You wouldn't know it from looking at her art, which is so cheery and childlike, but for many years, Herron instructor Rachel Bleil had trouble seeing the good in her life.
Struggling with everything from the ups and downs of growing up to an allergy that kept her from keeping food down, Bleil looked at life as a joyless existence.
"I had just given up," Bleil, 38, said, wondering what her place in the world was and why she was even here.
But something -- though Bleil wouldn't say what specifically -- turned her around. And it shows in her latest work.
- Rachel Bleil
- "Cloud Guardian", 2012, stoneware with underglazes, sgraffito & inlay.
These pieces, which will be on display March 5-20 at the IU Herron School of Art and Design, are highlighted by numerous black and white teddy bear, caterpillar and butterfly figures, as well as traditional functional pottery pieces such as vases.
But deeper meanings are everywhere. According to Bleil, the bold, beautiful contrast between the black and white represent the Yin and Yang of life, the contrast of hard, sad, troubling times to get through versus the happy, joyful, love-filled ones.
"I feel like as I've gotten older, life has just gotten better," she said. "And the people that connect with this, it doesn't matter their age. They're looking for things to love and to enjoy. I love cute things and the emotional response to them, so I try to put that into my work."
Longtime friend Carrie Longley, who was also Bleil's studio mate while the two were in graduate school at Indiana University, says Bleil is a unique, caring ball of energy.
"She's probably the most compassionate person I've ever met," Longley said. "And she really knows how to make people feel good, even just in passing."
Bleil grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A grandfather introduced her to drawing and painting, particularly still lifes and Van Gogh, and two aunts were artists. Bleil was strong in drawing and painting, far more skilled in those disciplines than in ceramics, but she was drawn to the challenge of the potter's wheel.
"I kind of fell in love with clay and the wheel," Bleil said. "It's like getting into that zone where all your worries and problems fall away. Time slows down and you just enjoy yourself. I wasn't great, but I loved it."
- Rachel Bleil
- "Forest Friends," 2012, Stoneware with underglazes, sgraffito & inlay.
So she continued to hone her skills, heading to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania to learn more about art and study ceramics. Her earlier work, though revolving around teddy bears and the like, showed the issues she'd been struggling with all her life. Pieces Bleil created in grad school at IU were what she calls "very troubled and angsty," reflecting the unhappy place where she was.
"I've made a lot more troubling, darker work in the past," she said. "I can't help it. It comes out.
"But I was looking at life, without realizing it, as the cup as half empty," she said. "I always focused on the negative things or the things that bothered me. And I just got to a point where I was so sick and tired of feeling crappy or feeling stressed out or worrying."
Then she began asking herself a simple question: What makes me happy?
"And it came to simply focusing on what really makes me happy," she said. "It's the simplest things: looking and acknowledging, and all of a sudden seeing."
She looks at the sky as much as possible now, at the birds and the creatures all around. And it's not just in nature: She looks for things she wants to see in people as well.
- Rachel Bleil
- "Transformation Vessel," 2012, Stoneware with underglazes, sgraffito & inlay.
"We're all gonna annoy each other," she said. "Why not look for things we can appreciate?"
Herron sophomore Katiana Montenegro was a student of Bleil's at IUPUI last spring, and says Bleil is a role model, an inspiration and more like a caring parent than a professor.
"I wasn't in a very good state of mind," said Montenegro, who had just moved from Miami. "I had no idea what I was getting into, but [Bleli] changed my life.
"She was magical. It was more than a class; she would talk of these 'magical moments' in her life and then make us all share our own stories with each other. She'd change the mood wherever she went."
That's pretty different from the morose, sad girl Bleil once was.
Now, "All day long, I look for the things I want to see," Bleil said. "Directing my mind and thoughts towards things that make me happy makes a difference in my life, and my day-to-day. I feel happier and it's awesome."