Losing Her Love Meant Having to Find Herself

The right headspace for creating: Leah Waldo in her studio.
Portrait by Lauren Rutten

The grieving process has no definitive end. Leah Waldo knows this fact all too well.

In 2019, she was translating designers’ sketches of cars into clay models as a sculptor at General Motors (GM) in Michigan. The job was a bit constricting for Waldo — a creative who had finished her BFA in glass and ceramics a few years prior — but it introduced her to some “beautiful people.” One of those beautiful people was Nadr Riad, her “life partner.”

Shrine of Awakening

Riad had been a sculptor at GM too, until he left for a job in Los Angeles. “I had plans to head out there a few months later,” Waldo explains, her voice somber. “We were about to create our lives together on the West Coast.”

But then, in late October, there was an accident.

“Nadr passed away suddenly,” says Waldo. “I lost my love and my magic, and was left with the decision of what to do next.”

Two Moons

She chose to continue working at GM, where she was “surrounded by a network of friends, family, and healers.” However, when the pandemic struck in 2020, she packed her bags and took an extended road trip with her whiskered confidante, a black cat named Finley. “We were just living in national forests for a while,” she remembers. 

In 2021, the duo finally settled in Western North Carolina — “a lush, spiritual place” where Waldo could mourn and create — two acts that, for her, are inextricably intertwined. 

From the Sky to the Center

“My artwork reflects on my life experiences, specifically those related to navigating grief and loss,” she says. 

Just so, her sculptures veer sharply from the world of automotive manufacturing. Incorporating a variety of media — clay, glass, steel, and even sound — the artist evokes the local natural world, recreating distilled landscapes of lichen-shrouded boulders and thundering waterfalls.

“When I’m in the headspace of creating, the pieces just flow through me,” says Waldo. “I don’t always make conscious creative decisions.”

Thinking Stone

Waldo’s work is, however, informed by a more definitive making process. “Usually, I’ll start with a rough sketch and then work with the clay,” she explains. After firing, she adds geode-like accents using glass casting, a method where molten glass is poured into a mold. Finally, all components are unified by sound. 

Sometimes, as with “Two Moons,” the auditory element is a clip of ephemeral flute music. Other times, as in “Thinking Stone,” Waldo guides listeners through a meditation, imploring them to breathe and let go — to “envision your thoughts taking to the sky.”

Leah at work
Photo by Lauren Rutten

But it can be hard to let go of some life experiences. This October, for instance, will mark the third anniversary of Riad’s death. That means the sun has risen and set more than 1,000 times since he left the earth. And though Waldo is still grieving, it’s getting easier. 

“My newest work is about renewal,” she says. “It’s about the fresh energy that flows from a renewed life — the beauty that can be found in recreating life after loss.”   

Leah Waldo, Riverside Studios, 174 West Haywood St. in the River Arts District. Waldo is also represented by Mars Landing Galleries (37 Library St., Mars Hill, 828-747-7267, marslandinggalleries.com), where she’ll debut the multisensory show New Dawn. The reception is on Friday, Oct. 7, 5-8pm; an artist’s talk happens Saturday, Oct. 15, at 11:30am. The show runs through Saturday, Oct. 29. Visitors are recommended to bring headphones to experience the exhibit’s auditory elements. For more information, visit leahwaldo.com.

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