Eco-feminist artist Mira Lehr is famous for using nontraditional media and exploding fuses to create fire lines across her paintings. Her nature-based work encompasses painting, sculpture, and video, with Lehr’s solo and group exhibitions numbering more than 300. Now in her sixth decade of artmaking, she is creating more new works than at any other period of her career.
Lehr is also known for founding one of the country’s first artist collectives for women. Called Continuum, it shone a light on Miami Beach’s fledgling art scene well before Art Basel would impact the area’s cultural landscape. A 1956 graduate of Vassar College, Lehr had studied under the mentorship of renowned feminist art historian Linda Nochlin.
Take Matters Into Our Own Hands
From 1956 to 1960, Lehr had her art studio at Carnegie Hall in New York City. During this time, she met some of America’s most prominent masters, including Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler. While raising a young family, she studied with James Brooks, Ludwig Sander, Robert Motherwell, and within the Hans Hofmann circle.
Lehr was a trailblazer in the male-dominated art scene. After moving to Miami in 1961, it was shocking for her to see how women artists were treated.
“So we decided to take matters into our own hands and banded together our group of women artists to form Continuum as a working co-op to showcase women artists when no one else would, and it thrived for more than 30 years,” she shared. “We learned on our own how to create opportunities for ourselves, to display our work via DIY exhibitions throughout the 1960s, the 1970s, and 1980s, an era in the art world that would be difficult for today’s young artists to imagine.”
Lehr convinced many famous masters from New York to visit Miami Beach. They led workshops for her league of women artists and helped foster the evolution of art in Miami.
The Mistress of Light
Using imagery from the natural world, Lehr creates layered abstract compositions with unconventional materials. 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer once referred to her as “the mistress of light.”
Lehr’s processes include nontraditional media such as resin, gunpowder, fire, Japanese paper, dyes, and welded steel. She ignites and explodes fuses, which burn holes and leave imprints on her layered paintings. Lehr describes her use of explosives as tying into the theme of creation versus destruction. It is integral to the cycle of nature. To emphasize the peril of climate change that we are now experiencing, Lehr experiments with the use of fire.
“This natural element of fire, often controlled and abused by man, is a major medium in my work, and my interest in the environment has become a driving force,” Lehr explained. “Drawing with fuses and loose gunpowder on top of subtle hand drawing, I set the entire work ablaze, embracing the risk that such a gesture could destroy my entire painting. Afterward, only a trace of the flame’s path remains, bringing an exciting energy to the work and the suggestion of destruction.”
Lehr has inspired new generations of young artists throughout her life by serving as a mentor and collaborator. In 2021, nationally acclaimed printmaking studio Flying Horse Editions chose Lehr as a leading artist for their Visiting Artist Residency program. She has also taught master classes with the National Young Arts Foundation.
“Mira Lehr is a force of nature to be reckoned with. She is a fearless explorer,” said Theo Lotz, the Director of Flying Horse Editions. “Her artistic energy and spirit are boundless. Lehr’s body of work spans all media, not bound by one process. We knew that her bold approach to artmaking would lead to a great collaboration. Lehr thrives in our studio, which relishes the unexpected.”
Going to do Something so Great
The lush flora of her Florida home profoundly influences her aesthetic vocabulary. In 2019, the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU hosted the exhibit Mira Lehr: A Walk in the Garden. It featured ten monumental new paintings and 180 aerial sculptures that descend from the ceiling of the Museum’s main sanctuary.
For Lehr, the exhibit was a full-circle experience. In the 1940s, she grew up as a Jewish child in Miami Beach. One vivid memory from that time is a sign she passed on her way to school, saying, “No Jews, No Dogs.”
“My family lived in the northern part of Miami Beach, where not many Jewish families lived then,” Lehr recalled. “I remember seeing that terrible sign every day on a building in a secluded neighborhood street and thinking: when I grow up, I’m going to do something so great that will make the people who created this sign change their minds. It makes me realize that although signs like that are not allowed anymore, there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism that has always existed in the world. I hope that this changes as people become more evolved.”
The seven kinds of plants mentioned in the Torah inspired one series of sculptures by Lehr for the exhibition. She describes it as a holy garden that transports visitors to a holy place.
The Challenges that Face Us
In describing Lehr, art historian Eleanor Heartney shared, “It takes a brave person these days to hold onto hope for a better future ‒ yet Lehr is not, however, a starry-eyed romantic. She is well aware of the challenges that face us, and she has the advantage of a long perspective. In the over sixty years that she has been active as an artist, Lehr has lived through any number of social upheavals.”
Major institutions across the U.S. have Lehr’s work in their collections. Skira Editore has released a new 400-page international volume celebrating her work. In March, the Kimpton EPIC Hotel Miami hosted an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of Lehr’s founding Continuum.
“I feel the urgency of both our global climate problems and our continuing need for progress for women in the arts,” Lehr said. “It is a privilege to be on the Earth, and I believe we are meant to be a success on the planet. If we can expand our thinking to cross borders and transcend places, our united vision for the planet can raise our awareness. It is this sense of hope and purpose that calls me to action through my art.”
Mira Lehr passed away on on Jan. 24, 2023 in Miami Beach.
Written by Erin Prather Stafford
Images provided by News Travels Fast