In Memoriam: Leslie Pierce

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Photo by Molly Harrell

This past Sunday, June 28th, 2015, The Columbia arts community lost one of its best. For nearly two decades, Leslie Pierce, a visual artist herself, worked as a volunteer and staff member at the Columbia Museum of Art, eventually becoming the director of adult programs and partnerships, and became well-known for her passion and dedication to the arts, inspiring  those around her and enriched her community in innumerable ways. With that in mind, we asked a few people who knew Leslie to give us a few words about this very special person who will be greatly missed.

Note: Leslie asked that any memorial contributions be made to the Columbia Museum of Art, and they’ve set up a special fund in her name, Leslie’s Legacy, for donations. Y ou can contribute here.

I am finding this hard to write. I am finding it hard to use the word was or to make words such as shine, embrace, support, create, and love past tense. For me, Leslie was always present in my life and in my work. Present every single day.

I first met Leslie when I was leading a docent training course at the old Columbia Museum of Art (CMA) on Senate Street in 1997. I was teaching her how to be a docent so she could volunteer and share her love of the arts with our community. Almost immediately I understood that our relationship was going to be one of sharing, that I too was going to learn from her. This spirit of collaboration and sharing was the hallmark of our friendship and over the years I have found that so many brilliant and talented people in this town had this type of relationship with Leslie because her light simply drew them towards her. She welcomed so many people into her world of quick wit, straight talk, and joy for living. And always with a warm smile and an open heart and mind.

Much can be said of her passion for the arts, but what really needs to be understood is that she had a passion for culture; high and low, traditional and pop, beautiful and challenging. She consumed it all and she loved it all. Movies, music, paintings, prints, art books, photography, and TV. She really did love TV, she watched a lot of TV, and she watched everything. Her Netflix cue is full of BBC dramas and mysteries, lots of reality shows, smart series such as True Detective and House of Cards, documentaries, and an endless number of feature films in every language from every culture, every genre, and every decade since the movies were invented. She loved going to plays, concerts, dance programs, and traveling to New York or London. Her favorite magazine was Vanity Fair and she loved commercials. She consumed all this culture, for hours; it hibernated deep within her, and every day her own take on what she had consumed would spring forth in the form of her own art, an idea for a program at the CMA, a reason to collaborate with the talented artists in our community, or simply a way to make her friends and colleagues laugh heartily.

What Leslie did so well is bring all of this to our community. She understood that art is about people, about dialogue, about sharing. Love it, hate it, protest it, promote it, embrace it, but at least talk about it and give it a try. This was the work she was so committed to at the CMA as the director of adult programs. She was bound and determined to reach new audiences and help make the CMA a visitor and community centered cultural hub for Columbia. Because of her legacy as an artist, as an arts supporter, and a museum programmer the whole of our community will benefit and feel her presence and feel it every single day. – Joelle Ryan-Cook

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Leslie was the perfect CMA ambassador. When we brought the adults of the New Audience Road Show to learn about art and museums, she approached it in such a cool way — she planned things for them that SHE wanted to do. We went to the roof, we were the first group allowed in the vault, we sketched and sculpted and made collages. Leslie did it all with us, so we immediately felt like we had a friend in the building. And we did have a friend in the building. Leslie was so good at creating opportunities for people to find their place. From About Face, to Arts and Draughts, to Friends of African American Art, she had a special talent for creating meaningful relationships in and with the museum. Thousands of people belong at the CMA because she opened the door. Leslie was confident and funny, kind and curious. She didn’t take herself too seriously and was super-fun to be around. She was great at a party. With her, you could just be yourself and it was cool. I wish we were all more like her. – Katie Fox

As a young child, I spent a great deal of time at the Columbia Museum of Art. I knew the gallery numbers, the layout, where each piece was and when it was moved. I knew the corridors to offices, all of the closets and the doors and the shortcuts. I spent my summers running down the halls, helping with summer camp and studying the artwork. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become busier— I still know all the shortcuts and all the galleries, but most of all, I know the people. 

My mom has worked at the museum since long before I was born, and so my whole life I haven’t known anything else. Of course, many of the museum staff members moved away to different jobs or new cities, but there are some people that I’ve known since the very beginning. Some that feel like family to me- and one of those people was Leslie. 

To me, Leslie was a million things- an artist, an inspiration, a kind face with a huge heart. She was smart, she was funny, she was talented- but most of all she was my teacher and she was my friend. 

For as long as I can remember, Leslie guided me through anything and everything; be it school, family, friends or art. To me, there was nothing she couldn’t do. No problem she couldn’t solve, no art project she wasn’t willing to help me with. She taught me anything that I was willing to learn. She taught me how to be a great artist and, more importantly, how to be a great person. She gave me skills, gave me advice- gave me her old art journals and her beautiful paintings. 

There’s a portrait of me, not more than 4, in our family room that Leslie gave to us. One of her gourds holds my jewelry; another sits on our dining room table. But these things, though beautiful, are not the things that I’ll remember Leslie by. I’ll remember Leslie for her positivity, her humor, and her never-ending kindness. I’ll remember her for all the time that she spent helping me, and the huge impact that her mentoring will have on the rest of my life. – Isabel Cook

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 I met Leslie about 15 years ago, and she quickly became one of my very closest friends.  I was working my first post-college job at the front desk at the Columbia Museum of Art when I met her.  I was inhibitively shy.  She was a docent at the museum, and having never met a stranger, Leslie spoke to me with a familiarity that sort of bewildered me.  To be honest, I didn’t know what to think of her.  She was the most vivacious, positive, open person I’d ever met (this still holds true today).  I can’t point to just one memory, but instead there are a collection of moments that rooted in my heart a deep love, respect, and appreciation for her much-valued place in my life—a place that feels very vacant today.  She molded my development—when she began working as the adult school programmer at the CMA, she constantly challenged me, veritably “forcing” me to teach classes at the museum on numerous occasions until it became second nature.  I now teach college art classes, and if I’m truthful about it, Leslie put me on that path.  Being an introvert, that left to my own devices would’ve just stayed at home, Leslie invited me out to plays, concerts, movies at the Nick, ballet, art exhibitions…  We had art dates, where we’d learn a new technique together, and disagreed constantly about what makes “good” art.  She taught me, by example, how to just keep moving forward, even during hard times when I didn’t believe it was possible.  When I was with Leslie, I knew I was going to have fun!  I began missing Leslie during the last year or so of her life.  She had a few health problems, and that seemingly endless supply of energy waned a bit.  She loved her work, and even while in the hospital, I know she was constantly thinking of innovative programming for the museum, answering emails, and staying on top of things the best she could—the museum was her passion, and she poured herself into doing the best job she possibly could (she set the bar very high).  She was one of the most creative people I know, and an absolute genius at making connections between people who she felt needed to know each other.  A true patron of the arts, she rarely (if ever) took advantage of the “friend” discount.  I’m so happy my home is filled with Leslie’s art, from gourds to collages to prints.  I don’t have an image of her, though.  Last night, I feverishly looked through my wedding photos only to find that Leslie and I didn’t take a photo together that day.  Perhaps I’ll stumble upon something one day, but to my knowledge, I don’t have any photos with her.  This saddened me a great deal, but she is more than that.  She’s too much to be contained on a flat, 2-dimensional piece of paper.  Too big of a personality to be relegated to four edges.   Leslie is action, color, energy, inspiration, creativity, laughter, and her imprint on me as a person is permanent and substantial.  I couldn’t be loose of her, even I wanted it.  And I don’t want it.  Not even for a second.  And, I’m going to keep moving forward, even though right now, it’s a very hard thing to do. – Kara Gunter

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