When Jacqueline Goldstein saw a luminous resin sculpture dangling from the ceiling of artist Mira Lehr’s studio, she envisioned masses of sculptures, suspended like flora in an aerial garden, to showcase the 80 stained-glass windows of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.
As the curator of the museum – which is housed in a former synagogue in Miami Beach, Fla. – she convinced Lehr to rapidly create more than 180 sculptures to headline Miami’s Art Basel festival – an international art fair that’s staged in three cities around the world – with the enchanting exhibit, Mira Lehr: A Walk in the Garden.
The effect the exhibit has on the synagogue’s historic sanctuary is mesmerizing. As daylight streams through the brilliantly tinted windows, it reflects off the aerial flora like light through a prism, casting rainbow-like hues that dance across the walls and over some of the monumental paintings included in the exhibit.
“My garden speaks of the elements of nature, the energy of nature, how it works with light, reflections, colours, luminosity,” says Lehr.
Lehr, 85, sees the entire installation as “one painting of a garden,” with colours and shapes that relate to each other and allow the viewer to see one piece through the other. “I hope the exhibit inspires people to love nature as powerful and beautiful art, and to see the world as this great paradise and treat it with respect. I’d like people to feel something about the past and being present on the Earth now,” she says.
Working with three assistants, Lehr uses prized Japanese paper, because it takes ink and colour well and turns transparent when coated with resin. First, she dyes the paper with colour or prints it with wood block or creates an image. Then she singes the edges with fire to create a darkened edge. After flattening the paper, she pours resin over it and allows it to cure. Then she dremels each sculpture to prepare it for hanging.
To add elements of Jewish culture, Lehr consulted the Torah, specifically Deuteronomy 8:8, which notes the seven species of ancient plants: barley, wheat, figs, pomegranates, grapes, olives and dates. Lehr calls this “a holy garden that takes people out of the actual world and transports them onto a spiritual plane.”
The exhibit includes 10 monumental paintings, all relating to nature. For one, in particular, called Path of Jericho – a tryptic on wood created with a silver emulsion – Lehr enhanced the work with two shades of gunpowder.
“I use gunpowder and ignite it because it leaves a gorgeous mark that gives a dynamic energy to the work because it brings to mind the ephemeral of creation and destruction. It only lasts seconds, so it gives both aspects of beauty that is here and then is not here,” she explains.
Lehr, who was raised in Miami Beach, began her artistic journey at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “I entered Vassar when there was a quota for Jews. After graduating with a degree in art history, I worked as an artist in New York, while seeking mentors who could teach me what I wanted to learn,” Lehr says.
She studied with Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Ludwig Sander and James Brooks, among others. In 1960 – a time when women were still isolated in the male-dominated art world – Lehr returned to Miami Beach and founded Continuum, one of America’s first co-ops for female artists. Over time, Lehr enticed many of New York’s famous masters to lead workshops for the women, ultimately spotlighting the Miami Beach art scene before Art Basel’s cultural impact.
In 1969, she was selected by Buckminster Fuller – the American architect who patented the geodesic dome – to participate in the first World Game Scenario Project.
“Fuller changed my life. Working with him, I learned about forces in the universe, how we must be more efficient, not be wasteful of our natural resources. I gained a vision that it is a privilege to be on the Earth and mankind is meant to be a success on the planet,” Lehr says.
Today, Lehr is considered a pioneer among female artists. She urges younger artists to “work honestly and trust your vision to make your work authentic.”
Following her own mantra at 85, Lehr bubbles with vivacious authenticity. Although her husband, David Lehr (the cardiologist who set up the Miami Pritikin Center) died several years ago, she feels blessed to have four children and seven grandchildren.
After Art Basel, she is embarking on a project to build sanctuaries for seahorses. “They are being decimated around Miami Beach because their grass habitats are being over-dredged,” she says. “So I’m building little Buckminster Fuller domes under the water for the seahorses’ tails to grab onto.”
Mira Lehr: A Walk in the Garden runs until Feb. 3. For more information, visit jmof.fiu.edu, or call 305-972-3175.