Leigh Kotsilidis

A question of belief
Artist challenges her audience to challenge their thinking

Self-portrait of Leigh Kotsilidis. Self-portrait of Leigh Kotsilidis.

WARNING: This profile of MFA in Studio Arts candidate Leigh Kotsilidis contains explicit questioning of faith in science and in authority. Readers with little tolerance for asking themselves questions that may shift their understanding of the world should proceed with caution.

Leigh Kotsilidis is a poet, stop-animator, installation artist and, one might argue, an agent of change. Her work challenges her audience to examine what they believe and why they assume truth about them, from science - which has proven fallible - to the course of everyday life.

In Kotsilidis' studio art, she's fond of giving viewers the responsibility of inventing or injecting their own meanings into her work, to come away feeling they've discovered something. In her poetry, she's a bit more forward. Hypotheticals, her first collection, got quite a bit of buzz when it came out in 2011 for the fact it questions faith in science, which she views as a response to a (Western) need to categorize the world. Reviewing for American Scientist, Rick Mullin writes that her poems "deconstruct our certainties, poking holes in both our expectations and ready explanations for the world around us."

This predilection for raising questions has roots in the year Kotsilidis, who was raised in Niagara Falls, became a teenager. That's when her older brother died suddenly and unexpectedly . It made her examine things her peers took for granted.

"I didn't feel invincible, like others my age did. I felt very vulnerable, mortal," she says. "I think I got serious at 13."

The experience was a catalyst for a line of questioning, she says, a way of thinking about the world. She started writing and making art to communicate her feelings, choosing the medium she felt best suited her idea. She also likes to get involved: she's served on juries and committees, among other things.

She also initiates projects when she sees a need to be filled. She and another poet founded Fish Quill Poetry Boat in 2010, for example, when they both had work being published. They wanted to bring their author tours to the citizens of smaller towns, making poetry more accessible - and to really connect, they went old-school. For 10 days in the summer, a group of poets and a musician now canoe between towns on Ontario's Grand River, disembarking in each community to give readings. 

"I really like having my hands in a lot of different things, because it keeps me inspired," she says.

She also really likes the idea of 'guerilla art', of people performing their work outside art galleries or bookstores. This stems from the fact she finds some of the administrative apparatus of the art world narrow. Projects sometimes have to fit within rigid parametres, for example, in order to receive grant money, she says, and if an artist's project doesn't fit the mold, it doesn't get support.

Rare Birds (2010). Image courtesy Leigh Kotsilidis. Click to enlarge. Rare Birds (2010). Image courtesy Leigh Kotsilidis. Click to enlarge.

Kotsilidis sees her behind-the-scenes work as an opportunity to have a voice, shape ideas, and potentially change the way things are done.

"I do have an investment in making space for ideas that don't fit," says the graduate, who's specializing in Open Media at Concordia. "I guess I'm a bit of a boat-rocker, without screaming or shaking my fists," a smile in her quiet voice.

Kotsilidis is currently preparing for her spring 2013 thesis exhibition, Lady Into Fox. In many ways it will relate to her previous project, Rare Birds, which involved giving a photograph of the same object she'd made, an ambiguous but familiar-looking hanging pod, to 20 different people and asking them to write what they though the object was and what it was used for. She compiled and edited the answers as encyclopedic entries, as a comment on how knowledge is accumulated and disseminated as truth.   

"I'm challenging the notion of the authority of the encyclopedia, which people seem to believe without question. I'm interrupting the rhetoric," Kotsilidis says.

If you believe that.

Story by Liz Crompton. Posted on April 29, 2013

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