‘Kaupo with Squall’ Original Oil Painting by Diana Lehr 29″H x 36.5″W framed $5500
Diana Lehr’s work is concerned with the forces of the natural world, and her reach is both large and profound. She looks far beyond our ordinary daily concerns to the great movements of storm systems and ocean waves, or towards the quiet complexity of plant life and tidal pools. The strong color and design of her large scaled paintings recall the best of Georgia O’Keefe’s work, but I find Diana’s work less stylized, more powerful.
Diana is both a painter and a film maker. You can see both her paintings and her videos at her website.
TD: Your work is focused on grand natural phenomena such as a storm moving across the land, a break in the clouds or large waves breaking on the shore. I imagine that you have a passion for being outdoors. How did your profound interest in the natural world begin?
DL: It seems that I have a natural affinity, perhaps from moving to rural PA when I was 6 years old. When I lived in Philadelphia during art school, I spent a lot of late afternoons going onto the rooftops of buildings to study the sky. I did a lot of pastels of the clouds and sky during that time. It was the only way I felt connected to nature while in the city. My interest in the natural world is something that has grown and evolved over the years. Spending about 6 months every year in Hawaii where nature is very dynamic certainly had an influence.
TD: You attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where you were awarded the Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Other winners of this prize tend to travel to Europe, but you chose to visit Hawaii. Why did you choose Hawaii?
DL: When I won the Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship, I was longing to see a landscape different from what was familiar to me. I was drawn to the idea of exploring Hawaii and got a job as a bartender in my last year in art school to save money so that I could make the trip whether I won a traveling scholarship or not. In the end, that extra money enabled me to stay long enough to get a job in Hawaii and I stayed there for a couple years before moving to NYC for a year.
TD: You now spend your summers in Pennsylvania and your winters in Maui, the second largest island in Hawaii. Why do you divide your time between these two states? Can Pennsylvania inspire you as well as Hawaii?
DL: After that year in NYC, I began my schedule of 6 months in Hawaii and 6 months on the east coast every year. For about a decade I went between Maui and NYC, then I bought a farm in rural PA where I stay from May to November every year.I guess you could say my schedule between Maui and rural PA evolved naturally, as described above. The elements are so dynamic in Hawaii I am always finding new facets that absorb me. These days my interest is less about landscape and more about movement, form and patterns in natural phenomena, a lot of it involving water; sea foam, light ripples, tidepool dynamics, etc.
Pennsylvania inspires me as well, less for paintings and more with regards to video. Some of the things I film in PA are spectacular in movement, but would not translate well in a painting, fireflies for instance. A frozen image of fireflies cannot translate the visual experience of seeing their movement in space and time.
TD: How do you get your visual ideas? Do you base your work on specific observation, or does it come from your imagination?
DL: Both, I have no firm rules. I spend an enormous amount of time in nature observing. This is one of my greatest pleasures. I don’t observe with the goal of making a painting, rather I spend time observing phenomena that fascinates me, often filming it, and it may eventually lead to a series of paintings or a video sequence. Some subjects involving movement move more rapidly than the eye can see and video has been invaluable as a tool in these situations. I also work from my imagination and memory. The intention and focus of each particular painting will often determine the method I turn to.
TD: Many of your paintings have “pastel watercolor” listed as the medium. Do you begin with watercolor or pastel?
DL: I used to begin by toning watercolor paper a color as a ground for the pastel. That eventually led to working with watercolor more seriously. Now I usually create a watercolor and work pastel into it, so the watercolor functions as an underpainting. Sometimes I’ll leave the watercolor as it is and not add pastel, but usually I like the combination of densities, the opacity of the pastel contrasted with the transparency and luminosity of the watercolor as well as nuances in texture the pastel adds. I often spend a lengthy amount of time on the watercolors, layer by layer. I enjoy the process of building up the layers to gain subtleties.
Also, pastel is very dirty, it gets in your hair, your skin, your clothes and your lungs. I have high levels of cadmium from making my own pastel sticks from cadmium pigments years ago. I still work with pastel, but I like to minimize my usage as much as possible. It also makes the pieces less likely to dust, which happens a lot if the pastel is very thick, even after being sprayed with fixative. So relying more on watercolor and working pastel into it reduces the amount of pastel used, therefore the dusting isn’t as bad and the health hazards are reduced.
TD: So much of your work is concerned with the never-ending movement of clouds, waves, even of plants that seem to be perpetually shifting towards the light. It seems to make perfect sense that you would also create videos that show the actual movement, or the “endless ebb and flow” (your words) of the natural world. What interests you more right now, making paintings or videos?
DL: In many ways the video has a stronger pull on me right now. This in part has to do with my fascination with the movement itself of the subjects. Filming moving subjects has definitely had an impact on my painting. I see things now that I would never have noticed before when deciding on a subject to paint. It was a natural evolution. I also believe there is more opportunity for innovation with the moving image and technology and that is exciting.
TD: Your work has me thinking of something Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Do you think there is a spiritual message in your work, and if so, is it that we are small while the universe is large and mysterious?
DL: I can certainly relate to Van Gogh’s beautiful poetic statement. I wouldn’t say I have the intention of imparting a spiritual message, but I consider what I do to be a spiritual path or practice. In terms of the universe and our insignificant size in comparison, I look at it more that infinity extends in both directions: the microcosm of particles mirroring the macrocosm of the universe. From our human perspective, we are somewhere in the middle between the two, and I imagine it’s all relative, therefore all are equally significant, but it can certainly be helpful to remember the vastness of the universe, or infinity of particles to break out of the limitations of normal awareness.
TD: What do you find is the best thing about being an artist, and the worst?
DL: The best part is the individual journey and freedom to indulge, explore and express one’s own interests. That is real freedom. The worst part might be the isolation that can result from working alone all the time. An enormous amount of solitude is required, which I enjoy, but I consider it to be a double edged sword because it can lead to isolation. The “making a living” aspect is challenging, whether is be PR, selling one’s art, or working a job, all have their downsides. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living from my paintings for a long time, since about 5 years after graduating from the Academy. I have friends who are successful artists who have chosen to teach and that seems to work well for them and their art has not suffered for it. I sometimes wonder if that might be a wise choice.
TD: Can you name some artists of the past and present that you admire?
DL: From the past, Turner would be one of my favorite painters. Interestingly from the present, none are painters. James Turrell would be at the top of my list; other favorites include Fujiko Nakaya, Doug Aitken, Ollafur Elliason, Bill Viola and Edward Burtynsky. All work with nature in different ways that I relate to. Turrell’s work with light and space really moves me”.
The dimensions listed under the additional information tag are the approximate size and weight when packed for transport.
‘Kaupo with Squall’ Original Oil Painting by Diana Lehr 29″H x 36.5″W framed $5500