“Rosa Leff: Storydwelling,” Lawrence Arts Center

Rosa Leff, “Jefferson’s”

Lawrence, Kansas, was an abolitionist stronghold before and during the Civil War, but the city’s African American residents struggled against racism in the decades that followed, even as many forged successful lives and careers. Rosa Leff’s absorbing exhibition at the Lawrence Arts Center (LAC), “Storydwelling,” shines welcome light on the city’s Black history through skillfully hand-cut paper images based on her photographs of old Lawrence houses and public buildings in which African Americans lived, worked, and worshipped — or which were sites of discrimination or violence against them.

For example, “Jefferson’s,” cut from reddish-brown paper, shows the exterior of a popular downtown Lawrence eatery that occupies a building in which Leroy E. Harris, a World War I veteran and Black attorney, was murdered in his upstairs office by a Black client in 1954. Leff’s attractive composition with its angled view of the logo-emblazoned Jefferson’s façade and outdoor tables before an empty foreground sidewalk balanced by leaves above could effectively serve as an advertisement for the restaurant. Featuring meticulously carved legible signage in the window promoting various brands of beer, the image evokes pleasurable indulgence in food and drink while giving no visual hint of the tragedy that occurred in this building 70 years ago.

A more uplifting story attaches to Leff’s copper-hued papercut rendition of the front porch of a house at 520 Louisiana Street. Built in 1889 by the formerly enslaved Jesse and Frances Dillard, who came to Lawrence from Virginia in 1868, this was the lifelong home of their daughter Mary Jane “Mamie” Dillard, a University of Kansas graduate who served for 20 years as principal of the segregated old and new Lincoln Schools in North Lawrence.

Rosa Leff, “Mamie’s House”

Such biographical facts aren’t visible in Leff’s pictures; they are provided in a gallery brochure that recounts stories about the people associated with each structure or location she depicted. The artist, who lives in Puerto Rico, gathered these stories by reading about Lawrence history and on a November 2023 visit to the city, where she met with local historians and trained her camera on potential subjects for her art.

Each of Leff’s artworks starts with a photograph that she crops, translates into black and white, prints out and tapes to a piece of 98-pound colored pastel paper. Using Excel #11 blades, she carefully cuts through both the photograph and colored paper, retaining a quarter-inch border around the image. Leff usually displays her framed papercuts backed by another, lighter-colored piece of paper, although she sometimes frames them between sheets of plexiglass floating against the wall, as in four small works in the LAC show.

Leff’s well balanced, masterfully executed compositions possess a fresh contemporary sensibility that vivifies their mundane, easily overlooked subject matter. Rooted in the camera-recorded visual appearance of the world, the papercuts are less detailed than their photographic sources, leaving room for imaginative engagement. Leff’s artworks beckon us to learn about the stories, both heartrending and inspiring, of Black lives embedded in the ordinary buildings and streets they picture. And they ask us to recognize that the struggle for racial equality — in and beyond Lawrence — continues.

“Rosa Leff: Storydwelling” continues at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence, Kansas, through July 27. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 785.843.2787 or lawrenceartscenter.org.

David Cateforis

David Cateforis is professor and chair of art history at the University of Kansas, where he has taught since 1992. He is the author of “Modern Art: A Global Survey from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present” (Oxford University Press, 2023).

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