Leslie Friedman started an all-female Jewish biker gang. They wear jackets embroidered with a skull in a pink wig. They adopt nicknames like Challah Knish. They look badass.
But, she says, you don’t have to be a woman, or Jewish, or even own a motorcycle to join the gang.
It’s the concept for an ongoing series of works, from the jackets to video to digital prints, all touching on Friedman’s Jewish heritage and the concept of finding your tribe and identity.
“It’s sort of about posing but also the power of coming together for something as a group,” Friedman says. “But then there’s the question of what it means to be in a group, and when people don’t firmly fit into it, do you accept or reject them?”
It’s an early summer day, and she’s standing in the basement of LSU’s Hatcher Hall—where she taught printmaking classes—wearing a red apron smudged with paint, her long curls loose around her face. Campus is mostly quiet this time of year, so she’s able to get her own work done.
Right now, Friedman is constructing paper dolls based on a real-life depiction of one of her biker gang characters. She’s tinkering with a laser cutter and silkscreened images in the printmaking studio, trying to determine the material that works best, getting the color just right on the red wig and the bright pink helmet. Scattered across a table are dozens of these experiments, with the images printed on book board and then cut out, or in multiples on transparent sheets.
The woman in the image is confident, holding that pink helmet out in front of her. Her name is Challah Knish, but as Friedman says, “She’s me with two full wigs and a lot of makeup on.”
Friedman isn’t typically the type of artist to do self portraits, but she couldn’t pass on the chance to dress up as her character. “I’m not skinny; I’m maybe the average-sized woman today. So to have a paper doll like this who looks like me is interesting … I’m still not sure if she’s going to be an action figure, or if you could put different outfits on her.”
Friedman says a lot of her recent work stems from a concern about the marginalization of certain communities, such as LGBT people and religious groups. In the past, she’s examined her own Jewish heritage and the outsider feeling she had because she wasn’t practicing. At the time, she didn’t think the work was controversial. But with the recent rise in far-right antisemitism, just the act of creating work about her Jewish heritage feels riskier to her.
Challah Knish paper dolls while Friedman was still testing out materials and colors
Locals got a glimpse of some related pieces last May at Baton Rouge Gallery, where Friedman is an artist member. The exhibition featured her biker jackets, embroidered punk-themed patches and a collection of flags proclaiming “Yaddah, Yaddah, Yaddah” that would look great on the back of a motorcycle.
With these new paper dolls, each is meant to be a little different from the other. And because she’s making multiples, it adds another layer of meaning—partially about making them available for purchase.
She says she’s been iffy about selling them, just as she was about some of her other works. “Maybe it’s working against my own pocketbook. But what are you going to pay for a little piece of cardboard? Printed matter is so consumable—there’s something really inherently tied to consumerism. But when you put them all together, I want them to add up to something larger.”
She has considered arranging the paper dolls in groups or rows for a wall installation, possibly with different outfits one could pin on. But she’s still in an exploratory phase, testing out arrangements and materials until she’s satisfied.
When 225 checked in with her a few weeks later, she was still weighing those options, and even constructing Barbie doll-like boxes for the paper dolls.
Taken together, all these objects seem like a starter pack for this fictional biker gang, or any group outside the mainstream.
In September, Friedman will be showing again at Baton Rouge Gallery, and it’s likely these paper dolls will appear there in some form. It’s likely they’ll keep appearing in other shows as she continues to ponder the questions that have been bugging her.
“I’m always like, ‘Oh, I’ll eventually run out of ideas in that vein, and it will get old.’ But there’s always some new way that it kind of creeps back in,” she says. “I could be playing with these ideas for a long time.” lesliepvd.com
“Your Process” is an occasional feature showing artists and creators behind the scenes working on their craft. If you’d like to suggest someone for the feature, email us at [email protected] Editor’s note: During the writing of this story, Leslie Friedman left LSU for a position at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. She is still planning to take part in Baton Rouge Gallery’s September show.
This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.