Even at the scientific root of nature, there is beauty. This realization is what fascinated Leigh Anne Lester and lead to the creation of her genetics inspired artwork. Tamra Collins, Overland Art Program Curator, recently sat with Leigh Anne Lester to discuss the science of genetics, plants, and art.
Her work delves into genetic modifications many incorporating drawings that are made from many layers of semi-transparent drafting film. The transparency of the paper allows the line from each botanical to optically blend with the next layer. Elements of each of the plants mix and tangle their visual attributes intermingling disparate species of flora.
Lester’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States. Her solo exhibitions include Lawndale Art Center, Houston, TX; Artpace, San Antonio, TX; Institute of Texan Cultures, San Antonio, TX; Southwest School of Art, San Antonio, TX; and the International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago, IL. She is the recipient of prestigious awards including the 2011 Hunting Prize and the Artist Foundation of San Antonio in 2007, as well as the 2015 Berlin Residency organized by the Blue Star Contemporary program.
Today we have Leigh Anne Lester here in the office of Overland Partners. Leigh Anne is known for her Mutant Spectre exhibit that she won a prize for—or was that a series that you won a prize for?
Leigh Anne Lester: It’s actually one individual drawing that I won the prize for, and it was a sort of resolution of some past work that I had done. I had mentioned that I would layer four different types of plants on drafting film, a drafting film that wasn’t opaque—that was, in fact, see-through—so that you could see the information of the plants underneath, and so they would blend. The whole point of them being layered was to reference a dominant and a recessiveness in the information that you were looking at. In further series, I would alternate the plants in the frame so that they would flux back and forth between their recessive and dominant information. Then I started getting interested instead in this flux sensibility of the genetic modification that inspires my work, so I ended up deciding to do a resolved plant.
I did all this research on the environment that plants find themselves in: the geographic location, the way they propagate, do they seed, do they make spores, etc. I wanted to take all of that information and put it into a plant—one individual plant. Through genetic modification you can actually take really disparate conflicting attributes in plants and actually put them together, whether or not they’ll survive depending on what environment they find themselves in is up for grabs. I also wanted to draw from scientific historical knowledge for that piece. I have botanicals that are from the 1500s. I have things that I took pictures of that year, work that was from the 1700s, and there’s all this accepted scientific knowledge that I felt like came along with the different botanicals that I put into that piece.
How long did that process take you?
LL: That piece alone took me eight months—the research and the drawing of it.
From that piece, you were able to get the Hunting Art Prize in 2011?
LL: Yes, exactly. That piece has actually been a jumping off point for one of the pieces that you have in the room with Jesse. I’m now approaching the work as generational manifestations of the work, so I’m now taking very straightforward botanical depictions and starting to put them through the computer and stretch them and distort them with the idea that they’re further and further removed and less and less identifiable in the different iterations that they find themselves in.
I was going to ask about how your art evolves and what it sounds like is you have…
LL: It’s literal and visual evolution.
Is it based off of just everyday botanical life?
LL: It’s inspired by genetic modification in plants and then also all the research that I’ve done to try and create a completely impossible plant put together, but through genetic modification, it might actually be possible.
What made you want to explore genetic modification in art?
LL: I started with genetic testing in people. I was intrigued. I have a whole series that was about inherited family diseases and the fact that you can test to see your probability of getting it. I ended up taking interior household paints and I matched them to the damaged part of whatever organ was affected by a particular family disease and then ended up with the idea that you live with a disease, you live within a disease, you live within a body, and I match and put the outline of that organ into embroidered and painted pieces. Through being interested in genetic testing, I then started just finding an interest in genetics in general, and that led me to a 15-year odyssey of genetic modification in plants.
But why did you choose plants?
LL: I’m intrigued by the idea that there’s a sentience to plants that is acute and just as valid as ours. It’s just slower moving. Plants are such an important part of the structure of nature. What is desirable in a plant? Can you breed it completely out? I did a whole series on weeds that were gem-like and shiny and beautiful and the idea that weeds are not this desirable. Michael Pollan ended up doing a great book, The Botany of Desire, which I’ve read. The fact that a weed in any place that it’s not wanted is just a plant in a place that it’s growing naturally.
That’s true. When I think of genetic modification, especially in terms of the visual, in art or depicted in society, it’s generally distorted and disturbing—negative thoughts.
LL: And my work’s beautiful.
It’s very beautiful.
LL: It’s a big part in my artist’s statement. I talk about that beguiling aspect of that sort of Frankenstein mentality—trying to do something because it’s possible scientifically. But where are the repercussions? Where do they end? And they can be terrific solutions. They can insert Vitamin A into rice because maybe a particular culture has a deficiency in that—so it can be a saving grace, too. But in the end, where does it end up stopping? Once it’s released out into nature, nature has its own ideas of where it’s going to go, which the carbon paper pieces are based on those ideas… It’s called imitatia perfecto, being ironic about a perfect copy. If you look at it, you notice different outgrowths on the piece that wasn’t initially intended, but they’re very pretty.
They’re very, very pretty. When you’re doing the research for these pieces, I can tell you’re obviously doing the research about the plant, but what kind of research are you doing for the genetic modification?
LL: I’m basically pivoting on the fact that it keeps growing in the ability and the specificity of being able to change things. Initially, they would put flounder genes in tomato plants because tomato plants have a low threshold of temperature before they freeze. Flounders have a certain gene in them, so they slip those in. I guess in the end, all the primordial ooze comes from the same place, but how does it end up being read 500 years down the line? How does that gene pool look, or that specific gene? But now, they just had in the news—I think it was yesterday—that a groundbreaking being able to cut out through CRISPR, which is a new technology in genetic modification called the gene scalpel. They actually were able to go in and remove a heart disease from an embryo with the idea that the embryo would then correct itself.
That’s really impressive.
LL: An impressive and designer baby.
You’re right. It’s coming.
LL: You’ve got mono cultures, too that end up… We have a few apples and I’ve been obsessed with seed banks, but somehow it popped up its head again. I’m starting to read on that as well. There was one in Russia where the guy starved to death instead of eating their seeds. It would have saved their lives but they were so dedicated to keeping the bank and preventing the narrowing and homogenization of it, to have all those seeds still available. Apparently, they have to resprout them and then pull the seeds because there’s a limited timeframe that the seeds can last, so it’s a constant upkeep.
Wow, that is a lot to take in—and then take it and make it into the beautiful pieces of work that you do.
LL: Well, again, I want people to be kind of, “Oh, it’s pretty, but what’s happening underneath?” And now in the other, the cut paper pieces that you have in there, I’m trying to reference sort of a microscopic feel within it. And the Hunting Prize piece, I then did a second piece that had color in it, the Hunting Prize was sort of drained of its colorful sort of realistic depiction, more of a graphic one. And then I did a second generation that’s put in two layers and it had colors. Now I’m taking those pieces and putting them into a program on the computer that makes them into generalized color cells. And then I take those colored cells from the original piece and overlay them onto a completely different mutated plant. When the cells that are just little cell-looking things are laid onto the cut paper pieces, it reinstates plant attributes onto them, so a whole new plant is then made out of the original drawing and the cut paper pieces—so now all my generations are becoming mixed.
It sounds like not only do you have generations, but you have generations where you’re superimposing these cells into different formats.
LL: Yes, where completely different information comes out of it than it originally was.
One thing that Garrett brought up that I thought was really great is he mentioned that you had an alternative gallery down in Blue Star called the Cactus Bra Space. Here in the office, we have a very alternative program too, and we bring in artists to inspire and influence the designers in our office and hope to enrich their experience of art and how it can influence their architecture. When you were doing the gallery and you were bringing new artists in, how did that influence your process and your thought on art?
LL: I don’t know about it influencing me art. I’m sure there were ways that were not even obvious to me where it influenced me, but I will say this. I did a residency through the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum in Berlin and one of the things I was lucky enough to be there for was their project space festival that happened all the month of August when all these small alternative spaces had exhibits. It was funny to talk to the other artists in the residency, and they’re like, “No, that wasn’t very good.” I said, “But what I love about it is that these are artist-run spaces.” They’re the launching pad for so many amazing artists where they don’t have the opportunity in the institutions—that has never left me. It’s been 19 years and then I think in 2012, at that point, it had been three years and I did go to the institutions. I went to the museums, but I still love the idea of the grassroots kind of opportunities that they afford for different spaces. They’re not so huge that artists can’t really have fun and play with it because it’s on their own dime, but our space was 16×16 feet, give or take. People did amazing installations, but they also put on terrific shows as well as just put straight-up art on the walls. I’m sure that there have been artists that I’ve sort of nipped a few techniques and ideas from.
Without even knowing that’s what’s happening.
LL: Yeah. Oh, I’m sure I knew it at some point—just for ego’s sake I purged them from my mind.
I think that is amazing. Well, I know that because your gallery shut down in Blue Star, I would like to give you an opportunity to tell people where they can find your work, where they can contact you at.
LL: Just Google “Leigh Anne Lester” and the first thing that comes up is my website. It’s actually under the umbrella of Cactus Bra Space.
It’s a piece of it.
LL: Yes, exactly. So there’s that and then the wonderful Ruiz-Healy, who is the liaison for my being in your space and near the Olmos Circle.
It’s been great having you in here today to just chat and I’ve learned a lot. I just enjoyed the subject matter so this was a wonderful conversation.
LL: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
For more about Leigh Anne Lester, visit the Ruiz-Healy gallery website.