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A Really Big Shoe
by Allan Appel | Sep 25, 2013 1:06 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Visual Arts, Goatville, Upper State Street
Mary Lesser planted shoes—and came up with a novel garden.
The garden is not in behind the house in Westville where the longtime New Haven artist lives. You can find it on a ledge inside the City Gallery on State Street, where her haunting sculpture along with other work is on view noon to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, closing day.
The show is called Generations. That’s because Lesser, one of some two dozen members of the cooperative gallery, chose to include her 10-year-old grand-daughter Chloe’s pastel and charcoal drawings in the show.
The girl’s drawings—also haunting slightly off-kilter close-up portraits of animals and other kid subjects—are appropriately off in a corner of the white rectangular space, which is dominated by the elder Lesser’s dark and delicate shoe tree sculpture.
How the work came about is a lesson in the mysterious, often unconscious process by which art gets made.
Two years ago Lesser said she went shopping for sneakers, and bought a pair. She noticed the little cardboard inserts that came with her shoes and found them interesting. “I said to the salesman, ‘Do you have any more?’”
He brought her several dozen. She took them home. They sat in her studio. “I knew they could be important, but I wasn’t sure for what.”
Roll the unconscious clock forward to this summer: “I was walking my dog [in Westville] and I saw these branches,” small kindling-size branches that had been blown down on the sidewalk in a storm.
“I just knew.”
The result, aboutm15 individual shoes with branches sticking out of each, and all painted in black, are arranged haphazardly in what Lesser calls an installation beneath three monotypes, also black acrylic paint but on canvas.
You can move the shoes around, as Lesser did as she talked, to create a new arrangement. No matter how you move the shoes, the ledge allows only limited space, so that there is always a sense of a crowd.
Shoes, of course, suggest the people who might have been attached to them. You wouldn’t be coming out of left field to think of people perhaps waiting on on that ledge, like a platform. Perhaps a train platform. Perhaps about to be transported to a place from which they will not return.
I asked Lesser if the well-known shoe room exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C had been on her mind.
She conceded that was possible, even likely, but also unconscious.
Whether unconscious or not, work that evokes general evanescence like this, and that hints at a particular major disappearing of millions, can easily tip into sentimentality and cliche. These do not. Color helps, or rather lack thereof.
“I immediately knew they had to be black,” Lesser said. I like mystery and a little touch of gloom. That comes from my personality.”
“I’m a Jewish pessimist,” added the long-time appellate lawyer for the city and state.
That leaves the branches, which Lesser suggested may indeed imply something living coming out of something dead and gone. Yet the branches are black too.
Artists don’t like to be pinned down as to whether fresh death is arising out of old death.
Lesser simply said she liked the color black.
Lesser’s mixed-media painting features painted paper towel pieces and patches of mylar collaged onto acrylic painted Strathmore paper. She has used the technique to create a series that she calls “How Does Your Garden Grow.”
There’s a delicate beauty but also an overlay of roughness to these compositions. Lesser said she felt the need to add something linear, so she stitched, with black and white thread, various lines entering and leaving the garden of paint. You might be forgiven if, when viewing these works from a distance, you conclude ants are marching in, out, and around whatever is growing there, or decaying.
There may be sweet vengeance at work here. Lesser said she grew up with an extraordinary lawyer mother, Paulene Heller. Heller was one of six women in her 1931 Columbia University Law School class. She was fearful her artistic daughter might become an artist and not be able to earn a living.
“I was a very stubborn child. My mother was always saying, ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary ...’” said Lesser, who followed her own path as well as her mom’s.
Which brings us to the younger Lesser and the apple not falling far from the tree department. The young artist isn’t there due to a grandma’s indulgence—well, at least not that alone. Rules of the cooperative include that you can invite anyone to be in your show, although in the past friends and relatives invited have been adult and professionals.
Chloe Lesser is the first child exhibitor, and may have set a new high bar at City Gallery. Mary Lesser said her granddaughter stole the show at the opening with her works, which are not only rendered with an unusual skillfulness, but also that mysterious quality that just may run in this family.
All six of Chloe Lesser’s drawings have sold. And not all were bought by relatives.You never know.
The phone rang at the end of our interview. Mary Lesser said that might be someone who had expressed interest in buying her shoe tree garden. it turned out not to be the case.
That was just as well. “I’m going to keep it,” she said, to use for another installation.
Tags: Mary Lesser, Chloe Lesser, footwear
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To me, Mary’s black shoes represent the many African American children who have lost their lives to urban street violence. The naked branches echo the hopelessness that exists for those left to contemplate their own futures. She is a multi-talented artist/attorney who always has been concerned with social justice.