Wild & Whimsical

Anne Lemanski’s fanciful patterned creatures

By Liza Roberts

If you’ve seen any of Anne Lemanski’s cosmic, colorful animal sculptures in person, you know they look as if they might twitch, or pounce, or slink on by. The skins that cover them — psychedelic prints and unexpected patterns — somehow add to this unlikely effect. Perhaps her multicolored tiger, or her ocelot, or her amazing rabbit, has emerged through a looking-glass portal from some magical realm and wound up in our own?

You’re not far off.

Lemanski’s Spruce Pine studio is in fact an otherworldly laboratory of creation where she doesn’t just make an animal, she learns it inside out. She studies its physicality and psychology, figures out how its haunches tense when it sits back, how they loosen in a run, how its brow might scowl at distant prey. Then she replicates all of that with copper rods she bends, cuts and welds into a three-dimensional sculpture, an armature. In an upstairs made of shipping containers, another act of creation happens, guided not by realism but by intuition. Here, she will create a skin for that armature, make it out of digital photographs or prints or collage or all three, and print it on paper. She will draw and cut a pattern as if she were making a dress or a suit, and sew it all on, piece by piece, with artificial sinew. Her tools — wire cutters and an X-ACTO knife — are the same, simple ones she has used for 30 years. She has no assistants.

On a warm and wet spring weekend, Lemanski is learning mink. Her giant mastiff, Dill, sits nearby. Photographs of mink in every position and resolution surround her, filling a wall and every tab on her computer. She’s learning about what minks eat, how they’re bred for coats, about the recent killing of 17 million Covid-infected mink in Denmark. “Millions! I’m not exaggerating. I was horrified,” she says, shivering. The armatures for a few mink in different positions are underway; one is complete. She holds it in her hands. “Once the armature is done, that’s the most important part of capturing the animal,” she says. “I ripped this one apart like three times. And finally, one day, it just clicked.”

With the armature complete, Lemanski moves on to the mink’s skin, leaning into the collages that form a significant counterpart to her sculpture. Comprised of illustrated images from the pages of pre-1970s textbooks, comic books, picture books, and children’s encyclopedias, Lemanski uses her X-ACTO knife to combine, say, giant squid with convertible cars, pigeons with mermaids, skeletons with alphabet blocks, chewing gum with polar bears. There are butcher’s maps for cuts of meat and colored-dot tests for colorblindness, and constellations and cockatoos — a century’s worth of illustrations shaken and stirred into a cocktail of nature and man, science and myth, technology, geometry, and things that are cool. A series made during Covid, Metaphysical Mineral, explores the properties of a series of eight different minerals. Quartz includes a high diver in a ’50s-era swimsuit, a white stallion and a swarm of bees. Sulphur gets a winding snake, a stick of dynamite and a cigarette.

These individual component images are one of a kind and cannot be replicated; to do so would be to lose the unmistakable texture and character of the Ben-Day dots used in printing from the 1950s to the 1970s (made particularly recognizable by the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein). “I’ve tried [copying them], and it just doesn’t work,” she says. So when she uses these images in a collage, Lemanski tacks them down lightly with a little loop of tape so she can take them off and use them again. This technique also adds to the three-dimensional look of the collages once they’re printed.

She credits a residency at Charlotte’s McColl Center with launching this kind of work. Inspired by the possibilities of the center’s large-format digital printer, she made 12 small collages and printed them in huge dimensions. These prints ended up forming the basis of a solo exhibition at the center that also included sculpture, in this instance a “three-dimensional collage” that incorporated some of the printed collage animals themselves. A 4-inch image of an impala in one print, for instance, became a life-sized impala sculpture in the center of the room that she “skinned,” in a meta twist, in digital prints of the tiny image’s own fur. “That was a challenging piece to make,” she says.

So was the Tigris T-1, a freestanding, life-size sculpture of a tiger balancing on a ball, that was acquired by noted collector Fleur Bresler for donation to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., a career-catapulting moment Lemanski is still pinching herself about. Her work is also in the permanent collections of The Mint Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Asheville Art Museum and in many private collections. It’s even found its way into wallpaper as part of a fanciful line of sly, butterfly-and-bird-bedecked prints made in Schumacher’s Peg Norris collection, a collaboration between Charlotte gallerist Chandra Johnson and interior designer Barrie Benson.

What’s next is what excites Lemanski most. Lately, she’s been working on an animal that’s captured her imagination for a while: a horse — a life-sized Appaloosa. “Who doesn’t love a horse?” she asks, as she works out the intricacies. “The hooves and ankles of a horse are extremely complex; they’re bulbous, they’re angular, and that’s where all the business happens.” Also in the hopper: her first piece of public, outdoor art — another large animal — to be cast in aluminum. It could mark the beginning of a whole new oeuvre.

“I really am looking forward to the work I’m going to make in the future,” Lemanski says. “I think it’s going to be on a large scale, and I just want to keep pushing the work forward… It’s the unknown of the future that keeps me going.”  PS

This is an excerpt from Liza Roberts forthcoming book Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, to be published by UNC Press this fall.

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