GODDESS OF FIRE WITH CROWN OF SPIRITUAL FIRE; the Life and Work of Renee Leshner of Philadelphia PA.

Justin Duerr
Jun 30, 2018 · 26 min read
Image for post
Image for post
“She Bird in Nature” by Renee Leshner

In the fall of 2008[1] I had one of those weird “lucky breaks” that books and movies lead one to believe are practically inevitable in the life of an artist (if they’re good!) but which of course never really happen in real life.

I had been semi-homeless for a year or so and was living in what was for all intents and purposes a closet in a friend’s basement. I was devoting my time to creating large-scale epic marker drawings, executed in the kitchen, where there was almost enough space to unroll my paper, while barely scraping by doing odd jobs and house painting. An old friend of mine who had begun to work in the field of art therapy showed some of my artwork to an acquaintance of hers who had been administering a small non-profit in Philadelphia solely devoted to exhibiting the work of self-taught artists. Most of these artists also had histories that included homelessness or mental illness, and some were people he’d encountered while volunteering at a homeless shelter which had an art therapy program.

I was convinced that my work would be rejected by this group, but since I fit some of the criteria my friend shared my work, and it was enthusiastically accepted.

Robert Bullock, the director of this non-profit called “Coalition Ingenu” paid a visit to my basement closet-room (which I’d named “The Silver Sophia Studio” after a Greek goddess of wisdom and the silver-backed foam insulation in the bed-sized room) and excitedly told me he wanted to show my work in some upcoming exhibits. I was somewhat hesitant, but seeing that I’d be in the company of an artist as brilliant as Renee Leshner helped to win me over!

Image for post
Image for post
“Evil Bat Devil” by Renee Leshner

The opportunity was pretty unbelievable to me because I’d never shown my art anywhere aside from a few bookstores. I never thought my work would or could be shown in a “gallery.” So I was electrically excited and nervous for this first “gallery show” — for which Robert even used one of my drawings as the featured postcard image — at Widener University, a school just outside of Philadelphia.

The opening reception was October 28th of 2008. My friend Kevin drove me out to Widener to attend the reception.

Even before the show was hung, I had advised Robert on where to hang my work. I didn’t know the layout of the gallery, but he had shown me the work of some of the other artists in the group — I liked most of them a lot, but Renee was my favorite. In the end, me and Renee’s work faced one another in a small enclave in the center of the gallery space. That fact alone made me feel like I had “arrived.”

Renee’s work immediately struck me as being utterly unique and haunting, and like most of my favorite creative work, it seemed to hint at an entire hidden cosmos of meaning and logic which was just barely out of grasp for the viewer. It begged interpretation, but eluded it. It was poetic and evocative and elegantly designed, reminding me somewhat of 18th. century tombstone carving designs from an alternate universe populated by throngs of goddesses, vampires, flesh-eating plants, and exotic hitherto undescribed species of beauty — all summed up with just the right amount of lines, with always the perfect six or eight line descriptive inscriptions — and almost always including the note “drawn by Renee Leshner.” Her works bore title-poems such as “Goddess of the Flowers,” “Goddess of Evil Nature,” Evil Man Who Is a Cross,” “Nymph of Disaster,” “Evil Gravestone with Symbols,” and my personal favorites — a simpler than usual, but incredibly powerful and potent design of a figure-eight cyclopean spirit enclosing two flowers bearing the inscription “God. Drawn by Renee Leshner.”

The term “genius” is a deceptive one, and in its current usage one that betrays something bad about Western understandings of what “art” is and where it comes from. We’ve lost the feeling of the root meaning of the word, which had to do with one acting as a vessel for something more-than-human. “Genius” has come to me to reek of the cliché of “the great man,” the isolated (male) hero who alone can produce “the masterpiece” etc. etc. but…. “God. Drawn by Renee Leshner” is a work of genius in the older, late 14th. century sense of the word, i.e. “ ‘tutelary or moral spirit ‘ who guides and governs an individual through life, from Latin genius ‘guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation; wit, talent;’ also ‘prophetic skill. ‘

I was awed by these little drawings, so simple and yet so vast. Each one was either the size of standard piece of notebook paper, or half that size. Black markers or pens were used, and that was it. Those common tools were used to make a body of work with a hieroglyphic visual vocabulary and poetic sensibility instantly distinctive and captivating.

Image for post
Image for post
“The Crying Cross” by Renee Leshner

Robert wrote small biographies for all the Coalition Ingenu artists, and Renee’s, which was displayed on a small placard near her work, included these details:

Renee Leshner Renee (pronounced Reenie) Leshner attended Fleisher Art Memorial as a young woman, but stopped going when she started having visions of an ‘evil eye’ following and threatening her. She continued to be plagued by visions of other worldly beings throughout her many years working as a bookkeeper in Philadelphia.

Gradually, her interest in drawing became her refuge, as her artwork evolved into an expression, or even a kind of ‘defense mechanism’ against her supernatural visions. Renee continued making these drawings for the next 20 or 30 years, working mainly in ball point markers or, less frequently, colored pencils.

About 8 years ago, she started giving some of her drawings to her landlord, who shared them with his wife. The landlord’s wife tried to help Renee by submitting her artwork to an exhibit for artists over the age of 70, which was co-curated by the director of Coalition Ingenu. Although the jury rejected Renee’s two small drawings, Coalition Ingenu paid Renee a visit and found her to be a rare visionary talent with hundreds of detailed and distinct pen and ink drawings of her unique alternate reality: a world of flying coffins and evil houses; of mystical nature, haunted graveyards and evil gardens. […]

Currently 82[2] years old, Renee has become a very popular and consistent member of the Coalition Ingenu Self-taught Artists’ Collective.

Image for post
Image for post
“Goddess of the Evil Eye” by Renee Leshner. Collection of April Woodall.

I was excited and nervous to meet Renee at the opening reception, and only upon arriving did Robert tell me “Oh, she rarely comes to these things. Sometimes, but not usually.”

Strangely, I never did get to meet her in person, but we established a relationship.

Another of the Coalition Ingenu artists, David Kime (who tragically died in 2017 at the age of 50), did intense, colorful three-dimensional works and costumes, and was the editor/compiler of a zine largely dedicated to artwork and poetry by people with a history of mental illness called “Transcendent Visions.” The zine was prolifically long-running, and he’d been including Renee’s work in his zine for many years. When I met him and told him I also did a zine and loved Renee’s work, he mentioned I should write to her and solicit work for my zine, which I promptly did.

She began to send me letters and small envelopes with photocopies of her drawings. I was thrilled to feature such truly otherworldly artworks in my zine, and I felt like as long as Renee’s work was featured I was making one of the coolest zines ever, even if hardly anyone knew or cared.

Renee’s first letter to me indicated she wanted to establish a closer relationship –

Here are 3 photocopy finish pictures.

I hope you like them.

Send me a letter or call me and tell me how you like the pictures. Send me your phone #. My phone # is 215 […]

I expect to hear from you.


Renee Leshner

I tried calling Renee but didn’t get an answer, and answered her letter, including my number. I put her number in my phone and anxiously waited to see if she would call me.

A few days later, around 10 PM, I my phone lit up — Renee! Nervous to speak to this person who I regarded so highly as an artist, I waited for it to ring a few times before picking up. I said hello and that it was nice to hear from her. In a very slow, gravelly voice, sounding a million miles away, Renee said “Did you get my new pictures?” Yes I did. “Did you like them?” Yes, I loved them! “Thank you. That’s all I have to say at the moment. Goodbye.” The end.

This would actually be one of our rare phone conversations, and most were almost as brief. The vast majority of our correspondence, spanning 2008 until her death in 2012 was through the mail. Renee always sent me incredible work for my zine. Although the zine made no money (more often than not it wouldn’t even break even) I tried to send Renee a few dollars here and there when I could because I knew through Robert that she worried about, for example, running her air conditioner in the summer because she was afraid she couldn’t afford the electric bill. A typical letter of the time:

It was nice of you to send me $10.00. […] The reason I haven’t been in touch is I have been having spiritual (otherworld) trouble. […] It is now over, most of it. […] I will send you some pictures within 2 weeks.”

I will always miss seeing Renee’s blue or green envelopes in my post office box. People are bad about sending mail, and it gets worse and worse with the internet taking over all communication, but I could always count on Renee. I actually came to take it for granted, and after she died I realized how deeply happy it had made me to keep up this correspondence with an artist I admired and who was enthusiastic about contributing to my zine. There were many times that I made the zines more or less for Renee — there was no “demand” for them, nowhere left in Philly that even carried zines, but I’d look at the stack of Renee’s artwork accumulating and get inspired and motivated. Through the years of our mail correspondence she would occasionally offer hints and tips related to her interest in the occult, always as perfectly cryptic as her artwork itself, such as:

I know you are intencally (sic) mystical; and your drawings are very mystical. You use very interesting symbols. Here is a warning. Don’t get interested in talismans — deadly for a human being.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Goddess of Victory and Evil Talismans” by Renee Leshner. Collection of April Woodall.

A later letter in which she wrote to me about my past incarnations, which she claimed to receive from the “past life spiritual office” describes her impressions of my current life:

This is your 6th life. You have talent in literature and talisman art.”

All of my other incarnations also featured talent in art and writing, but only in my current life did I have talent in talisman art specifically — which, as Renee pointed out earlier, is deadly for a human being!

Image for post
Image for post
“Magical Sword — Evil Material — Soul Flower and Spiritual Symbols” by Renee Leshner. Collection of April Woodall.

During 2012, Renee’s letters mentioned her health problems more and more, but she still unfailingly sent me her artwork, always apologizing if it was a few days or a week behind when she’d said in a previous letter that I could expect it. Her lines became slightly shaky, but it was evident that she was still intent on channeling her work, as long as she was physically able. Letters from 2012 usually followed along these lines:

I hope I’m not too late to be in your magazine. I have been sick and have trouble getting out of the house. I hope you are satisfied with the pictures.”

Dear Justin,

Sorry I haven’t been able to send you the pictures. I hope to send them out this week.

I know you will like them.

Tell you the truth I have been sick, and I have trouble getting out on the street to mail letters.

Sorry I had to miss the opening at the church due to sickness. I hope you did well.

Renee Leshner

Image for post
Image for post
“Devil of Nature” by Renee Leshner

In the summer of 2012 I was working on one of my large-scale drawings, sitting on the floor of the third floor of a house I now lived in with my wife Mandy. So many things had changed for me since 2008 when I first began writing to Renee — I had been featured in a documentary film which won the “best director” award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival — another of life’s positive fluke occurrences. It was not as life-changing as I’d imagined it may be, but it gave a slightly higher profile to my artwork, and it was surreal beyond words to see the film positively reviewed by Roger Ebert, and to hear Matt Groening of “The Simpsons” fame tell me he loved it. Still, I had my same old job of doing odd jobs for a landlord, with a few days here and there to work on my artwork and music. I was in the zone, working on my drawing, when I felt my phone buzz in my pocket.

I picked it up — I’d missed the call, and I didn’t recognize the number. There was a message though, so, curious, I dialed my voice mail.

Hello, this is Lydia […] at the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office, calling you regarding Renee …. um…. Leshner… can you give me a call back at […]

I clicked the phone shut.

Renee was dead.

Image for post
Image for post
“Haunted Garden” by Renee Leshner

I included a small eulogy to her in the drawing I was working on when I received the phone call.

I never even met her in person, but only really at that moment did I realize what she’d meant to me. I knew she was old, and I knew her health was poor, and I didn’t expect to feel shock at her passing, but I did. Part of it was the way I found out. Apparently Renee had very few phone numbers written down in her apartment, and when her body was found there, the medical examiners had few people to call to try to locate relatives. I was one of two people they called.

No relatives were found who could afford to pay for a funeral. A sister was eventually located, but she was in her 90s and unable to help. Renee’s body was cremated, paid for by the city.

Image for post
Image for post
“Goddess of Poverty” by Renee Leshner, collection of April Woodall

Robert set up a memorial show, “Remembering Renee” at a bar near her apartment. Not many people came, which made me sad. Renee should have been remembered as a point of pride of Philadelphia, or the USA, or the planet Earth. An artist as unique as her comes along only once, ever. I guess her art takes a little bit of understanding — there aren’t a lot of “special effects” or dazzling technical elements, although it’s also perfectly fine as graphic work — just perhaps not the type of work that “goes viral” online. Its most powerful elements are a little more subtle — the deadpan poetry, the confluence of her words and images — and we don’t live in subtle times. Maybe Renee’s work is the antidote we need. I know I learned a lot from it, and there are worlds more to learn from it. Once you settle into its language, it’s a wonderful and very intense place to be.

Image for post
Image for post
Postcard for Renee Leshner’s memorial exhibit, which was held at a bar in her neighborhood.

I often wondered about Renee — what her younger life had been like, and how her artwork evolved over the years. She would sometimes tell me snippets on the phone, but her memories were always somewhere between the objectively verifiable world and her inner world of spirits. It was hard to know much of her past from my relationship with her. Robert told me he had similar experiences talking to her. After she died I figured I’d never know much more, but was glad at least that her work was saved.

Image for post
Image for post
“Evil Eye Demon” Collection of April Woodall.

In 2013 I attended an opening for a Coaltion Ingenu group show in Philadelphia’s City Hall. The show was called “Living in Light” and primarily focused on members of the group who were no longer alive.

On the first floor there was also an opening featuring recent graduates of PAFA, Philadelphia’s art school. A relative of one of the PAFA graduates happened to find his way up to the Coalition Ingenu show.

While talking to someone in the hallway, someone approached me and said “I think there’s someone you should talk to!”

It turns out this person had been engaged to be married to Renee in the 1960s. He happened to see her work, and it seemed vaguely familiar, and then he saw the name and was shocked! I was also shocked!

I set up a date to get an audio interview with this person, to gather some memories of Renee in her earlier years for inclusion in a book about her life and work, a fantasy project I had then and still have. On the first pass, my recording device malfunctioned and I lost the entire interview, which included some very emotional material that I wasn’t sure if the interviewee would be willing to repeat. Our schedules, and probably his willingness to re-do the interview meant that it was all the way into early 2015 until I finally caught an interview on tape.

My meeting with Bill “Woody” Woods seemed to be cosmically ordained. I can easily imagine Renee’s ghostly hand guiding his entrance into my life in order to help her story to live on, and I’m happy I persisted. Not only did Woody re-do the interview, but he found a portrait drawing he had done of Renee during the 1960s!

Image for post
Image for post
Left to right: William Wood’s 1960s portrait of Renee Leshner, a photo of Renee from the 2000s, and a self portrait, also from the 2000s.

Woody’s interview is full of his thoughts about Renee’s artistic and personal development, including some truly harrowing stories which shed light on her life.

Throughout our long interview, Woody began to reflect more and more deeply on their relationship, life together, and thoughts about Renee — who he had met while he was an undergraduate in art school. She had been living with a mutual artist friend, Walt Benedict, and Woody met her at a New Year’s party organized by Walt sometime in the late 1950s…

I had a concern with a more traditional understanding of form and shape and color and so forth… I was never a big fan of her painting, let’s put it that way. Now, the work I saw in City Hall — I sort of knew she was moving that way — in that direction — with more mythological references… getting into, you know… demons, and ghouls, and dragons…. mystic kind of things. She liked to read that type of stuff.

She introduced me to a book called the Last Temptation of Christ, by a writer named Kazantzakis. That was a fascinating book. She also liked certain operas. She liked Aida, she liked the Triumphal March, with the Egyptian setting. She liked Walt Whitman… many diverse things that she had deep feelings about. I think she was a very sensitive woman. More so than I appreciated at the time I was with her, to be honest with you

We once went to see this movie called The 400 Blows. She let out a scream in the theater because the child in the movie was being slapped and beaten, and she couldn’t deal with it. She let out this big scream and everything. It’s almost like she was there, you know? That’s what I mean about her sensitivity — she got into things very deeply — once she was committed to them. Pretty deeply.”

She was into that sort of thing a little bit — she always liked reading Dostoyevsky, and a lot of the more thinking type writers. Nabokov…. oh, I don’t know them all! But somehow that really resonated with her…. those voices from those kinds of novels.”

“I mostly remember her as being just really engrossed in literature that was… meaningful literature. She never read trash novels or anything like that. She always read books that had some real thinking behind them, a real sense of caring about things.”

“We used to go see a lot of Ingmar Bergman’s films… and Indian films. Satyajit Ray’s films, for instance… which is maybe where this business of reincarnation comes up from.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Dead Lady with Demon Grave Stone” by Renee Leshner

Woody describes her style moving more towards what he saw in the City Hall show during the time he knew her -

“Well, she was doing a little bit of that, but not a lot, but she had been reading a lot on that stuff — mysticism, devil worship, ghouls, witchcraft, you know. I think for a long time she was very haunted, caught up with all that. She would focus on things in such a way that I think it became… more than just something to read. I think it really went over into her psyche and became in some ways a part of her.

She would believe in things, and genuinely believe in them. So even if they were things that one would take — and should take — with a grain of salt, she would sort of be willing to openly let it all come into her and be part of her.

I think that worked both for her and against her. It was kind of a mixed bag. But she was very sensitive to the idea of pain and suffering. That was a very big thing with her.[…] I just have a feeling she may have been mistreated or abused. […] I got the impression that she may have had some things happen to her as a kid, or as a young person.”

Eventually Woody describes a series of tragedies in Renee’s life which seem to have made her become more reclusive and also to turn inward to the spirit world for guidance –

I think that there maybe could have been some stuff that was just too painful to talk about. But I could see it in her reactions to all manner of things that would happen, and she would almost have a jerked reaction, in her body. Obviously there had been some things that happened to her that didn’t bode well for her psyche. Whether those are things that led to her eventually moving in this direction of the talismans, and her philosophy and thinking about witchcraft, voodoo, death, I don’t know. Now some friends of hers did die. She was close friends with a woman named Anne Shor. She was quite a striking blonde, this woman. They were quite close friends for the longest time — she died of some kind of — consumption or something, I’m not sure.”

“And then this fellow Walt that she had been living with before I came along, he killed himself. He’s the guy who set himself on fire and jumped out a window on Arch Street! He had gotten heavily into drugs and stuff. […]I think there was a piece of her that felt bad that she gave up on Walt and went with me, but that’s just how it happened.”

Image for post
Image for post
Newspaper clippings from October 26 and 28, 1968 describing Walt Benedict’s horrific suicide. Articles from the front pages of the Delaware County Times, Philadelphia Daily News, and the Philadelphia Daily Courier.

“I mean, frankly, simply put, I just think her life experiences profoundly impacted her. I just think — life was not easy to her, and she took everything to heart, and a lot of stuff weighed on her. So…. I don’t know… I felt a little… well, not a little, I felt bad for her. I felt sorry for her at times, or I felt sad for her, and I thought, you know — I didn’t help her, either — getting her pregnant, and then her having this stillbirth, and the both of us were, in our own way, devastated by that. I’ve never gotten over that.

When we left the Hahnemann Hospital that night — she was very angry with me, of course, but… the anger should have been shared because we both agreed at one point that we didn’t want this, but this was in the days when you had to go to what they call the back alley kind of things. But she waited until after the first trimester to let me even know about this — she was afraid to even tell me — and probably with good reason. For all intents and purposes I was still a kid, and I was just in undergraduate school. I thought ‘oh shit, I don’t need this!’ Anyway. I walked down Broad Street crying my eyes out after leaving the hospital. Meanwhile it was traumatic enough I guess that they put her in a single room by herself. There was another thing about that that was traumatic — because she had no money, they allowed all these non-doctors, these residents, different people, just to come in and look at her, look at her crotch while she’s trying to have this baby or something. They just let all manner of people come in to study — she felt like she was on display or something, and I think that was very humiliating and demeaning and upsetting for her — and as I said, she got upset easily, so it didn’t take much to get her off balance anyway. So that didn’t help anything. And I always felt — well, I was the one making love to her, so I felt responsible. But the irony of that is that it had way more impact on me years later than at the time.”

I think she became disillusioned and disheartened with men. Because I think even this fella Ed Schlaine that she was having this relationship with while still with me, I think he eventually ditched her — I think she got too weird for him! I think she just gave up on men.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Demon of Sex” by Renee Leshner

Woody mentions that after this Renee’s intimate relations were, as far as he and others knew, with other women, and that there was an “open secret” that the first of these was with Anne Shor, her close friend who died, from Woody’s recollection “somewhere between ’59 and ’66.”

Image for post
Image for post
A newspaper clipping of Anne Shor from the Philadelphia Inquirer of April 10, 1968. Described in the sensationalist article as the “elegant blonde wife of Dr. Joseph H. Shor,” the article concerns a lawsuit centering on her rumored marital infidelity to the recently deceased dentist.

So there’s a string of profound tragedies involving Renee’s closest relationships during the late 50s and into the mid 60s. Woody and his eventual wife Liz kept in touch with Renee, but noticed changes in her.

“Well it seems like she got deeper and deeper into this type of stuff, but I can’t be very helpful in that area because that all happened more of less after I was disconnected from her. But like I say, she stayed friendly after a few years later I had married Liz. […] …right after we were separated, she started to get into this stuff. […]

… after I got married she got friendlier again, for a while. But that’s when she started also getting a little bit into mysticism. She brought a necklace of garlic to wear — she said that would be protective for us.

[…] She would make things like that and give them to us. We just kind of went along with it! We put it on the fridge for a while, and… whatever. But then at some point she moved.”

Woody also made sure to point out that while Renee and her artwork were one of a kind — more than he appreciated at the time — and that she was “ahead of her time” in doing “psychedelic” sort of artwork long before the “flower child” scene in San Francisco etc. He described their vibrant creative community on Sansom Street, but also makes sure to point out that Renee never promoted her artwork intensely, and was never much part of “the scene” despite moving in artistic and intellectually engaged social circles. He only recalls her being in one or two small group shows in the 60s, and even in respect to those he’s unsure if she participated for certain.

Two years after my lengthy and deep interview with Woody, I decided to do a little more research and get more perspectives on Renee’s life and work. Through Robert, I connected with Renee’s final landlord’s wife, a Philadelphia actress named April Woodall. April had saved boxes with hundreds of Renee’s drawings — many of them in color, and even some gorgeous color pastel work which was very different from the stark black and white line work I was used to seeing from her.

Image for post
Image for post
“Flying Evil Dress” by Renee Leshner, collection of April Woodall.

I recorded an interview with April, and together with Woody’s recollections, Renee’s spiritual and artistic life trajectory comes into clearer focus.

As I was busy scanning as many pages of Renee’s mediumistic “spirit writing” and sketchbooks as I possibly could, April shared her impressions of Renee with me –

I believe that she was living in the building when [my husband] acquired the building. So that’s how we got to know her and whenever she would need maintenance around the apartment she would call him, and the crew would go in.

Then he said to me ‘she does all this artwork, it’s hard to explain.’ She wanted to meet me, so I went in and met Miss Renee, we always called her Miss Renee. She showed me some of her artwork — very little of it at first, and then the more times I would go back, she would show me more and more.

[…] In her apartment she always seemed not to be taking very good care of herself but then as I came to understand it that was her way of protecting herself and living in her world of what she came to call ‘demons.’ She would call them ‘evil’ and that was a way for her to be intimate with them, to be able to survive with them and not be frightened by them.”

It’s the way she was able to process what it was she was seeing that other people weren’t seeing. I think, again, by using the word ‘evil’ to label it, it gave her a handle on it, or a sense of control over it.

And by continuing to draw… you can see by the amount of what we’ve got here — she was doing something every day.”

“There were times when she wanted to tell me that there were demons I should look out for, or situations in the ‘otherworld,’ things would be happening.

I’ll read this letter I have from her — I know I have more of these, but this was one I recently found

Dear April,

I wanted to see your show but I couldn’t make it. I heard from Edward you had an accident (Oh, I had broken my knee!) It might be too late but I hope your accident is over with and I hope you are well now. Also, something very weird is happening in the otherworld that I cannot explain to you now. I don’t know how broadminded you are about the otherworld. If you want to know, someday I will tell you. I would like to invite you to see my artwork and to have personal conversation. It is not advisable now. Probably in a month or two, if you want to.

Renee Leshner ‘

Obviously that was the first of the letters she had sent to me because that was the invitation to come and see her artwork.”

Her apartment was covered in candles — those tribute candles, in the glass, they would have saints. And there were all these other kinds of candles, talismans, crystals and jewelry all over. She always wore a lot of protective jewelry.”

“…something […] separated her from being acutely aware or energetic. She just always was slightly a little bit slower, thinking about things deeply, and then seeing things that we couldn’t see.”

When I would pick her up to take her places she would always be dressed up with her jewelry and her dresses done in a very colorful way, and her lipstick done in a very shiny way — she was still into greasepaint kind of makeup. And then she would tell me stories about her family that didn’t want her to be an artist, and how she wanted to go to school for art, and that’s why she came to Philadelphia.”

Image for post
Image for post
“Memory of a Vision” by Renee Leshner. Collection of April Woodall.

April had some insight about Renee’s (non) relationship with her family, which helped fill in some of the years before Woody met her, when she had taken art classes at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philly. It seems her family was unsupportive of her artistic nature from the beginning, and that they never reconciled, probably especially as Renee became more outspoken about her experiences with the “otherworld” and her unorthodox beliefs.

Now she had a niece or an aunt. […] I spoke with them on the phone once, and she was saying ‘Our family doesn’t want anything to do with her, we don’t want anything from her.’

I just remember that whoever I talked to said they didn’t want anything from her, and they didn’t want to know anything about her.

It’s pretty intense, and I don’t even think that was a first generation person who would’ve known her, I think it was just somebody saying ‘our family turned our back on her and that’s all there is to that.’ They’re not even curious!”

Woody offered a thought about her family during our talk, also –

“I’m just conjecturing, but they were probably unable to deal with her interest in witchcraft and voodoo, whatever.”

They probably couldn’t deal with that, and she may have gotten more pronounced about it…”

It seems to me that as her family cut her off, personal tribulations twisted her path, and her closest friends died, Renee cut herself off from the human world and connected with the ghostly otherworld. But she never totally severed her ties with the waking world of the day-to-day, and maybe even now she can drop us a line.

I truly feel as if it was something “more than chance” that led to my meeting with Woody — whether it was what Renee may call the “spiritual post office” arranging things, or something else, I’m so happy to be able to stitch together these threads.

Image for post
Image for post
“Spiritual Clown Imp” by Renee Leshner, collection of April Woodall.

In the papers that were salvaged from Renee’s apartment after her death, there are pages of “spirit writing” which seem to be advice, warnings, and guidance channeled by Renee for her own use. Advice on fabrics to wear or to avoid and details of how to live life show that she lived in a world carefully ordered and arranged by spirits who communicated to her on a very personal level.

Image for post
Image for post
Photos of some of Renee’s notebooks and “spirit writings” in the collection of April Woodall.

Do not make appointments. Wear cotton as much as possible. Do not get printed material. Do not make a mistake and leave here. You can even get married. We understand situation. You have astro-projection problems.”

I hear you bought a printed dress yesterday — you can wear that kind of print, but not often. […] Stay where you are. This is a message from the high beyond.”

Death unnatural. I am glad you are wearing gold cross. You are here still till you come through. He won’t marry you. Oh, I found out you can never marry spiritually.”

Do not wear silk. Do not buy it. Dangerous. […] Do not flirt on the street. Ignore all people on the street. All strangers all.”

It’s apparent that Renee led a life with more than its share of tragedy. It’s also apparent that she dealt with this by turning inward — both Woody and April mentioned her reluctance to share even her artwork. April told me that Renee didn’t want to show her work to Robert initially, and had to be coaxed into sharing it with him slowly.

Given all of this, I feel profoundly blessed by the Goddesses to have had a reciprocal creative relationship with Renee. She once told me that she worked on her artwork at least one hour every day, regardless of her health or anything else. I found this immensely inspiring, and continue to.

Image for post
Image for post
“Evil Angel of Nature with Evil Moon and Sun” by Renee Leshner. Collection of April Woodall.

I hope this essay will have a part in introducing more souls to the mystical world of Renee Leshner, who lives now in the spirit realm, but who can communicate with us still.

Image for post
Image for post
“Myra Goddess of the Moon” Collection of the author.
  • First draft 1:39 AM, 2017.11.11, revised for online transmission on 2018.06.30 -

Note: This is a very embryonic, very unfinished rough draft of a biography and art book of the work of Renee Leshner I hope to someday help into the world. Obviously it will be very different in its final form. It was originally published offline in issue no. 67 of my zine, Decades of Confusion Feed the Insect, of which I made about 100 copies in November of 2017. Hopefully more people will encounter it here in its digital form. This is also my first entry on “Medium.” I hope you enjoy learning about the artwork and life of Renee Leshner. Thank you for reading.

[1] Robert actually started talking to me about showing with Coalition Ingenu when I was living at the “Silver Sophia Studio” but by 2008 I was living in my friend’s warehouse space which doubled as a performance space, the Church of Divine Energy.

[2] Census records show that Renee was born in 1930, so she was actually 78 at the time of this 2008 exhibit.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store