When Leda Balch graduated high school, she moved to Portland, Oregon, for college. It wasn’t long before she realized she had no idea what she wanted to do.
“It was a lot of pressure from people—from everybody—to go through this typical route of graduate high school, go to college, get your degree,” she said. “I find it almost absurd that for so many people, it’s the norm for everyone to go to college right out of high school because it’s not right for everybody.”
She took a photo class in Oregon, reminding her of her passion for art. But still, college at that time wasn’t right for her, so she left.
Balch spent her time doing art outside of academia, like creating album artwork for friends’ bands and screen-printing merchandise for her sister’s band.
“I kept up this mild underlying current of arts, and I was like, ‘This is what I’ve been doing for so long, let’s just go for it,’” she said.
She eventually returned to school in her hometown of St. Augustine, but this time with a clear-cut idea of what she wanted to study: photography.
Transferring to UF was next.
“That just kind of naturally flowed into, ‘Okay, time to get the B.A.,’” she said. “Might as well just keep the momentum going.”
Now, she’s an ambassador for the College of the Arts School of Art + Art History and is graduating on Dec. 16 as the Fall 2017 Two-Year Scholar Award Recipient with a degree in creative photography.
“I cherish so much the time that I spent away from school, because I would not have had the motivation and drive to be as successful as I have been in college so far,” she said.
As far as her time at UF, Balch said it has been a building process. She expects what she has created to be a foundation for the work she plans to do outside of college.
“There are a lot of learning opportunities and building blocks for continuing on as an artist outside of school,” Balch said.
Balch credits Assistant Professor Anthea Behm for being one of the big reasons she enjoyed her time at UF so much. Likewise, Behm said it was a privilege to work with Balch.
“Her work deals with complex issues in today's world, including feminism, the environment and the place of emotions in our intellectual life,” Behm said. “She brings to those topics a rare combination of criticality, sincerity and a sharp sense of humor.”
Behm said she looks forward to seeing Balch’s new works, ideas and path she forges in the future.
“She is driven by the intellectual gift to always see the possibilities buried in the quotidian and the artistic talent to render those hidden possibilities in imaginative and captivating forms,” Behm said.
The photography curriculum was conducive to exploring both photography and its background, according to Balch, and was the other main reason she had such a positive experience at UF.
“I really encourage people to take photo classes because it shatters preconceived notions about photography, and it’s kind of mind-blowing,” she said.
Balch’s photographic journey began in high school when her father gave her the first film camera she ever owned. He taught her a little bit about cameras, and her interest remained.
“It’s not that photography has played this huge part in my life, but it’s been this undercurrent throughout all of my art-making,” she said. “I have been using it in different ways.”
She does not prefer any specific subject to photograph; instead, she likes her photography to be supplemental.
“I use photography to execute certain parts of conceptualized projects, so photos as a document of a performance or photos as historical reference material,” she said. “It’s not any one thing that I’m well-versed in. It’s sort of a broad range of applications for photography to be used.”
As involved as she was in her studies, Balch also made time to serve as a School of Art + Art History Ambassador. Her main duties involved acting as a liaison to incoming students and serving as a student support network for anyone who needs direction or suggestions.
“We curate different events and activities that bring the community together,” she said. “Things that… relieve UF’s big college pressure.”
When the application for the Two-Year Scholar Award found its way into her inbox, her interest was piqued. She applied, not expecting to win. A scholarly award sounded more like academic papers to her, she said.
“I was just as surprised as anybody that I got it,” she laughed. “I would say somebody in art history is more apt to getting this than someone studying conceptual photography. I guess it was just really nice that that notion was not true.”
With her award and positive academic and extracurricular experiences in the bag, she is ready to put on her cap and gown for commencement on Dec. 16.
She laughed at the infamous question of what the future holds, but she has a plan.
As if Balch’s art and photography talents were not enough, she also plays bass, and she intends to stay in Gainesville until her lease expires in six months, working on a music project with her bandmate and partner Andrew.
“I’ll continue to use [photography] as a tool for making whatever type of artworks that I conceptualize, and photography is really great for people traveling because it’s a self-contained thing,” she said. “Touring, art on the road… we’ll see where that takes us."
You can listen to some of that music here.