Looking for “Lebisia”

Wild and prolific painter, sculptor, and filmmaker Jere Van Syoc transferred from Moody Bible College to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1962 with the modest intention of becoming a high school art teacher.  In her earliest days at SAIC, her roommate the fiber artist Leora Stewart recalls, she still went to church.  By the time she completed her Bachelor’s in Art Education in 1966, SAIC was well on its way to being a hotbed of creative and political ferment and she was a firebrand with an Instamatic.  She spent a couple years teaching school and saving money and then returned for a master’s to SAIC.  She remains a legend among SAIC classmates from those latter days for her spirit and activism.  Her next stop was Thomas Jefferson College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she taught art and was a leading force in the seemingly spontaneous combustion that preceded & followed the first Mich Fest and created the Aradia Collective, a loose assortment of lesbian artists and free spirits whose parties and performances remain the stuff of myth.  Somewhere along the line she acquired a Super 8.  Later, in the 1970s and 80s she was a presence at the Los Angeles Women’s Building where she showed and photographed her “death toys.” By then the habit of filming her life and exploits was second nature.

Chicago Altar Piece, Death Toy

Big Dog, Death Toy

Over the years she took many photos and moving images of her work, friends, and activities. In 1999 she gathered her still and moving images of her life and work and used them to create a 19:55 minute film she entitled “The Brothel, the Temple, and Art.”

Click to play clip.

After Jere committed her memory to dvd, she began to suffer from dementia.  Reportedly she’s now lost most of her short and long term memory.  Fortunately, she gave dvds of “The Brothel, the Temple, and Art” to many friends.  In addition, when filmmaker Michelle Citron asked to use footage for Michelle’s wonderful interactive piece “Mixed Greens,” Jere sent her raw footage.  Michelle Citron made Digibeta and Beta tape copies “off Jere’s footage” and returned the original media to Jere. In 2016 Michelle contributed her dvd copy of “The Brothel” as well as the tapes she copied from Jere’s original footage to Lesbian Home Movie Project. A niece Keli Semelsberger who holds Jere’s power of attorney formalized the donation.  She has also shared rich childhood memories of her aunt.

The hallmark piece in LHMP’s Jere Van Syoc Collection is “The Brothel, the Temple, and Art.” As a fully realized memoir on film, it achieves a promise implicit but rarely achieved in many amateur collections of snapshots and moving-image footage and captures a remarkable period in 20th Century American art and lgbtq history.  But it does not narrate her life before she entered the Art Institute, and that has been very hard to document.  At present, we don’t even have a confirmed date of birth.  Yet there’s a good deal of material that seems to have come from home movies in the Digi-B and Beta tapes Michelle Citron donated.   An earlier film we’ve found a reference to, “Lebisia,” which she created while in Los Angeles on a Lesbian Art Project residency at the Woman’s Building may bridge the gap.

Note, if the reproduction allows, the black & white cameo on the right is a childhood still or screen shot.

We would love to include “Lebisia” in Jere’s collection, but so far we haven’t been able to locate a copy. Perhaps it was the reel a family member discarded because it looked too wrinkled to project.  Perhaps, as Terry Wolverton, longtime director of the Women’s Building and author of Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Women’s Building (San Francisco: City Lights, 2002), has hypothesized, Jere chopped it up and reused the footage for “The Brothel, the Temple, and Art.” After all, as Terry has pointed out, at the time “Lebisia” was created, it was extremely costly and difficult to copy film and Jere never had much money. She only received one small grant in her career, seldom sold work, and primarily supported herself with day jobs. But Jere’s practices of shooting “off the wall” and distributing her work among her friends leaves reason to hope that there’s a copy out there somewhere. It’s even possible that it will turn up on the one tape in Jere’s collection that we have not yet been able to salvage to date.  But since odds of that seem slim — it’s in terrible condition — we’re calling far & wide among Jere’s network of friends, fans, lovers, and family members looking a copy. Anybody?



7 comments on “Looking for “Lebisia””

  1. Susan Wiseheart

    I am nearly certain she made Lebisia while in Grand Rapids, not after she moved to Los Angeles. There was a big showing of it in GR. I’m pretty sure I have fliers from it and will look.

    Jere was a very fine cat rescuer all of the time I knew her, too.

  2. Sharon Thompson

    Susan – That is so interesting. Her outtakes feature very charming cats, here, there, everywhere! Do you have any recollection of what was IN “Lebisia”? It’s possible it’s in her outtakes but we just don’t know it. Very sorry this reply comes so late. I just stumbled upon this comments section.

  3. Keli semelsbaerger

    If you want more info on her work in Grand Rapids i can give you e mailes of her friends in GR. Her remaining work is with my sister, her niece, in Arkansas.

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  5. Judy Grill Sanders

    Jere was an art teacher at my alma mater, Nazareth College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She was a big influence on my worldview and the art that I produced at that time. She was what you would call an “old soul”, and outrageous, funny and kind.
    I am happy that I finally learned what happened to her. Myself and other old friends have been wondering and searching for her.
    May she Rest In Peace.

  6. Sharon M Thompson

    Judy — So sorry it’s taken so long to reply. Somehow you’re message got stuck in a spam filter. Wonderful to hear about how Jere was as a teacher. Warmly, Sharon T

  7. Terry Wolverton

    Sharon, Jere celebrated her birthday on April 22. She was 19 years older than me, which would place her birth in 1935. And she absolutely made “Lebisia” in Los Angeles, in the spare bedroom of artist and writer Bia Lowe’s Hollywood Hills home. It premiered at the Woman’s Building, although of course she would screen it in Grand Rapids, since so many of the women depicted lived there.

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