Among the lush gardens at Mira Lehr’s Miami Beach home and studio, mastering the art of composed explosions has become a daily practice. “My neighbors think I’m a little crazy when they see clouds of smoke rising,” jokes the 85-year-old artist, who uses live fuses, gunpowder and other nontraditional materials to reimagine Miami’s subtropical wilds in her abstract works.
A leading voice among Miami’s art scene for decades with representation at Rosenbaum Contemporary, Lehr has found renewed urgency in creating pieces that explore the region’s strained habitats, such as coral reefs and mangroves. “I don’t like to do still life,” she explains about her approach to nature. “I’m not influenced by static things but by what’s alive and existing in the world.”
The artist invokes the color and form of these ecosystems in her collage paintings, where fire is a crucial tool. Working directly on the canvas or wooden panels washed in gauzy inks and silver emulsions, she ignites gunpowder to create her signature undulating lines. Lehr also uses a torch to singe sheets of hand-dyed Japanese paper, crumpled and ironed out repeatedly to add texture. This process forms complex webs of luminous color, which she portrays like reefs across the surface. To preserve the fire markings, the artist occasionally encases these slips of scorched paper in resin. “Fire can be the other side of creation, but there’s beauty in it,” she says. “It’s wild and gorgeous. There’s no other way I can get those marks.”
Other organic forms come alive in Lehr’s sculptures, like her immersive 2018 installation “Mira Lehr: Tracing the Red Thread,” shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Mirroring underwater life teeming among mangroves, visitors wandered through towering roots of twisted steel and rope, surrounded by hanging cages with burned paper encased inside.
The habitat that inspired those structures is the beneficial subject of Lehr’s latest project: building sculptural seahorse sanctuaries in Miami’s waters, an initiative that marks a full circle of creativity for Lehr and her lifelong dedication to the environment. “My work is about the dynamics of how nature works, rather than just replicating images from nature,” she says. “We’re all a part of nature, and we should treat it that way.”