Leaves is an ongoing project honoring individuals Eric Rhein has known who died of complications from AIDS. Related to drawing, each delicate wire leaf portrait—adhered to a sheet of paper—becomes a unique personalized tribute. Since it's conception, Leaves has grown to include portraits of more than 250 individuals, with the most recent addition in 2015. Reflecting the continued losses due to HIV/AIDS, Leaves serves as a means to raise awareness and educate the public about the ongoing pandemic.
Rhein originally conceived of the work during a residency at the MacDowell Artist Colony in New Hampshire in 1996. At the time, he was adjusting to his rapid return to health due to the effectiveness of newly available HIV medications. Walking the grounds of MacDowell, Rhein began to gather fallen autumn leaves—each evoking a friend or acquaintance who had died. Returning to his studio, Rhein rendered the leaves in wire, creating portraits of those individuals who touched his life. As Rhein recalls, "One by one, I picked up leaves until a host of kinsmen were gathered in my arms. In death, they continue to be the teachers they were in life, generously sharing with me the gifts of their individual attributes."
The titles combine the person's first name with a poetic reference to a special attribute, such as: Cousin Jimmy, Lovely Tina, Klaus the Swedish Diplomat, African Olivia, Dancing Jean Louis, Art Critic Paul, David the Artist and Activist, and Life-Altering Spencer. Leaves represents a wide range of humanity, celebrating recognizable figures, artists, and activists—as well as friends, lovers, and others who affected Rhein's life, highlighting the significant contributions of all individuals.
As noted art historian and AIDS activist Robert Atkins wrote in 1999, "Art has always played a role in coming to terms with collective tragedy, and the role of an artist has frequently been to bear witness. Surely an art of memory like Eric Rhein's can help harmonize our views by suggesting that honoring the past is one way to live more fully in the present."
An evolving artwork of activism, Leaves has been exhibited internationally in institutions such as: the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA; Philips Academy, Andover, MA; the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY; Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, NJ; SUNY Purchase, NY; the American Folk Art Museum, New York; the BRIC Rotunda Gallery, Brooklyn, NY; the Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ; the Islip Art Museum, East Islip, NY; AIDS United, Washington, DC; the Pera Museum, Istanbul; the XVI International AIDS Conference, Toronto, the New Art Gallery, Walsall, England, and most recently, Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York, NY.
Leaves has been exhibited in the United States embassies in Austria, Cameroon, and Malta.