Erich Lehman embraces his redesigned life

05:00 AM, Mar 03, 2013

Written By Leah Stacy

Erich Lehman spends most nights and weekends inside the intimate building at 89 Charlotte St. that houses his 1975 Gallery.

Seated at an elegant wooden table given to him by neighboring 2Vine Restaurant, Lehman is surrounded by the subjects of his artistic kingdom: a robot, paper airplanes and a corner tree house that displays a vehement “No Girls Allowed!” sign. The all-cardboard pieces are part of 1975’s latest exhibit, “Boys vs. Girls,” co-curated with The Yards public art space at the Rochester Public Market.

Lehman’s phone buzzes, and he pauses just for a second, typing a quick reply to someone before launching back into conversation. We’ve been talking for nearly an hour, and he still hasn’t touched on everything he’s involved with around the city. “The problem is, there’s so much stuff to talk about,” he says, with a laugh.

Defining moments

The name of Lehman’s gallery — 1975 — comes from his year of birth. For most people born that year, the milestone year would be 2015, when they turn 40. For Lehman, it’s this year. His gallery is now five years old, a true marker for any small business. And on Feb. 22, he turned 38: the same age his mother was when she was murdered during a break-in at the family home outside Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 19, 1987. Lehman was only 11 years old.

At TEDx Rochester in November, he spoke about the tragedy. The theme of his talk was “defining moments.”

By defining moments I mean, it’s not the moment itself, it’s what you do with it,” he says. “You can either use it to hold you back or inspire you.”

A few weeks after his mother’s murder, for his 12th birthday, his father gave him a skateboard. That turned out to be a present of a lifetime, allowing him to develop a passion that continued through his graphic design studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology and through his community work today.

Building his background

He used his college design skills to become the first T-shirt designer for local skateboarding shop Krudco — curing shirts in kitchen ovens — and used his connections at the Little Theatre (where he held a part-time job as concessions attendant and projectionist) to organize Krudco video screenings.

The experiences taught him to multi-task and work on a tight budget, he says.

I come from the punk rock, hard-core, skateboarding DIY ethos,” he says. “I’m going to do it myself simply because I have to, and I’m going to do it myself because I know I can do it better.”

That attitude came in handy when he founded 1975 as a side project, prompted by a roommate’s challenge to do what he loved.

By profession, Lehman is a self-described “tech nerd” who holds a full-time job as premedia facilities coordinator at RIT. Knowing Lehman’s penchant for graphic design, his roommate could see that he wanted to experiment outside the tech world in his free time.

He asked me what I’d do if I could do anything I wanted, and I said, ‘Oh, I’d start an art gallery,’ ” Lehman says. “Then, he said, ‘So why not do it?’ “

That was 2007.

1975 is born

One year later, 1975 opened with a pop-up art show at Lee Gray’s Surface Salon on South Avenue. It would continue as a nomadic gallery until 2012 when the space at 89 Charlotte St. became available.

If you didn’t pay attention to the one rack of product we couldn’t easily move, or the fact that we were serving wine out of (shampoo) sinks filled with ice, you wouldn’t know it was in a hair salon,” he said. “We treated it with reverence.”

Also exhibiting at the first show were Sarah Rutherford, a Boston native and painting, installation and illustration artist; and Lea Rizzo, a tattoo and illustration artist at Love Hate Tattoo. The ladies would eventually found The Yards in 2011 — a space with which 1975 works very closely.

Lehman introduced Rutherford and Rizzo to two others, mural artist St. Monci and stencil artist Mr. Prvrt, to discuss an upcoming show at the Hungerford Building on East Main Street. Within a few months, the five began an art collective, The Sweet Meat Co. “Erich has that connector role. None of us knew each other and hadn’t seen this model happen in Rochester before,” says Rutherford. “But he’s done that with a lot of his projects.”

Lehman is also a leading advocate for the proposed Roc City Skatepark (which will hold its annual benefit show March 8 at The Yards) and co-curator of Wall\Therapy, a neighborhood mural project that drew artists from around the world to complete 16 murals in seven days last July.

Erich plays an important role in Rochester because he encourages three important things: building the community inside, bringing people in from the outside, and eventually, artists from here leaving and doing their art elsewhere,” Rutherford says. “That’s what is going to change Rochester. I don’t think people realize how much of that is actually happening already.”

Lehman’s extensive public involvement with Wall\Therapy and his other pursuits earned him The Little Theatre Good Neighbor Award last fall. His girlfriend of five years, Angie Carter, says it’s right in line with Lehman’s mantra.

He’s all about treating others as you want to be treated and supporting other people, about trying to be successful together and not against each other,” she says. “You don’t have to be an artist. He’s about good people doing good things.”

As a longtime culinary dabbler with a dream, Carter has been catering 1975 events for the past few years. Lehman was the first to encourage her to launch a side gig, Bake It or Cleave It, which specializes in niche foods like French macaroons and cotton candy. Since she started catering with co-owner Hannah Betts Moncibaiz in July, the pair have been booking weddings and events nonstop.

Along the way, Lehman has helped where he can by designing a logo, printing bags and spreading the word about the business. “He’s a phenomenal individual with a huge heart, pretty incredible in regards to being creative, encouraging creativity and keeping things local,” she says. “He’s the biggest supporter you will ever have.”

What’s next

Currently, Lehman and Wall\Therapy founder Ian Wilson are finalizing the 2013 lineup for 1975 and negotiating this year’s Wall\Therapy artists and locations. It’s a project that’s received some criticism from the local community — both because it doesn’t use all-local artists and because of some of the images — but has garnered high praise from the international art community.

These artists come in from everywhere, they see what we’re doing and they talk about it,” he says. “That helps validate what we are doing.”

Lehman and Wilson say, for the third of the project, they are working with Genesee Land Trust to install murals along the El Camino Trail, a greenway following an old rail line that stretches from Scrantom Street north past East Ridge Road.

When the weather warms, Lehman plans to finish a mural on the side of his gallery with help from fellow Sweet Meat Co. member St. Monci (also with Wall\Therapy).

And when he thinks of those inevitable dark moments surrounding his mother’s death in 1987?

It was 26 years ago, bad things happen, but I’ve had an incredible life, so let’s talk about what’s next,” he said. “Do good stuff, because you don’t know what’s gonna happen.”