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ORA LERMAN (1938–1998)

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Best known for her colorful narrative paintings inspired by folk tales and Aesop’s Fables, Ora Lerman often drew on her personal collection of handmade toys and dolls acquired during her travels. They appear in her work as protagonists, delivering life’s most essential lessons.

Born in Campbellsville, Kentucky, of Russian Jewish parents, she earned a BA at Antioch College and an MFA at Pratt Institute. From 1971 to 1998, she was professor of art at Suffolk Community College.

During those years, she maintained active studios in New York City and Laceyville, Pennsylvania, where she had a country home. After her death in 1998, her Laceyville property became part of the Ora Lerman Charitable Trust, and since 2000 the trust has offered summer residencies through the Soaring Gardens Artists Retreat.

A dedicated activist for women in the arts, she was one of the founders of the New York chapter of the Women’s Caucus for Art and contributed a number of articles about women artists to ARTS magazine. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for study in Japan (1963—1965) and later studied in India under an International Exchange of Scholars (1989). Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Regional Fellowship (1992), Reader’s Digest Artists-in-Residence in Giverny, France (1988), Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship (1988), and Andrew Mellon Fellowship (1984).

Her impressive sixty-foot mural, Inside the Ark (19931995), commissioned by New York City’s Percent for Art program, is permanently installed in Public School 176 in Manhattan.


A traveling exhibition, featuring Lerman’s oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, Cibachromes, sculptures, and a selection of folk art from her collection.

Ora Lerman’s bold, imaginative, and thought-provoking oeuvre is energized by her dynamic use of color, keen draftsmanship, and inventive storytelling. Ora Lerman: Telling Tales is a mini-retrospective of her paintings, watercolors, drawings, sculptures, and Cibachromes that spans the course of her thirty-year career, emphasizing seminal periods and recurring themes. 

© Where Are We Going/Where Have We Been? 1991, hand-ground oil on canvas, 27 x 54 inches

The exhibition reveals her unique ability to combine personal history with universal fables, creating narratives that are original yet familiar as they cross generations and geographic boundaries. Lerman takes inspiration from a variety of sources as diverse as Aesop’s fables to the familiar fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, and from the creationist story of Eve in the Garden of Eden to the Indian goddess Yakshi, a symbol of fertility in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain faiths.

Lerman’s mythical narratives are merged with autobiographical elements. Born to Jewish parents from Eastern Europe, Lerman, a first-generation American, drew creative inspiration from her childhood and family history. In addition, her world travels as an adult, which included multiple trips to Mexico, India, and Europe, became an important source of inspiration and imagery in her paintings, works on paper, and sculptures. During these trips, Lerman collected handmade crafts, such as brightly painted, stylized wood animals and sculpted folk art figurines. These objects appear in her work as recurring characters, acting out her reconceived stories.


© Where Are We Going/Where Have We Been? 1991, hand-ground oil on canvas, 27 x 54 inches

Ora Lerman: Telling Tales is a remarkably timely exhibition given recent cultural and political developments. In the art world, women artists, living and deceased and from diverse backgrounds, including Grace Hartigan, Sheila Hicks, Carmen Herrera, Ruth Asawa, and Sonia Gechtoff, to name a few, can now be found on the rosters of commercial galleries throughout the country. Similarly, female artists, previously relegated to the sidelines, are being rediscovered and celebrated by museums and galleries alike, including the Brooklyn Museum’s yearlong programming A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism, the traveling exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism, and Hauser & Wirth’s inaugural show in Los Angeles, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 19472016. 


In the political sphere, Lerman, who was a feminist and advocate for women’s rights, places Eve and Lakshmi center stage in paintings that promote diversity and enculturation and resonate with questions that currently surround immigration. In her paintings, with titles like Who Are We and Where Are We Going, she is dogged by questions about society’s future, so apt today as America faces an identity crisis. In fact, Lerman’s life’s work was to reconcile her past and present, blend fact and fiction, and create her own narratives to build the world she desired. Her artistic journey was, in her own words, “integrating opposites”—something that remains profoundly important today—and is the legacy she has left us.

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I have lived in both Eastern and Western, rural and urban settings; and I draw from these sources equally. I grew up in rural Kentucky of Russian parents. My journey has been about integrating opposites. The two years on a Japanese Fulbright at age twenty-five were very formative. I saw the global resources, both visual and conceptual, that were available to an open mind. In Japan, I studied the ink traditions of calligraphy and sumi-ye, which at first glance seemed an extension of my Abstract Expressionist background. I realize in retrospect that the encounter with the larger scope of Japanese art affected my thinking more deeply than just the understanding of style.

The Japanese culture teaches its audience to seek a subtext in its artwork, as the viewer translates the visual beauty into a narrative and symbolic reading. My interest in issues of “meaning” subverted my early formalist training. I began to be challenged by artwork that revealed itself in layers of narrative symbolism, and I aspired to consciously make such work my own.


When I returned to New York in the mid-1960s, I looked at Magritte again. This led me to work in a realistic mode, in order to paint about ideas and to communicate on two levels at once. Thus, I began to accrue the necessary skills and the vocabulary. To build a “world” is a slow, additive process, but I found that one must go backwards to move forward. In 1972, I felt iconoclastic when I integrated sentences into the borders of “high art” painting, made with traditional techniques: homemade Old Masters’ medium and hand-ground pigments. I believe I was the first to use whole sentences as part of illusionistic painting. Since I crossed that line, words have run parallel to images in my paintings. I realize that the early experience of decoding the poems in Japanese paintings stayed with me. In that context, words accompany images “associatively,” not “interpretively” [sic].


© Old Things Bloom in New Hands, 1973, hand-ground oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches

To develop a repertory of images, I have needed to visit, work, and explore symbols in key places on the globe. I have both borrowed and invented in order to create an iconography. My method is to paint from figures that I collect. In the process, I invent architectural structures in Fome-Cor to create a context. The chosen and constructed objects often look fantastic. By building them, their illogic takes on a tangibility. Afterwards, I render them realistically so as to substantiate their existence.

In my 1982 travels to Mexico, I began to work with its animal carvings. It became clear to me then that the latent content in folk imagery could create the potential for an ambiguous reading and provide the latitude for me to “play” with the characters. In developing an “alternative reading” of the narrative, I could create a sub-level that would serve to undermine the obvious accessibility of the work’s “realism.” As it happens, this subversion of the first level by the second one acts to place this traditionally made, illusionistic painting in a twentieth-century context, wherein disruption is a major component of mainstream art.

In the early 1980s I began to write for Arts Magazine. This helped me to get a distance from my work, so that while I was gathering wood to build the new foundation for my own thematic house, I could enlarge my scope by talking about “completed themes.” In 1983, I visited the Soviet Union to trace my roots and bear witness to the destruction of my family’s village. This journey gave rise to an autobiographical series, wherein I began to use my growing collection of Mexican and Russian artifacts to create a foundation for narrative. The venue shifted and widened when, in 1988, I received a Reader’s Digest six-month grant to Monet’s garden in Giverny. As I am interested in global, mythic connections, I found this to be a good context to develop images of Eden; after all, Monet was a product of the last century’s new urban exodus in search of the bucolic life.


My Fome-Core sculptures for my set-ups made during this residency led me to make a site-specific installation of oversized wisteria, set amongst the real wisteria on Monet’s bridge. I appropriated the “larger-than-life” iconic Japanese bridge as an Eden symbol to use in my paintings. I also developed symbols of an exiled Eve and the land of exile, expressed as a white place without color.

Afterwards, while on an Indo-American fellowship in 1989, I searched for Eve’s counterpart in India. I spent a three-month period painting in southern, rural India. In this landscape of coconut trees, I fashioned sculptures of this symbolically bountiful tree to use in the Eden paintings. I appropriated “Yakshi,” an Indian Tree Goddess figure. Actually, she is another face of Eve in that she bears a tree symbolism.

In my recent body of work since 1989, I have brought the Tree Goddess to New York, which, like the land of exile, is without color. The streets, buildings, and cars are all white. She comes to New York to act as a “greening” influence, a life-force in this colorless land. Similarly, I reenter New York from my travels with the hope of restoring color to its rightful place in Contemporary Art’s pantheon of values, by making my own art statement.

I have [had] a chance to “spread the word” with my new involvement in Public Art. In 1990, I received a large commission through New York Percent for Art, to make a series of murals and bas-reliefs for the library of a new public school near the Cloisters. In the spirit of the Cloisters’ Romanesque bestiary figures, I…incorporate my own animals in combination with the Tree Goddess in bas-reliefs around the library doors and, in turn, use these doorways in the murals. In other 1991 competitions, my mural proposals came in [among] the top six when I was a “final finalist” for the Philadelphia International Airport [commission]. I was a finalist as well for a school in Maine and a housing project in Maryland. In the Philadelphia and New York paintings, the Tree Goddess becomes a pivotal figure.

The Tree Goddess may be the first female to be cast in the trickster’s role. She dares to offer free color to New York. As the painting’s trickster-protagonist, she is the odd element in the narrative, who makes the norm seem abnormal, just as she makes white seem colorless. The Tree Goddess character, as a front for the artist, is playful about serious matters. She as a greening influence that I have created and “brought” to New York perhaps ultimately acts as the synthesizer of my rural-urban, East-West dual history.

— Ora Lerman 1990

© The Tree Goddess Offers Free Color to New York,

1991 hand-ground oil on canvas, 48 x 64 inches

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A 110-page full-color catalog from the 2001–2002 exhibition of the same name.

I Gave You My Song is available for sale $25. + shipping.
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