A Well-Carved Light in the Dark

Ceramic artist’s lanterns are a popular way to see better

Ceramic artist Leonora Lev takes a painterly approach to a three-dimensional medium.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Leonora Lev remembers the mud of her family’s farm outside of Bogotá, Colombia. She made tiny pots from it, and let them dry under the hot equatorial sun. “Clay,” the local potter says, “is an old friend.” Today, some 50 years and several life changes later, Lev has renewed her friendship with clay in the form of distinctively shaped and carved lanterns and other functional pieces decorated with inlaid colored shapes. 

“Leonora is full of joy with her current work,” notes Sarah Wells Rolland, the founder and director of Asheville’s Village Potters Clay Center and one of Lev’s mentors. “She’s accomplished so much in just a few years, designing her own forms and developing her own glazes for her work.”

Photo by Karin Strickland

Lev had already had a successful career in Los Angeles as an art restorer specializing in ceramics before she and her husband moved to Asheville three years ago, when wildfires not far outside Los Angeles became worrisome. Before the move east, she’d established her own restoration business working for West Coast antique stores, design firms, and private collectors, building on skills she’d acquired while studying at Buenos Aires’ Condorhuasi Ceramics Institute. “I learned about restoring pre-Columbian pottery,” she says of her time at the Institute, “and was first introduced there to glazes and kilns.”

But it was oil painting that was her first artistic outlet after arriving in Asheville, an interest inspired by her mother’s own works in the medium. “My mother was very creative — sewing [and] knitting as well as oil painting,” Lev says. “She was still cleaning her brushes two months before she passed away, at 92 years old.” Lev began taking lessons at a River Arts District studio that happened to be above Village Potters, reawakening her childhood connection to pottery and becoming, as she describes it, a “magnet.”

Photo by Karin Strickland

“When I am working with clay,” Lev explains, “I am out of the flat, two-dimensional surface [of oil painting] and in the freedom of three dimensions.” Still, Lev’s pieces are known for showing the same care in color selection that a painter would take. An ongoing project of Lev’s is experimenting with glazes, building up a series of colored tiles. “I approach the process like a painter,” she says. “Little by little I’m creating an archive of colored tiles that allow me to appreciate the different tones of a color.”

The artist began her career learning how to restore ancient pottery.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Her “Firefly” collection of ceramic lanterns was born two years ago, at the height of the pandemic, when, like most everyone else, Lev was confined to home for long stretches and decided to set up her own home studio. “I sat at the wheel for hours, days, and months,” she remembers, referring to her efforts to learn to center a piece on the wheel and create straight vertical walls. “The lanterns came out of my learning from my mistakes in my throwing process. I was making only crooked cylinders, so I started to carve each cylinder looking for where my mistake was.” The result has been a popular collection of delicately filigreed candle lanterns which began appearing last year at the Carolina Mountain Artists Guild and other outlets, casting their gentle flicker over their surroundings. (The lanterns come paired with a size-matched candle, but can also work with electric or battery-powered lights.)

Lev’s “Firefly” lanterns were an idea born during the pandemic.
Photo by Karin Strickland

“The carving and glaze making is where I put most of my creativity at the moment,” Lev says. “Usually as I throw a piece, I think about what I will carve on it and what kind of glaze it will have.” She’s also been experimenting with a new, more abstract collection of ceramic work, made with colored clay and inlaid with shards of contrasting color derived from her tile palette. 

Photo by Karin Strickland

As she develops this new line, the lanterns continue to attract attention, imbued as they are with Lev’s compassion for those most severely affected by the pandemic. “I wanted to share my sorrow and my hope,” she says, “so the cylinders became lanterns, the light in dark times.”

Leonora Lev’s firefly lanterns and other works are on display at Carolina Mountain Artists Guild, 444 North Main St., Hendersonville (carolinamountainartists.com and Carolina Mountain Artists Guild on Facebook). Also see @leonoralevart on Instagram and leonoralevart.com. 

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