When I first encountered Lesley Goren’s art several years ago, I immediately fell in love with the vibrant, graphic style she uses to portray native plants and tell stories about California’s ecology. Her work brings together elements of illustration, printmaking, pattern design, and graphic storytelling (among others) to create a style that is unmistakably her own.
Lesley's subjects range from the untamed beauty of California’s spring wildflower blooms to the complex stories of wildfire causes and effects. Her artwork is colorful, contemporary, and very accessible, helping to inspire love and understanding of native plants in a wide audience.
Lesley creates a variety of work - original drawings and paintings, a line of popular greeting cards and tote bags, and a wealth of commissions. She has worked with clients such as the California Native Plant Society, Theodore Payne Foundation, California Native Grasslands Association, and Heyday Books. I’ve been lucky enough to see two of Lesley’s shows in person over the past few years, and her artwork is as lively and compelling in person as it is on the web.
I sat down with Lesley earlier in 2020 to talk about art, and she was kind enough to share her story and inspirations with me.
Native plants as subject matter came into focus 4-5 years ago. Previously, I had been making paintings about vernacular architecture in LA County. Although there was some interest in that work, it didn’t really engage a large audience. I began to lose the passion for that project. Additionally, I was spending a huge amount of time long-distance trail running. I was running, sometimes for hours a day, through the hills and canyons and mountains. I felt so connected to the life around me on the trails, and it really eclipsed my art. I was also spending a lot of time on the trails with my two small children, looking at plants and insects and just being in nature with them. In my own garden I was converting areas over to native plants and became very focused on the importance of doing so. All of these activities pulled me further away from my art practice.
I planned to return to work once my daughter was in kindergarten. I thought I’d find a part time job using my digital art skills. Then, in whatever free time was left I’d make “art.”
One summer day at the kitchen table a multifaceted idea came to me fast and sharp. I should try to work for myself, I should make my art my work, my art should be more design and communication focused, and it needed to be a subject deeply important to me and related to my life. That subject was the natural world around me, our Southern California plants and places, where I had been spending so much time.
I moved to LA 15 years ago. Soon after, I just fell in love with this wild beautiful place. There is something so rugged and raw, yet delicate and sensual about the wild places of Southern California. The amount of beauty I can find on a hike is staggering, no matter what the season.
Above all, I love the local native plants because they are meant to be HERE. They are part of a unique and meaningful web of life, with place-specific connections.
I want to bring awareness to these irreplaceable places, and the plants they contain. I see a natural world that is becoming increasingly homogenized and degraded, and all the profound loss that accompanies these changes. I really fear a loss of “place”, and of course the associated negative environmental impacts.
I strive to make fun, attractive, and accessible work. I want the work to engage people, to leave them wanting more information. I view it as a conversation starter. Some of the more illustrative pieces with text emphasize the stories of native flora, fauna, and places. I’d like the viewer to see similarities in their own interior lives and stories, with those of the natural world around them. This relationship is a first step towards action, whether that’s planting natives, volunteering, donating money to environmental causes, becoming involved in local politics, or just continuing this conversation with their friends and neighbors.
I’ve always been attracted to things that are simple and flat and graphic, like vintage travel posters, silkscreen art, or the paintings of Ed Ruscha. This style also translates well to online digital platforms, where much of my work is seen. Regarding technique... the main drive in my work is communication. When I’m starting a new piece, I find the material that will best express what I want to say. I don’t view one medium as more valuable than another. A work created digitally is not a lesser work than a painting on canvas. Often they require the same amount of time to get the look I want, especially because I tend to draw and paint quickly. The materials I use most frequently are pen and ink, gouache paint, and Photoshop.
My favorite is probably the series about fire, flora and fauna in Southern California. In my research I’ve been fortunate to meet people who have helped me when I have questions or need clarification - fire and plant ecologists, researchers, land managers etc. These drawings are really about gathering information and distilling that information into relatable and fun drawings.
Nothing beats drawing from life in a calm setting, whether that’s in nature, in my living room, or at a cafe. I never feel stuck because there is always something to look at and really see. What a gift to have a moment to slow down and really look. Inspiration is everywhere. And of course there is inspiration in the work of other people and groups... botanic gardens, museum shows, the myriad of talented, disciplined artists and plant people on Instagram. And books - gardening, art, cooking, history books. I’m also really inspired by architecture... and my kids are really inspiring. Ah, this is a never ending list!
Strangely, the name of my show at Theodore Payne was to be called “Containment”. I chose the theme and name over a year ago. It’s a sad irony. I had three shows (two solo, one group) as well as the release of my card sets with Heyday Books, and the usage of my design for the TPF garden tour, all planned for April/May. I was really looking forward to the Spring! Everything was postponed or canceled, except the card release, But it is a reminder of how small we are in the scheme of bigger events, so it’s ok. Art tends to do well with simmering on the backburner.
In addition to the stay at home orders, we are also in the process of moving, and of course I have my kids home from school. With all of this I chose to only do client work and let everything else wait. I feel there will be an explosion of creativity after this time passes, not just for me but for many artists, writers, scientists, etc...