Call them Kitsch-Conceptual or Classicism w/Critters—however these loop-pile tufts are tagged, the rugs and wall hangings of @rugburntsoul radiate personality.
In 2018, multiple sclerosis caused North Carolina artist Leif Zikade to lose feeling in their hands for several months. “I eventually regained most sensation, but my hands were never the same,” Leif tells us over email. While holding smaller tools, like pencils and paintbrushes, continues to be difficult, in 2020 they discovered that operating a tufting machine didn’t cause the kind of cramping that other practices did.
Leif might self-describe as an art school dropout (“I went to Pratt Institute for an entire semester. It was okay, but mentally I was not ready to start school at that time”), but their skills as an illustrator are on full display in their tufts. It’s no surprise that as a kid and teenager, they practiced drawing, painting, and printmaking, and that their current influences range from vintage queer magazines to the Rider-Waite tarot deck their mom used when they were little.
At their home studio in Asheville, tufting is now an integral part of Leif's world, as both their primary art practice and their source of income. Whether they’re queering historical narratives or dropping a tufted pun, their playfully confrontational rugs make us stop, smile, and think.
How are you feeling today?
Very distracted, as I keep trying to decide on yarn colors for a project, but have yet to make a solid decision as the project sits upon my frame, mocking me from the other room any time I try to focus on doing anything else.
That sounds about right! How would you generally describe your art-making process?
It feels like trying to work with a head full of primordial soup. Thoughts, vague ideas, patterns, colors, textures, hyper-fixation of the month just bubbling around, and every few billion years something crawls to the surface and won’t leave me alone until I make it. It is a slow, bubbling journey over the course of forever.
How did you get into tufting?
It was in March 2020, back when the ‘tufting’ hashtag on Instagram yielded results from maybe three other people. I was out of work, on unemployment, and decided to buy everything I needed to start tufting. If it weren’t for an entire pandemic, brief unemployment benefits, and sad little stimulus checks, I wouldn't have been able to make the initial purchase that put me on this yarn-ridden path. I had never worked with textiles before, but I was set on tufting and have since fallen in love with everything about it.
I sense both delight and curiosity in your work. I’m wondering what interested you as a kid?
To be honest, looking back that far is a blur. I do remember I was always drawing, and my childhood career dreams were tied between becoming an artist or a veterinarian. Part of growing up meant I cycled through so many potential interests over and over and over again, in an attempt to find some sort of identity in anything. This was exacerbated by being trans without knowing it, hence grasping at any form of identity. My interest in art and animals was truly constant during this whirlwind of just trying to exist.
Bugs, frogs, and caterpillars are very much a part of your visual vocabulary. What's up with these creatures? What meaning do they hold for you?
I’ve always loved a good bug. Insects, amphibians, reptiles, or any other creature that may be found on a list of "vermin" are very close to my heart. Growing up you hear predominantly negative things about them. People are scared of them, disgusted by them, or just want them dead. They are not on the “Easy To Love” list of animals, which only makes me want to love them more. I don’t believe any living creature’s physical appearance should warrant their death, e.g. that cockroach scuttling by doesn’t deserve the bottom of your shoe just because he’s “gross.” Incorporating them into my work comes from my unconditional love for them, and the hope that depicting them might earn them more love from others.
There’s so much humor and parody in your work. The Soyboy magazines, for example, and the juice carton mirror rugs–I love the clever way they bring the face of the viewer onto the carton, making us the new poster person for “Gay Juice” or “Sad Juice.” This kind of play shows up even when the topic itself (mental health or gender identity) is otherwise “serious.” Can you talk a little about the role humor plays in your work? In your life?
Humor plays a huge role in my life. For example, my entire life is a joke.
Many years ago, I was at my top surgery consultation and I asked my surgeon if we could skip the nipples, just leave them off. At the time this was mostly unheard of, but she didn’t mind leaving them off. Months go by, and my surgery happens. I wake up very drugged and notice my surgeon next to me, distressed, with her head in her hands. She says, “Leif, I’m so sorry . . . I put your nipples back on.” I laughed so hard I cried, and it wasn’t just the hospital-grade drugs in my system. That tiny, little, perfect moment in time was my life’s punchline. I may or may not be the only human to have accidental nipples.
For me, being queer and hilarious (as I think of myself at least) are deeply intertwined. I find myself trying to combine queerness, humor, and yarn all at once. Even if I’m the only one laughing at it. (I probably am.)
In the caption to your rug portrait of a transgender Jesus with dark skin, you wrote (to many Instagram applause), “if jesus was the product of a virgin birth he could only be born with XX chromosomes. jesus is trans. i don’t make the rules, i just make the rugs.” I’m laughing, but also this is brave work! You’re radically rewriting a culturally foundational narrative through rugs. Do you see it that way?
Yes, and I think it’s fun. Turning someone, like Jesus, into the very thing some people hate. Growing up in the South, things like transphobia and racism are sometimes found holding hands with certain ideologies and those ideologies tend to be very Jesus-centric. This was a play on the same exact chromosome argument we’ve all heard, but when applied to Jesus, makes him trans. When I was making The Crucifixtermination of Roach Jesus, I was trying to decide which bug to assign the role to and decided to make Jesus a cockroach after wondering, “What bug do people hate the most?” If Jesus were real, and indeed had his long-awaited second coming, the same people arguing about chromosomes would squash Roach Jesus in a second. I enjoy rewriting these narratives to show the fluidity I see in them; that nothing is truly foundational or forever. Maybe Jesus will “come again” as the next asteroid to collide with Earth and return us to that sweet, juicy primordial soup.
Like a lot of tufters, it seems like your practice includes both tufts of your own conception and work for commission. How have your commissions come about? How is your approach different when you’re producing a commissioned rug versus your own piece?
I have relied on commissions to keep me afloat just enough to pay my bills and work on my personal projects. I’m lucky to have a consistent flow of clients seeking work that aligns with what I like to do. I have had to turn away many people seeking Nike shoe rugs, mostly because they obviously didn’t look at my work before sliding into my DMs. For the commissions I do accept, I usually sketch up a few ideas to send to my clients for approval; otherwise I go about them like any other project and use the remaining space on the frame for my own ideas as well.
What are you currently excited about in your art-making life? What’s coming up?
I have two large projects up on my big frame. One is my personal favorite, a rug for tattoo trade. I love bartering rugs more than anything. The second project is for a great friend who just opened a kava bar, one of the only places I leave my house for. I was given free rein on this one, and I’m already personally obsessed with it. I have an overabundance of half-baked ideas swirling around my head that I know will manifest when they’re ready, most of them being bigger and queerer than ever before.