Winter's Spring: An Ältere Garten by Leslie Iwai, displayed at the Miller Art Museum from October 24, 2020 - February 26, 2021, featured nearly 30 works by Iwai and explored the connection between elders and youth with vibrant colors and sculptural creations, which unfolded a joyful, metaphoric garden. While kindergarten recalls stories and images of burgeoning children, blossoming gardens and childhood adventures, the Ältere Garten contemplated the re-emergence of innocence and childhood wonder that comes in the later decades of life. The exhibition was supported with journals and paintings by Pat Zastrow, who heavily influenced the direction of the exhibit, and documents the growth and memories of her garden over a 50-year period. A large-scale marker-drawn cartoon and a hand-painted silk drapery created from selections of Zastrow’s journals were also included in the display.
This exhibition was made possible by Camilla Nielsen and The Cordon Family Foundation. Additional support was provided by Third Avenue Playhouse and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Born in Stuttgart, Germany to a military family in 1971, Leslie Iwai is known for her installation, sculpture and performance work that is both intimately interactive and ephemeral in nature. She draws from a material-rich palette, and is passionate about bringing connections found in her research and artistic process to the surface for others’ ruminations and inspiration.
Although born in Germany, her family eventually landed in the Midwest. Iwai began her studies in Mathematics and Chemistry at Wayne State College in Nebraska. With a natural inclination towards interdisciplinary work fostered by an in-depth college honors program, she went on to receive her Master of Architecture at Virginia Tech. While in graduate school, the sudden death of her father prompted her to complete her degree and move back to the Midwest. Upon her return, her vocation shifted, and she began cutting her artistic teeth in Omaha, Nebraska where her permanent outdoor sculpture installation, Sounding Stones, resides. In 2011, Leslie married and reestablished her studio practice in Wisconsin.
A three-foot vinyl giraffe titled Levi greeted visitors at the entrance to the garden where they were met with a sense of childhood wonderment. Grounding the exhibit in the center of the main gallery was a work titled Tulips for Clemens, which presents a bouquet of three 20-foot long tulips inspired by a man named Clemens; he is a former art student of Iwai’s who suffered from cognitive disabilities and improved his life through the act of drawing tulips.
“In working with Clemens over a 3-year period, I saw him take creative risks and come out of his shell. When he suddenly passed, our class took time to process the loss of our friend. That day, in early spring with snow on the ground, I brought a bouquet of tulips to class and we all drew tulips and remembered him. It seemed that his spring came in the winter of his life,” says Iwai.
The piece Hutch was comprised of 16 vibrant, handcrafted vinyl rabbit sculptures; a mix of minimalism and whimsy and reminiscent of the beloved plush toys of childhood, where rabbits are clustered, cuddling and playful, and emotive of the safety of home, the love of family and a sense of belonging.
Additional drawing and sculptural works supported the exhibition; Interfacings, a series of drawings, documents the experience of Iwai drawing her subjects on a sheet of transparent mylar, and then on then reverse side, her subjects drew her back. Through this exchange, Iwai bridged the gap between the disconnectedness of physical and emotional barriers, and the human desire to truly connect and interact on a deeply personal level.
A light box installation, Spring’s Thaw/Winter’s Growth, featured transparent and illuminated recreations of the dictionary Iwai uses to collect and press maple seeds, feathers, leaves, petals and other natural debris. Pressed between layers of glass and illuminated, these natural objects reveal the fragile memories and intimacy they hold within the bound pages.
Iwai’s Artistic Approach
Iwai writes, “There was, for me, a crystallized moment in architecture school when I created an installation for a visiting lecturer. I had threaded over 1,200 tiny flowers and suspended the strands from a skylight to form a rectangular column. A faculty that I greatly respected saw it and said to me, “You are an artist”. I was surprised and a bit confused. I went to architecture school to pursue the connectedness between my studied disciplines of math and science and a love for poetry, desiring to bring this sort of intermingled beauty into a structure-filled world. When this was said to me, it opened my eyes towards a new way of thinking about myself and my vocation. My graduate thesis, ‘Etudes in Making: Poems of Construction,’ was a culmination of my architectural studies and the quiet beginning of my entry through the backdoor of art-making.
While fully intending to take the more practical route of architecture and keep my artistic desires to the margins, my life and focus completely changed when my father died, leaving my mother, me and my four sisters in a state of deep grief. I moved back to my family’s home and found I could no longer stay at the surface of my life. I needed to address my longings for beauty, depth, challenge and rigor that a life devoted to art-making contains. I swiftly decided to go in this direction and have not looked back.
The interplay of my design, math and science background is something that I draw on throughout my work. I enjoy figuring out complex design processes and working towards finding an elegant solution. Sewn, welded or folded, I work with a broad material palette including steel, fabric, photography, concrete, paper or myriad other found bits and pieces of organic matter. I have gravitated towards installation and sculpture primarily because of the dimensional nature of the work and the underpinning poetry of structural framework that can hold fleeting moments of beauty.
My creative process is a series of connections, akin to finding a constellation that forms from seemingly independent points of light. Those points of connection could be a material, narrative, scientific discovery, meditation or conversation. I enjoy digging deep into etymological research, I find that there are roots to words that open up whole new realms of possibility and inspiration for me. Two important questions I ask when I am making something are "How is it?" and "What is it?” Through this, I am inevitably led to new connections and uncovered narratives. One of my favorite seminars in graduate school was Craft and Scholarship where I happened upon the threads between the woven, the engine and the feminine. Between the hardness and softness of these three, my work rests.”
To coincide with Winter’s Spring, the second floor Ruth Morton Mezzanine features botanical and aviary drawings and paintings from the permanent collection as an extension of Iwai’s garden.
“I saw an opportunity to activate works from our permanent collection and allow them to be part of Leslie’s story,” says Curator Helen del Guidice. “We have a strong presence of interesting botanical and wildlife works, which will enhance Leslie’s presentation.” This display features works by former Museum Director Bonnie Hartmann, Jonathan Wilde, Richard A. Mueller, among others.