Within the realm of contemporary art, context often gets obscured, abstracted or lost entirely — and sometimes it was never there to begin with. One could say the opposite’s true of the work of local artist Leigh Anne Lester, whose meticulously rendered drawings and sculptural installations (often involving hand-cut drafting film and vinyl) instantly evoke something oddly scientific and continue to reveal layers of meaning upon closer inspection.
Born in Shreveport, Lester studied graphic design at Louisiana State University and relocated to San Antonio when her husband got transferred here for work. After earning a BFA in painting from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1993, Lester found her path into the local art scene via Blue Star. While attending an art opening in the complex, she ran into Hank Lee and has been working at his San Angel Folk Art Gallery at Blue Star ever since. When an opportunity arose to take over a studio in the complex, Lester jumped at the chance and later combined her space with that of her neighbor (fellow artist and UTSA alum Jayne Lawrence) to form one of San Antonio’s premier artist-run galleries. Named after an unusual sculpture Lester made, the duo’s Cactus Bra Space showcased work by a veritable who’s who of the Alamo City art scene during its 19-year run (Chuck Ramirez, Cathy Cunningham Little, Karen Mahaffy, Katie Pell, Chris Sauter, Hills Snyder, Gary Sweeney — the list goes on and on). According to Lester, “Artists did the bulk of the work to give the place a name.”
In the midst of those Cactus Bra days, Lester began fusing elements of botany into her work, first seen in a century plant she crafted from clear plastic vinyl and potted in a vessel filled with river rocks. Sparked in part by her mother’s death, Lester started researching illness and creating work presenting diseases as “family heirlooms.” Her embroidered piece Family Portrait: Heart Disease: August 1962 is surrounded by an ornate frame outfitted with a brass plaque, and a text-based extension of that exploration saw her matching diseases and damaged organs to paint colors (Diabetes is the Color of “Aztec Gold,” Alcoholism is the Color of “Easter Egg,” Coronary Heart Disease is the Color of “Ripe Tangelo”).
Eventually Lester’s research led her to the study of historical botanical illustrations. Referencing actual plants, Lester began creating her own botanical hybrids by layering graphite drawings rendered on translucent drafting film. This fusionist approach eventually gave way to a Frankenstein-like process of marrying disparate elements of various plants in drawings that are simultaneously familiar and alien. Possibly Lester’s best known piece, the drawing Mutant Spectre won the coveted Hunting Prize (which rings in at $50,000) in 2011 and has since emerged as a “genesis” for an ever-growing body of work that fascinates while posing questions related to genetic modification.
Evolving alongside these bizarre hybrids is Lester’s artistic process itself, which employs computer technology, but only as a means of stretching, exaggerating and reconfiguring drawings that are then redrawn based on digital renderings. In that sense, her digital plans are as much sketches as the preliminary drawings she makes before going all in on drafting film. Fully realized projects have also functioned as sketches for two of Lester’s largest works — a piece she showed at the Southwest School of Art (in the exhibition “Beautiful Freaks/Nature’s Bastards”) informed her Window Works exhibition “Cultivated Divergence” at Artpace, and another featured in the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s show “Flatland” developed into A Variety of Forms Recovering from Transubstantiated Clarity, a large-scale installation on view in the McNay’s lobby through July 30. In the greater scheme of things, Lester says “All of the works are related to one another.”
Unsurprisingly, she’s often quizzed about her perspective on GMOs. And while she’s quick to point out we can’t predict their long-term effects, she’s not necessarily against the concept. During a recent chat at San Angel, Lester mused on her mashups of botanical splices, likening them to “tribes” or motley members of a visual vocabulary she’s concocted; explained that an element in her McNay piece is based on Darwin’s dot-to-dot tracings of plant movement; and marveled at advances like CRISPR, a “genetic scalpel” that allows molecular biologists to edit genes. Even the confetti-like configurations on some of her drawings reference molecular data based on plant cells. Reflecting on themes in her own work as well as the great unknown of our future, she summed it up with one reminder: “You can’t contain nature.”