By Kareena Gardner

Anne Lemanski makes vibrant and unique sculptures. As an avid bird-watcher, she chooses birds as her subject most of the time. Most of her sculptures are life-size animals; recently she made a life-size deer. But unlike sculptures by Michelangelo or Rodin, Lemanski does not carve her sculptures from marble or wood. They’re made of colorful paper.

Lemanski lives in Spruce Pine, N.C., and two of her pieces are part of the permanent collection of the Asheville Art Museum. She graduated college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1992, but could not afford to make her art full time until 2004, when she moved to Western North Carolina to do a residency at the Penland School of Crafts.

“After college, I would work 40 hours in four days  and I would have Thursdays off to go work in my studio” Lemanski said. “I was only making two or three pieces a year, but when I finished a piece, I would take it into the frame shop, because all of our clients were art collectors, and I just wanted some exposure. Inevitably, everything would sell, within just like a month of it being in the frame shop. So I thought if I just had a chance to do this full time, I think I could do it.”

Lemanski’s method of sculpture, sewing paper onto copper armatures, is unique. She came up with the idea at a summer art camp at the Ox-Bow School of Arts on Lake Michigan.

“I took a copper class and he was encouraging me to work with rawhide, somehow” Lemanski said regarding artist Ed Gray. “Rawhide, you have to work with it wet, and stretch it. I made an armature of an anatomical heart, …  and then very crudely wetted the rawhide and stitched it on. I didn’t even pre-cut it. I just kind of stretched it, stitched it and cut it as I went along, and that was it. It was like a Eureka moment. I had been collecting all this vintage paper material for a long time, and I was trying to figure out how to incorporate it into my sculpture, and it was like, ‘well, I can sew anything over a frame.’”

Pamela Myers, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum, met Lemanski during her time at Penland.

“I was interested in the works Lemanski was doing while she was a resident, and then continued to follow her development as she settled into her studio here in Western North Carolina,” Myers said. “When the opportunity came up, through a very generous donor, to acquire a piece, I went up to Anne’s studio and spent the day with her looking at what she was working on and what she was thinking about and what other pieces might have been available at the time in her galleries. I thought that (DEREGULATOR) in particular, at that time, would be exciting and engaging for our audiences here.”

DEREGULATOR is a life-size sculpture of an eagle and two pigeons. The eagle’s feathers are made of novelty money — billion dollar bills — and the pigeons wear name patches like those that appear on blue-collar mechanics’ uniforms. The eagle is crushing one of the pigeons, whose nametag reads ‘Joe’, under its talon.

“I specifically made DEREGULATOR after the big recession and the big financial crash that happened in 2008, and that piece was the result of the aftermath of the banks closing and all the corruption on Wall Street,” Lemanski said. “This piece was really just about the eagle, being the national symbol … covered with the billion dollar bills to represent everything that was happening in the crash, and then also at that time there was all this talk about ‘the average Joe’ in the media. The pigeon is looked on as, you know, a pest, bird, rat of the sky, you know, so I chose the pigeons to be the little guy. That came from a very specific time, a time that will go down in history that we have lived through.”

Myers said that she appreciated how specific and timely DEREGULATOR was at the time that the museum acquired it, but she also knew that it would be a piece that could stand the test of time. Its message about the power dynamics between those with money and the common man can be applied to many events throughout history, and will continue to be a conversation in the future. “That’s the wonderful thing about being in a museum, is that everybody comes to work with their own life experience and visual acuity and values and interprets it for themselves,” Myers said. “I think that’s an important thing that museums do in presenting original works of art to their visitors — to allow that exploration.”

In Oct. 2016, The Asheville Art Museum held an exhibition called Creating Change: Political Art from the Permanent Collection. Myers said that the show was the perfect place to display Lemanski’s DEREGULATOR, although the piece has been shown at other exhibits that did not have a socio-political curatorial construct, because it is a strong piece of Appalachian craft that can stand on its own. The works for Creating Change were selected by Kenneth Betsalel, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Carolyn Grosch, associate curator for the Asheville Art Museum.

“There are different ways of thinking about the word political, but the way that we were thinking about it for the show was that the works …  were works that really aimed to ignite dialogue and spark conversations,” Grosch said. “They were works that oftentimes acknowledged differing perspectives. One of the advantages of DEREGULATOR is that it is a really good discussion piece. … One of the most important things for me with museum objects is that they have powerful stories attached to them, and they are conversation pieces — that there’s something about them that visitors can approach, and sort of relate to, and oftentimes together as a group, express different viewpoints and really engage with an object.”

Grosch said that art does have the power to effect change, either by provoking conversation, raising awareness for an issue, evoking an emotion reaction or expressing a controversial opinion. Art that does that makes museum visitors reflect and reexamine their own views, but it also has the power to spark dialogue and make change.

“Sometimes we think about art as something that is sort of passive,” Grosch said. “It’s on the wall, and maybe we have a reaction to it, but sometimes it’s often thought of as reflecting a moment in history, or it’s something that’s appreciated for its beauty and formal qualities, but it can also make a very deep impact on someone and change the way that they think.”

Lemanski said that she is not sure if her art has the power to change a person’s mind, but at least it can help them see the world from a different perspective. “The whole recession was out of control, and it was really scary, so that piece was just a way for me to put [my opinion] out there and talk about it. That’s how I put my politics out there is through my work, occasionally.”

Although DEREGULATOR is a very political piece, Lemanski’s work is not always political. She draws inspiration from nature, and experiments with color and pattern to make something that is visually interesting. Recently, she has started experimenting more with collage. “I’m getting away from politics a little bit now, mostly just because I feel inundated with negativity and I feel inundated with news constantly, and I would sort of like to escape it a little bit with my work,” Lemanski said.

Recently, Lemanski delves deeper into collage as a way to experiment with color and pattern. She has collected vintage paper for years, and has books and drawers full of illustrations, paper dolls, cards, pastry bags — anything with interesting graphics or colors.

Lemanski makes her collages by cutting out the images by hand and taping them together, but then she scans the collage at a high resolution into Photoshop to refine the image digitally and blow it up to a bigger size. Though she appreciates technology and uses it in her work, she said that she still sees a lot of value in handmade craft.

“Even if there’s not a political message or an environmental message, I think that there’s a certain integrity to the way that I make my work, that I craft it, that has its own message,” Lemanski said. “In this world of technology that we live in now, with everybody with a screen in their faces all the time, there’s something to be said for that the fact that I am creating this thing from nothing with my hands and my head. That alone says something.”

According to museum staff, DEREGULATOR will likely be on display at the Asheville Art Museum after their reopening in 2018.