Visionary Artist Viewing the Future

I first met Rochleigh Z. Wholfe at Freida L. Wheaton Salon 53 grand opening “Home is where the art is” and fell in love with her bold work, spirit-infused life, and clear view of art as a business. This concept board frames artist Sydney helps adding story in our storyboard as guide in creating films.

Janet: Rochleigh, what does the “Z” stand for in your name? Not too many of those around.

RZW: “Z” stands for motivation towards receiving true information. My name was given to me based on an ancient system of astrology and numerology from one of my first spiritual mentors in Los Angeles in 1975.


Janet: Rochleigh, you came to St. Louis from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area in May 2005. Can you say what this time-about two and a half years-has been like for you?

RZW: Janet, my move back to St. Louis was a return…a 360 degree turn from where I began…where I was born and raised. I needed to do some ancestoral work in St. Louis and take care of my father’s estate.

However my assignment here in St. Louis is completed. My creative spirit is calling me to expand and to move out to continue my exploration of the world. I’m ready to share the gifts that I have received here in St. Louis and well as my previous gifts that I received from my experiences in graduate school at New College of California in San Francisco.

I’ve closed the book on this part of my life, and going to Asheville is opening a brand new chapter in a brand new book.

Janet: You have strong ties and feelings about St. Louis and you’ve powerfully expressed some of these in your painting “Revisioning St. Louis.” How did this painting come about and what response have you gotten from it?

RZW: This piece was in a show last year called “The Girls of Summer.” It came out of a meditative experience focused on the healing of St. Louis. Through this healing arose this healing angel who helps bring unity throughout the metropolitan St. Louis community. I see it as embracing the diverse religious, ethnic, racial, cultural groups that call St. Louis home.

Quite often the paint brush takes on a life of its own. As I am creating images, it appears I am creating one thing and when I am finished something totally different appears on the canvas. This is what happened in “Revisioning St. Louis.” I thought I was going to be painting the skyline of Downtown St. Louis with the arch in the background. That is part of the painting, but there is also Cahokia Mounds to the left and Forest Park to the right with the universal symbols arched over like a rainbow.That was not what I originally envisioned.

People asked if the angel was me or not. I said, “No, rather the angel is part of the Collective Consciousness here in St. Louis that represents our need for healing and unity.” Quite often people say they can feel the spirit in my work.


Janet: Rochleigh, you’ve said that you feel new work coming, and some of this work may be in the form of installations. Women artists often voice this feeling as being pregnant with a body of work. Could you tell us how this feels for you and how you’ll pursue it once you get settled in your new home?

RZW: Recently I had a conversation with an artist friend in Washington D.C. Januwa Moja, a well-known textile artist who designed many of the costumes for Sweet Honey and the Rock. We spoke about what it means to be at this stage in our lives, which I refer to as “The Empress.” Women in there 40s, 50s, and 60s begin to be aware of a new power within them and we talked about Legacy Mode and what that really means for us at this time. What kind of legacy as women are we going to leave to the world? It’s a realization that not only have we have arrived at this place of power and knowing, and we take we’re involved in more seriously. That’s how I am feeling now.

I’m pregnant with three bodies of work: “Gullah Woman,” “Seven Women,” and “The Legacy of the Dress.”

A friend in Rock Hill, South Carolina just recently opened a gallery; the focus of the work in this gallery will be about women and the power and beauty that women have brought and offered to the world. She too is an artist and we have talked about working collaboratively on a show called “Gullah Woman.”

The second body of work “Seven Women” springs in part from thinking about a workshop I attended at St. Mary’s College in Oakland, California in 2003 where Barbara Ann Holmes, author of Race and Cosmology. She read a poem at the end of her presentation about a lesser-known Biblical Woman named Rispa (Samuel II) who was a concubine of Saul.

Because of Rispa’s humility, integrity and courage, she influenced the decision of a king. Rispa sat from April until October at the site where the bodies of her two sons had been left hanging and were denied proper burial by King David. Rispa sat there day and night graciously dealing with the elements, fighting the wild beasts from the air and the ground to protect the remains of her two dead sons. All she had was a sack cloth to sit on during the day to cover her at night. King David was so moved by Rispa’s dedication that he ordered her sons to be removed and given proper burial. Rispa is is one of the women who I’ll include in the installation I’m planning called “Seven Women.”

The third body of work is “The Legacy of the Dress” which could be subtitled, “If this dress could talk.” Can you imagine a dress worn by Princess Diana? Can you imagine what a dress might have felt and seen from being on the body of phenomenal women worldwide? I’m currently researching women who aren’t well-known, but have made major influences all over the world.

Janet: And to be on the verge of creating this work…how does that feel?

RZW: It’s very humbling and exciting at the same time. Whenever new creative ideas come to me that invoke critical thinking, it’s like becoming pregnant that you have to take care of this baby, this embryo, and bring it forth, bring it to life. It has to be well researched, meditated on. I have to concentrate on how I want to present these concepts to the world in a way that truly honors who these women were.

Janet: Your work is rich with African, especially Egyptian, images. Where does this come from?

RZW: I’m an initiated priestess in the Temple of Isis out of Geyserville, California and a priestess of the Temple of Het Nefer out of New York City. Since I can remember I’ve been interested in ancient cultures including India, Egypt, West Africa, and Asia.


Janet: You are an all-around creative person having been trained in theater and having a strong career there before plunging into painting in 2001. I also know you’re fascinated by music. How do the arts intertwine for you?

RZW: Janet, that is one of the main goals of the work that I am doing now: to incorporate and bring together all these disciplines within my work. After being in theater for 25 years and working with world-class jazz musicians, I find that each genre its own special gifts to offer.

When they are intertwined, it is like receiving a gourmet dessert.

I’ve done this incorporation on a small scale with pieces I’ve performed. But the one I feel I’ve had the most success with to date is my “Chautaqua: My Name is Harriet.” The three faces of courage, integrity, and grace. This piece is about Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Powers. It was presented at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. in 2004. It included 8 original paintings, and my performance portraying all three Harriets. I wrote, directed, and performed the show.


Janet: You’re extremely active and effective at building your career. Some of this has been good timing and connections like the story you told me about a friend of yours who is a docent at the Smithsonian Museum who referred you to just the right person at just the right moment that led to your presentation of “My Name is Harriet.” But I know there’s also an enormous amount of effort and strategy involved. What advice do you have for emerging artists as they find a way to make their work more visible?

RZW: First of all they need to have a clear idea of where it is they want to go. And then get your name out there. Then, strategically, get you work into galleries where your work can be seen by those who can help make a difference in your career. I suggest that you do as many shows and exhibits as possible in major art cities.

Read as much as you can about the business of art. Art is a business. You have to understand this. Some refer to it as “The Industrial Arts Complex.” This came home to me last December in Miami, Florida, at Art Basel, the most prestigious art event in the USA. Four hundred million dollars worth of art was sold in three days. Artists were being represented from all over the world by top galleries who paid fifty thousand dollars per booth for the privilege of displaying the work of the artists they represented.

I believe that it’s important to follow the careers of recently successful contemporary artists such as Julie Mehrtu, Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker. These three African-American artists have been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. This demonstrates that the art world has become more open and receptive of innovative contemporary African-American artists. A small work of Julie Mehrtu’s recently was sold and appraised for $850,000. She has only been in the public eye for around 15 years or less.

Second, you must believe in yourself. And know what you have to offer is of great value. You must do whatever you need to expand and enhance your skills. That is a lifetime journey.

Visit Janet Grace Riehl’s blog “Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” at for more thoughts and information about making connections through the arts, across cultures, generations, and within the family. You can also read sample poems and other background information from “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” on Janet’s website.

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