Ladies, but Susan B. Anthony predicted that before true equality was achieved, women would stop getting married. Traditional marriage systemizes gender power and class. What she predicted is happening now and we can see a direct backlash to that within the conservative Right. Project FAF helped me discover the way that we fight that is that we start taking care of each other and sharing our stories. The more communal we get, the stronger we are. That is the power in moving forward, this kind of honest collaboration. During FAF, I realized how good it feels, how much we need it, and how fucking valuable sharing our stories is. Just knowing that my gang of sisters/brothers/friends have shared experience and we support each other. That makes me feel so empowered in who I am and what I can do everyday.
How did Project FAF inspire you to work on the Pleasure is Power project?
I think the only real direct relationship is the fact that they’re both feminist, very rooted in female empowerment and sexuality. I am 100% in the camp with author Jaclyn Friedman “the path to true liberation includes sexual liberation.” As long as the dialogue is centered around a women’s alleged promiscuity or purity we are merely actors playing an impossible role. That’s not going to go away unless we start valuing sexual pleasure culturally. By sex I mean the erotic-life-enriching-collaborative-kind, not the plasticized sensation forced on us through consumerism. I want to speak up, own my sexuality and the value it adds to my life. I started drawing the masturbating ladies as a reaction to an article about the artist Fannie Sosa and her Twerkshops. She discusses the linear quality of patriarchy versus the circular quality of communal groups rooted in femininity, collaboration and compassion. Her work helped me want to talk about self-love and personal pleasure as a way out. Let’s talk about masturbation as self-care! Let’s spend time in round spaces to nurture and inspire each other!
Lately I’ve come across some people—male and female – who see feminism as a very combative, women-only-promoting term. How is Feminist as Fuck NOT just for women?
It is so important to me that this work be inclusive in an authentic and natural way. I am making jewelry which is not for everyone at a price point that is not accessible to everyone. I am constantly looking at ways to bridge those gaps while remaining true to the project. I hope that the ongoing photo campaign and interviews transcends the material and is inclusive to all. Far too long have we equated femininity and masculinity with a certain set of genitals. When we realize that we are all on the spectrum individually balancing those forces for ourselves, when we see the value of femininity within societal structures, we will all live more fulfilling lives. Take for example paid family leave. Statistically dads are happier when they get to spend more time at home with their kids or older parents. The more our social structure values the “caretaker” role and makes it truly accessible for any gender expression, race or socioeconomic status we all win. As the performance art duo Darkmatter asks “What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to exist in this world?” Fuck that. Feminist as Fuck!
Now you are also starting to work with the Chicago chapter of Shout Your Abortion. Can you talk about what you’re doing with them?
They’re a national campaign and their goal is really simple – encourage people to share abortion stories in hopes of de-stigmatizing it. One in 3 women have abortions, and out of those women many are actually already mothers. It’s been painted as this horrific, promiscuity-enhancing thing, and it’s absolutely not. It’s compassionate healthcare. The Shout Your Abortion campaign has done a really great job in getting women to just talk about it. Society doesn’t even want us to talk about it. Their goal is to have chapters all throughout the United States and their first guinea pig city is Chicago. They reached out to me and a few other women to be the co-chair moderators. Our goals at the moment are to document people telling their stories for the national website, organizes a few local events, and make sure that the Facebook group feels really good, that people are talking.
What made you realize you had to start educating others?
Once I started doing Feminist as Fuck, and then the Pleasure is Power drawings, I realized I was participating in conversations that we all need to be having. Some of the projects I’ve worked on, I started them from a really intuitive but also naive place. Once I got into these projects, I really wanted to understand why I was reacting in certain ways. It’s important to be well-informed, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading about consent and sex positivity. It’s super fucking fascinating. I just finished Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein. Today, there’s this stream of young people going into a college hookup culture where you’re drinking a ton because, when you have to play so many incongruous roles at the same time, you drink to remove the responsibility of trying to walk that impossibly fine line
Do you ever think about teaching classes?
Yeah! I’m working on a project right now that I’m really excited about. It’s super, super new, but I want to do a Pleasure Project art show. For part of that show, I want to do an erotic drawing sex education class for teens. We would study erotic art and talk about it, and then they would actually make their own zines that would be their sex ed books. It would be about DIY design, sex positivity, intimacy, and consent. Lessons would be like, “Let’s make a meme/illustration of how giving consent is sexy!” It’s only just a fantasy of mine so far, but I am trying to start laying the groundwork and seeing how the idea of a “family-friendly sex show” evolves! A neighborhood-sanctioned, family-friendly sex show!
Have you gotten any negative reactions from random feminist-haters or (worse) friends or family? What do you think they’re missing or misunderstanding, if so?
I mostly make visual work and have done very little writing on it so far. Mostly my work acts as signifiers that allow for people to have their own dialog. I think because of this some family members are confused. Why on earth would I draw pictures of women masturbating? That’s why I am excited to finally get some of my thoughts out there! I have had a few run ins. Mostly just an overall attitude that feminism is no longer relevant. To that I say bullshit! Just read anything within the last year about a women’s legal right to choose. What about what’s happening in North Carolina (with the anti-trans bathroom laws)? Trans issues are also feminist issues. I have always been an activist but what I realized is that there is a huge absence of voices. These voices have been left out or silenced intentionally because they don’t comply with traditional expectations for who people of “value” appear to be. Let’s face it, the status quo is why we are in this fucking mess to begin with. I want more diverse voices heard when we are fighting such massive problems.
What is success to you, and would you consider yourself successful?
I feel like every day is a different day, but overall what success means to me is doing something that you love while constantly learning and collaborating. I get to do all of those things on a regular basis. I’m constantly being humbled by experiences that remind me of my certain set of privileges or scope of vision – the things I don’t always see. Being reminded of that is very important. When I reach out to people and say, “Hey, I do this, do you want to join forces?” and they say yes, it feels really good and exciting. So do I think I’m successful? Yeah, I think so. Do I pay my rent on time every month? No. Do I need to pay my healthcare bill this month? Yes. But that’s just like…shit. [Laughs]
Feature photo by Chelsea Ross