Art from the Cosmos by Guy Nicholls

Since arriving in Hong Kong from New York back in 1969, Martha Lesser has been a major contributor to the growth of the local arts scene.

Lesser’s latest artistic contribution, Sketches for the Runa Series, which will be open to the general public from May 20-28 at the American Library in the United Centre.

The exhibition features 21 fresh-off-the-easel pictures that even Lesser’s New York representative, the Vorpal Galleries, hasn’t yet shown. The Runa Sketches are a breakthrough for Lesser. Most people associate her with stimulating black-and-white works such as the Infinity Scapes, and there are a couple of these sketches featured to help seasoned Lesser watchers identify with the exhibition.

Begun in 1984, the series was originally titled Gothic Arches, but Lesser later found the Gothic word runa (a secret thing/mystical symbol) more encompassing. Whereas the Infinity Scapes were born out of a personal, religious experience presented to the public, the runa series, of temples and temple entrances, is a public religious edifice made personal.

Born and schooled in Brooklyn, Lesser later attended New York University, where she studied Art, Psychology, Comparative Religion and Eastern Philosophy.

She then taught within the New York public school system and operated her own sculpture studio. That was in the late Sixties, and as the Seventies drew near, Lesser decided it was time to leave New York.

After being offered an administrative job on a Peace Corps training project, she decided Asia was more to her taste and headed for Hong Kong. After a couple of years of freelance and teaching work, Lesser moved to the Hong Kong University’s Extra-Mural Studies Department and in 1974 was appointed tutor-in-charge of the arts and design division.

Nicknamed “Multi-Media-Martha”, for her wide variety of output, ranging from direct metal sculpture to environmental arts and crafts, Lesser’s work has featured in 48 group exhibitions in Asia, Europe and North America. Her productions are in public and private collections around the world, and the Runa Series is her 12th solo exhibition. (The founding members of The Visual Arts Society were all former students of Lesser.)

The Runa Series evolved for Lesser on paper in the past three years or so. “It’s a funny thing with art,” she says, “the older you get, and I know that I am not unique in this, the more you go back to the things that absolutely fascinated you when you were a kid.”

“I loved Gothic when I was a kid. I’d sort of forgotten about it, being out here for years. When I went to Paris at Christmas 1981, I got hooked seeing Gothic again, and went back 18 months later for a sabbatical – just to let the stuff ooze into me.

“The doorways, I felt, just had to be put into painting. It all connects up with the spiritual, psychic and religious experience I had when I was 21. I left my body. Went out into the cosmos. Died. Had a choice of coming back or not, and decided to return as it all seemed so ‘simple’ from that perspective.”

A few days after her “trip” to the cosmos, people asked her if she had been meditating on a mountain top. She replied: “No, I was doing my homework, sitting in the living room at about 3am in the morning. Sorry to disappoint you.”

The cosmic jaunt launched her into the world of psychic healing. She was able to get back in touch with the related energies in a more controlled way. She found she ould call upon the “energies” whenever she wanted.

“It’s fantastic, I’m able to get information at the appropriate times, harnessing the powers and letting them flow into my work.”

Lesser’s Infinity Scapes are all based on “Out There” experiences reflecting the floating energies of the cosmos. The Runa Sketches are a grounded religious and mystical form. 

Lesser is fascinated by light and has a passion to play with it and explore it.

“When you’re dealing with light, and making it real, and you’re dealing with temples, using only pigments only pigments on the canvas just isn’t enough,” she says.

She hopes that the Runa Series and the explorations she is currently involved in will act as a magnet for all local “closet-psychics”. She believes that there is a wealth of mystical experiences in such an international place as Hong Kong.

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