By Amanda Koehn

“Overpass and Undercurrents” by Lori Kella (2022) from her “Shifting Ground” series. Archival pigment print, 20 x 30 inches.
Photos courtesy of the artist.

Lori Kella is a photographer by medium, but calling her a creator of evolving miniature worlds may be more accurate.

“Making things to photograph” as she refers to it, involves building detailed models based on semi-realistic natural landscapes and incorporating surreal elements to capture the photo. It sometimes involves tearing the models apart.

Kella has experimented with various iterations of her unique photographic form since her days at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the mid-1990s. She’s continuously reimagined the themes and style throughout her career, focusing now on the real-time changes Lake Erie is undergoing. Residing in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland on the shore, she’s drawn to explore the landscape and stories surrounding it. 

“A lot of it is about storytelling,” Kella says during a June interview at the William Busta Gallery in Collinwood, where she recently had a show on view. “So sometimes they’ll be very personal narratives. Sometimes they’ll be things from the news, but I just see in some ways the setting or the place is very important. And for me, that others can kind of enter it. … Even if it’s somewhere you’ve never been, you see the landscape and kind of connect to it, and it’s familiar in some way.”

Kella, 48, was one of two Cleveland artists shown in the national contemporary art exhibition “State of the Art,” which was on view at the Akron Art Museum this past winter. She has also been showing her series “Shifting Ground,” created from 2021-2022, which signaled a new phase in her process. She’s still experimenting with depicting the climate change-impacted landscape, shore and the messages surrounding it. 

“I think it also conceptually works with this idea that you may look out at the lake or the landscape and it may look beautiful and fine, but they’re sort of these darker currents in our environment that we’re not addressing,” she says. “So for me, this sort of tension also speaks to the way that things can be sort of beautiful and askew at the same time.”

Lori Kella at the William Busta Gallery, surrounded by her exhibition on view there.
Canvas Photo / Amanda Koehn


Kella was born in St. Joseph, Mich., in 1974 and grew up in the small southwest Michigan city. She has one older sister and her father worked as a mechanical engineer, while her mother was both artistic and trained in science.

“My mom definitely has an artistic side, and she always did a lot of … sewing and those kinds of fiber arts crafts and different things in the fashion industry,” Kella says.

When Kella was a teenager, her family moved to Northeast Ohio and she graduated from Mentor High School, which she notes had a good art program. She struggled to decide whether to pursue the sciences or art. Although she chose art, her science skills show up through the detailed way she crafts natural scenes. She’s also made maps and satellite imagery for her artwork, and worked in ophthalmic photography early in her career, continuing that science connection, she explains.

While her family moved to Asheville, N.C., Kella stayed to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art for undergrad. While she didn’t start college on the photography track, in a first-year elective class at CIA she “fell in love with the possibilities.”

“My approach to photography is much less traditional,” Kella says. “It’s never been about the camera or capturing images – even though I enjoy that and I teach photography, so I really understand that language. But what really hooked me in a way was experimentation that was encouraged at CIA. And once I sort of discovered that you could arrange things – even just a still life and photograph it – that’s what really hooked me.”

She graduated in 1997, and completed her master’s degree in photography from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. After, she moved back to Northeast Ohio for her connections to the art world and teaching opportunities.

While still in graduate school, Kella exhibited at SPACES in a show William Busta helped curate. Busta has been exhibiting Kella’s work since. 

“It’s so thrilling to watch a career like Lori’s to grow,” Busta says. “She has a direction in her career, but it keeps changing and she keeps finding new ways to reimagine what she’s doing – sometimes looking at the stars, sometimes looking at the Earth from space, sometimes getting to the very, very intimate parts of her life, ranging out.”

“Shifting Ground” by Lori Kella (2022). Digital chromogenic print, 45 x 30 inches.
Photo courtesy of the artist.


For the SPACES exhibit in 2001, Kella used tiny sea glass beads to make topographical maps of bodies of water. She placed the beads on photo paper to make photographs to look like satellite imagery.

“It was really kind of this play between sort of digital technology and the handmade,” she says. “It’s kind of the early days of like Google Maps.”

She eventually shifted to creating dioramas or model landscapes to photograph. To create them, she’ll collect small rocks, driftwood and other natural items from the beach. She also incorporates architectural modeling supplies, paper creations and drawn elements to develop the scene.

Her “Strange Crossings” series debuted in 2015 at the William Busta Gallery. It deals with transoceanic migration, natural disasters and the depth and mystery of the ocean – a career highlight, she notes. 

“The Diver” by Lori Kella (2014) from her “Strange Crossings” series. Digital chromogenic print, 40 x 30 inches.
Photo courtesy of the artist

While natural landscapes made into fictional scenes has been a theme throughout Kella’s career, in 2018, she began focusing specifically on Lake Erie and the environmental issues it faces, as well as restoration efforts. The shift stemmed from being on the lake daily and noticing abnormal freeze and thaw cycles around that time.

“I was just interested in the change of the landscape and certainly I have done work previously about climate change before this, and was also feeling like nothing seemed to be happening or moving, and maybe I should tackle this again … it became even more important,” she says. 

Kella is interested in the tension between the real landscape and the more fictional elements she incorporates – sometimes done through monochromatic color schemes and varying flat and three-dimensional aspects. Her photos depict the destruction of the shoreline and nearby areas, but also consider how to protect those resources. 

“It’s always that push and pull between making something that’s believable or that you can immerse yourself in, but having lots of little things to kind of entice you visually that sort of give you cues” that it’s not a real landscape, she says. 

Owning galleries on and off since 1989, Busta works to identify great artists while they are still coming up. Something special about Kella is she continues to challenge herself and her audience, he says. Each show of hers is a little bit “other than expectations.”

Kella adds, “I don’t know if it’s our job, but what we do or find exciting is to challenge (expectations) and always kind of push the boundaries, even if the themes have overlapped for years.”

Describing Kella’s work for the Akron Art Museum, independent curator Liz Carney wrote, “In ethereal images of a constructed microcosmic world and its undoing, Kella reminds us that the real world offers ephemeral, tenuous, irreplaceable beauty.”

“Fractured Landscape: Landing” by Lori Kella (2022) from “Shifting Ground.” Archival pigment print, 18 x 24 inches.
Photo courtesy of the artist.


Kella is married to artist Michael Loderstedt. Their son, Ethan Loderstedt, is studying architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. 

In addition to her artistic practice, Kella taught photography and art at Kent State University for many years and at Oberlin College for a year. She’s now in her third year as part of the visual art faculty at Laurel School in Shaker Heights.

“There’s something really empowering about working with students and showing them how to use art to find their own voice, to make their own stories … I really love that,” she says, adding Laurel is a supportive environment for her and the other practicing artists on the faculty. 

Kella’s recent work specifically looks at the lake over a
20-year history and “more personal narratives sort of along that shoreline, and also looking again at this sort of intersection of the built environment and the natural world,” she says. She often kayaks out to find scenes for sketches. 

Her most recent body of work, “Shifting Ground,” began with an about 8-foot-long diorama Kella constructed of the Lake Erie shoreline. She aimed to show the impact of erosion over the last few years, and incorporated “kind of makeshift things built into the shoreline,” like balconies or barriers, some of which were newly constructed, some old and in disrepair, she says. 

When she began photographing it, she was unsatisfied. 

“It just wasn’t giving me the effect – it wasn’t creating the sort of emotional dialogue about how I felt like the landscape was just crumbling and deteriorating,” she says.

She ended up tearing pieces of the diorama apart and photographing it fractured on the light table. 

“To me, just the artistic process to make that was so satisfying to see that come to fruition,” she recalls.

“Shifting Ground” was first exhibited at Photocentric – Michael Loderstedt’s now-closed Collinwood gallery focused on contemporary photography – in spring 2022, and showed at the McDonough Museum of Art at Youngstown State University earlier this year. 

In 2020, Kella was among 61 artists invited to be part of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s national “State of the Art” exhibition. The exhibit addresses how contemporary art reflects the current time and how it connects to one’s sense of self, home and planet. Along with Amy Casey, Kella was one of two Cleveland artists selected after the curators visited their studios. A section of the exhibit was displayed at the Akron Art Museum this past winter, including Kella’s works.

While working five days a week at Laurel during the school year makes finding studio time a bit more challenging, she says the summers off allow a good couple months to focus on her artwork. She’s working toward a solo exhibit in Busta’s gallery next spring. She also currently has work in CIA’s 2023 Alumni Exhibition, which is on view through Aug. 11. 

She adds one of the biggest challenges she’s faced as an artist has been dealing with the abyss left when a body of work is complete and deciding what’s next. “It’s just the natural cycle of an artist, but it can be kind of daunting, right?”


  • Cleveland Institute of Art 2023 Alumni Exhibition, “Come, Rest Here by My Side,” which includes work by Lori Kella, is on view through Aug. 11 in Reinberger Gallery, 11610 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. 
  • Kella will have a solo exhibition in the William Busta Gallery, 15517 Waterloo Road, Suite 2, Cleveland, in spring 2024. 
“Eroding Shoreline (The Calm Before the Storm)” by Lori Kella (2021) from “Shifting Ground.” Archival pigment print, 20 x 40 inches.
Photo courtesy of the artist.