Mira Lehr, champion of women artists and friend of Gaia, finds her eighth decade to be her most prolific
At 85, Mira Lehr is old enough to remember a time when the world wasn’t as equitable to artists of her gender. When the Miami native moved to New York in the 1950s to pursue an art history degree from Vassar, she encountered a notoriously macho contemporary art scene. For female artists like herself and Joan Mitchell, sometimes the route to survival meant speaking the men’s language.
“The women were very testy,” Lehr recalls. “Joan Mitchell had a potty mouth you wouldn’t believe. She’d go down to the senior bar, and I think somebody grabbed her breast, and she reached behind and squeezed the guy’s testicles so hard, he screamed. And nobody ever messed with her again.”
Lehr’s time in New York was short-lived. She would forge her legacy, both behind and in front of the canvas, in Miami Beach, returning in 1960 to a cultural scene she describes as “an absolute desert.” She promptly founded Continuum, one of the nation’s first co-ops for women artists, launching many a career and cultivating the region’s nascent art community. She eventually earned the sobriquet “The Godmother of Miami’s Art Scene.”
“I didn’t think I would have any influence like that,” she says, in the sitting room of her parents’ historic house on Miami Beach. “I just did what I did to create an environment that I could be happy in, and it turned out it helped the whole area. I never thought I’d be called the godmother. … It’s not how I think of myself, believe me.”
In addition to serving other artists, Lehr gradually developed her own artistic voice, one that is rooted in, but not shackled, to those ‘50s pioneers of abstraction, and that resonates with a subtext of ecological awareness. In 1969, she participated in influential futurist Buckminster Fuller’s “World Game,” in which she was among 26 thinkers tasked with envisioning a scenario in which the world’s resources were deployed for the mutual benefit of all.
“I always worked from nature,” she says. “But when I went to work for Bucky Fuller, I became aware of the scarcity syndrome, where people were worried about not having enough to go around. He talked about doing more with less. … I did recognize more problems that were happening, and I wanted to help solve those problems.”
Lehr’s collage work has reflected the worsening climate change since Fuller’s utopian project. Pieces like “What This Earth Does Not Remember” feature tectonically connected landmasses that resemble global maps of alternate timelines, vaguely familiar formations constructed from burned and dyed Japanese paper atop a painted canvas. The material itself is fragile, a perfect metaphor for an environment under carbon siege.
This work was among the highlights of“Planetary Visions,” an exhibition of Lehr’s this past winter at Rosenbaum Contemporary in Boca. It followed a run of recognition over the past three years that included a permanent, 183-piece installation at the Jewish Museum of Florida, and exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and the Mennello Museum in Orlando, which earned a rave from the New York Times. An enormous sculpture of twisty mangroves from the Mennello show, created from steel armature and blowtorched marine rope, sits next to her pool, blending in with the natural fauna.
Lehr has been prolific in terms of creating such epochal pieces. In her Miami Beach home, she moves around with a cane, and three assistants and her daughter help with some of the more laborious aspects. But, as she says, “I work all the time. It’s all I do.” When asked why the past few years have been so productive, she says: “I’m old. And the years are passing very quickly. I want to get it all in before I kick off.”
Despite all the attention she has received of late, Lehr still worries about being relevant.
“I don’t know where I fit in,” she says, in an art world taken by whimsy. “I’m trying to do fine art that has meaning throughout the ages, stuff that people aren’t so concerned about anymore. I feel like I’m a relic, but an important relic.”